In Case of "Flying While Black,"U.S. Customs Service Subjected Woman to Harrowing Search, ACLU Charges

November 17, 1999 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — Acting on behalf of an African American New Yorker who was forced to endure a humiliating physical search at Newark Airport after returning from vacation, the American Civil Liberties Union today filed a racial profiling claim against the U.S. Customs Service.

At a news conference today in lower Manhattan, 32-year-old Yvette Bradley described her ordeal, saying she was subjected to a degrading physical probe by customs officers who suspected her of carrying drugs because she is black.

“Inside that customs office, I experienced one of the most humiliating and emotionally scarring moments of my life,” Bradley said. “I lived abroad in Germany for nearly three years and not once was I treated with such extreme disrespect and contempt because of my skin color. As an American citizen, this hurts a lot.”

The ACLU said Bradley’s experience was yet another example of the racism that pervades our nation’s criminal justice system. In a June 1999 report, the ACLU documented the widespread phenomenon of “Driving While Black or Brown,” the police practice of racial profiling on our nation’s highways.

“Black people can’t walk down streets, can’t drive their cars, can’t hail a cab and can’t fly on a plane without being stopped,” said Reginald Shuford, one of the ACLU attorneys who is representing Bradley. “How many more indignities must innocent people of color suffer in the name of the so-called war on drugs?”

Bradley, a seasoned advertising executive at SpikeDDB, a partnership between film maker Spike Lee and DDB Needham Advertising, said that as she and her sister arrived at Newark Airport last April from a vacation in Jamaica, they, along with most of the other black women on the flight, were singled out for searches and interrogation by customs agents.

After she was directed to a search room, Bradley said, she was instructed to place her hands on the wall while an officer ran her hands and fingers over every area of her body, including her breasts and, through her underwear, the inner and outer labia of her vagina. The search did not reveal any drugs or contraband.

When Bradley complained, she was told that she was singled out because of her “headgear,” a designer hat that she wore on the flight. But none of the officers searched her hat or even asked her to remove it, she said.

Further, Bradley said that the majority of the passengers, who were white, passed easily through customs — including a group of college-aged men wearing baseball caps.

“A woman’s body is her own, whether she is in a doctor’s office or inside a New Jersey airport customs office,” said Lenora Lapidus, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey, which filed the claim along with the ACLU and the NYCLU. “The customs officers had the chance to do the right thing — to answer Ms. Bradley’s questions, to treat her with respect. Instead, they chose to treat her as a criminal because of her skin color and gender.”

Lapidus explained that today’s legal action is not a lawsuit but a procedural “notice of claim” to the Customs Service that the ACLU intends to file a lawsuit if Bradley’s complaints are not adequately addressed. The ACLU may add more plaintiffs to the case, she said.

The ACLU’s Shuford added that motorists or fliers who feel they have been subjected to discriminatory stops can report the incidents through the ACLU’s national hotline (1-877-6-PROFILE).

The notice of claim was sent to the U.S. Customs Service on behalf of Yvette Bradley by the national ACLU, the ACLU of New Jersey, the NYCLU, and cooperating attorneys David L. Harris, Nicole Bearce Albano, and Alix R. Rubin of the law firm Lowenstein Sandler PC in Roseland, NJ.

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