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Flying While Black at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport

Travelers say they are being randomly stopped, searched, and questioned — all in the name of stopping drug trafficking.

Comedian Eric André (right) speaks at a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Atlanta in October, as his attorneys Allegra Lawrence-Hardy and Richard Deane watch. (Kate Brumback/Associated Press)

On Oct. 21, Tabari Sturdivant was at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, waiting to board a flight to Los Angeles. The filmmaker was standing in front of the gate desk because he was flying standby and wanted a status update. When Sturdivant was approached by a person asking questions about his destination and travel plans, he assumed it was a gate agent getting ready to help him board. It wasn’t until another person came up behind him that he dropped his bag and started to get concerned.

“They shuffled me to the side of the desk. But it was still out in the open … and he’s asking me questions. Have I ever been locked up? Do I have any drugs in my bag?”

This wasn’t a gate agent. Sturdivant was actually being questioned by a Drug Enforcement Administration officer. He said it felt like the two men — one white, one Black — were already convinced that he would have something illegal in his bag.

Sturdivant said he told the Black DEA agent that had come up behind him that he felt racially profiled. The agent told him that they were just trying to do their job and picked up his bag and began searching through it.

“My stuff was all over the floor. There’s people with their phones out just recording this, just looking at me,” he recalled. “It was the most embarrassing situation I’ve ever been in.”

After the agents failed to find anything illegal in his bag, Sturdivant was allowed to board his flight, but he said this was an experience he would not soon forget.

Sturdivant’s experience is not isolated, and his story became public after the Policing Project and law firms Jones Day and Lawrence & Bundy filed a lawsuit on Oct. 11 on behalf of comedians Clayton English and Eric Andre against Clayton County. 

On separate occasions between September 2020 and November 2021, André and English were stopped by Clayton County Police and investigators from the county district attorney’s office on the jet bridge between the airport and the airplane on the way to Los Angeles and questioned about carrying illegal drugs. The suit alleges that CCPD violated English’s Fourth and 14th amendment rights.

“I felt completely powerless. I felt violated,” English said in a statement about his experience when the officers searched his bag and asked if he had any cocaine or meth on him.

“I felt cornered.”

Data obtained by the Policing Project at NYU School of Law shows that Clayton County Police Department officers and district attorney’s office investigators were disproportionately stopping and searching Black passengers at Hartsfield-Jackson airport under their jet bridge interdiction program. The program involves armed officers waiting in jet bridges between the gate and the airplane to selectively intercept passengers, requesting their boarding passes and identification in an effort to clamp down on drug trafficking.

In their research via open records requests, the Policing Project found that 56% of travelers searched between September 2020 and August 2021 were Black. 

Paul Meyer, an attorney working with the Policing Project, says the jet bridge interdiction program seems counterintuitive. 

“If you think about it logically, it seems one of the least likely places in America to find drugs for passengers who have just passed through one of the closest security screenings …  going through TSA security, cameras all around, officers all around,” he said. “The idea that you’re going to find drugs in a jet bridge stretches the imagination.”

Meyer continued to point out that in the eight months between September 2020 and August 2021 they found drugs three times. In that same period, however, CCPD seized over $1 million from 25 passengers.

They filed criminal charges against only two of those passengers, both of whom had drugs in their possession, Meyer said.

According to the county police department, the searches are random and voluntary. However, the lawsuit argues that in a post-9/11 world, few airline passengers would feel free to walk away from law enforcement officers as they are boarding a plane.

Meyer said one way passengers can protect themselves from random searches is to ask, “Can I say no? Do I have to comply with this request?” The officers are then obligated to tell you one way or the other.

Richard Deane, an attorney with Jones Day’s Atlanta office who is co-counsel on the case, said they are hoping to be allowed to collect more information from the county. The Policing Project sent its research to the county.

“We hope to find more about how the practice started, what was the motivation behind it,” Deane said. “Whether or not they were reviewing the statistics and reviewing the data that they received, which in our judgement indicates that the program was operating in a discriminatory manner.” 

A date for the preliminary suit involving English and Andre has not yet been set.

Sturdivant wasn’t aware of English and Andre’s story until after he went through his experience. The DEA did not respond to a request from Capital B Atlanta for comment about Sturdivant’s interaction with its agents. However, his quest for justice is in the early stages. He found an attorney and is looking into filing a lawsuit because of what happened to him in the airport that day.

“It’s not about money to me,” he said. “Whatever program that is or whoever’s doing it — Clayton County, the DEA — it’s inhumane and it needs to stop.”