Alleging he was racially profiled when Clayton County officers questioned him at Atlanta’s airport last year, comedian Eric Andre is suing the county, its police chief and several people involved in the police department’s “jet bridge interdiction program.”
The complaint, filed Tuesday in federal court, alleges the 39-year-old writer and actor was singled out on the jet bridge and questioned on his way home to Los Angeles on April 21, 2021 as white passengers were allowed to take their seats aboard the plane.
Clayton County police last year called the incident a “consensual encounter” and said Andre, who is Black, was not targeted because of his race. Andre said the officers who stopped him were white. Nearly three-quarters of Clayton County’s residents are Black and 58% of the police department’s employees are Black, including police Chief Kevin Roberts. A spokesperson for the Clayton County Police Department declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The comedian told the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was boarding a connecting flight in Atlanta after filming in South Carolina when he was approached by two officers who asked if he was transporting anything illegal in his luggage.
“Few if any airline passengers in the post-9/11 world, focused on boarding their flight and stuck in a narrow jet bridge, would feel at liberty to walk away from armed law enforcement officers who unexpectedly intercept their path, question them, and take their boarding pass and identification,” the lawsuit says.
Andre’s attorneys allege a pattern of racially motivated airport stops they say are neither consensual nor random.
“The CCPD jet bridge interdictions rely on coercion, and targets are selected disproportionately based on their race,” the lawsuit claims. Andre is joined in the lawsuit by Clayton English, a fellow comedian living in Atlanta who says he was searched several months earlier in October 2020.
English said he reached out to Andre after seeing his friend’s viral tweet after the April 2021 stop.
“I felt cornered in that jet bridge and I felt the need to comply,” English told reporters. “I felt completely powerless. I felt violated.”
According to the complaint, police ask passengers to search their bags on the jet bridge even though they’ve already been through TSA security checkpoints. Between September 2020 and April 2021, Clayton County police logged the races of 378 of the 402 passengers who were stopped on jet bridges, according to the lawsuit. Of those, 56% were Black and 68% were people of color, the lawsuit claims.
At a news conference Tuesday morning outside the federal courthouse in Atlanta, Andre called it “humiliating and dehumanizing” to have police officers pull him aside and question him.
“I was the only person of color on the jet bridge at the time,” Andre said. “They singled me out. They asked me if I was selling drugs, transporting drugs, what kind of drugs I have on me. It was clearly racial profiling.”
Andre said the only drug he had on him at the time was the hair-loss medication Propecia.
“It was degrading,” Andre said. “I had all the other passengers squeezing by me on this claustrophobic jet bridge, gawking at me like I was a perpetrator even though I had done nothing wrong. It definitely didn’t feel like a consensual encounter.”
Tuesday’s lawsuit was filed in conjunction with the the Policing Project at New York University’s School of Law and pro bono counsel from the law firms Jones Day and Lawrence & Bundy. It alleges the comedians’ Fourth and 14th Amendment rights were violated.
Of the hundreds of jet bridge stops made by Clayton officers between September 2020 and April of 2021, Andre’s attorneys contend drugs were discovered just three times. Meanwhile, the department seized more than $1 million in cash from 25 passengers.
“It seems to be a distinctly unsuccessful drug interdiction program, if that’s what it is,” attorney Richard Deane told reporters. “What appears to be happening is that this is organized largely in order to seize money from people.”
Neither officer involved in the stop recognized the comedian or was familiar with his work, Andre said. He said one passenger, an attorney, approached him after the flight and criticized the encounter, telling him she didn’t think it was right.
Andre and English said they hope to use their celebrity status to put an end to the “random” airport stops.
“It was traumatizing, I felt belittled and I want to use my resources and my platform to bring national attention to this incident so that it stops,” Andre said. “If Black people don’t stand up for each other, who will?”
Andre’s attorneys said they are also looking to get in touch with additional passengers who believe their rights were violated during airport stops.
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