Fourteen people including Abigail Disney, a great-niece of Walt Disney and an activist who supports raising taxes on the wealthy, were arrested at East Hampton Town Airport on Friday after blocking vehicles from entering or exiting the airport's parking lot for about 90 minutes.
Around 30 activists affiliated with New York Communities for Change, Reclaim Our Tomorrow, and Sunrise Movement NYC took part in a protest which Alice Hu of the former group said was intended to call out "the very grotesque, reckless consumption of the 1 percent" and its impact on climate change.
Those flying to the South Fork by private jet are driving climate change "through investments in fossil fuels, through climate-destroying industries, and through their personal consumption," with private air travel causing immense carbon emissions, Ms. Hu said, "which we're trying to highlight by shutting down this airport." The activist groups, she said, are "a multiracial, multigenerational coalition coming to show that climate change is not something that only one kind cares about. We're all affected by this issue."
"This is something that really is one of the issues of our time, and we want to make a strong statement," she said.
As the overwhelming noise of jet engines and helicopter blades punctuated chants such as "We are unstoppable, another world is possible" and "tax the rich," protesters sat across the entrance to the airport, their arms linked by chains covered by PVC pipes and duct tape, which the Police Department in a statement later on Friday called a "sleeping dragon."
"Billionaires get off it, the people over profit," went one chant. "Climate change is f***ing real, give us all a green new deal," was another.
"I've flown in private airplanes," Ms. Disney told this reporter as she sat on the asphalt. "They're lovely, they're very hard to give up, but I've also done the impossible dream, which is to go back to commercial, because I understand it is 14 times more polluting to fly in a private airplane than it is to fly in a regular plane. And we shouldn't even be flying in regular planes as much as we do. So it's time to think differently about the proposition and take responsibility for the damage we've caused. So I gave up the private jet habit, and I'm hoping a lot more people will do that."
"It's an emergency," she said of the climate crisis, shortly before being arrested for the first time. "We don't have time."
A police presence at the entrance to the airport quickly grew to include several vehicles and more than a dozen officers. "Be advised," began an announcement from a police vehicle's public address equipment, "you are being ordered to disperse by the East Hampton Town Police Department. Failure to do so will result in your arrest. Disperse. You are being ordered to disperse. Failure to do so will result in your arrest." The announcement was later repeated, and then repeated again. "This will be your final warning," the last message concluded.
Around 1:30, police began to cut the PVC pipes with a power saw, separating the protesters one by one before lifting them to their feet, cuffing their hands behind their backs, and leading them toward and into a waiting van. Some of those arrested, including Sophie, who declined to give her last name, said that the cuffs were so tight that their blood flow was restricted. An officer cut the plastic handcuffs around Sophie's wrists before another set was brought and she was herded into the van. Other protesters cried out in pain as police officers labored to pull the pipes from their arms.
Those arrested were charged with disorderly conduct, which is a violation, and resisting arrest, a misdemeanor, and are to be released on appearance tickets with a future court date, according to a press release from the town police department on Friday.
The airport is a source of consternation for many residents on both the South and North Forks and as far away as Queens, as private jet and helicopter traffic has surged in recent years. Fourteen months ago, the town board intended to change the airport's status from public to private by briefly closing it and reopening a "new" airport under a "prior-permission-required" framework that would have limited aircraft operators to one takeoff and one landing per day while imposing curfews and other restrictions based on the size and noise of aircraft. A New York State Supreme Court judge sided with plaintiffs in three parallel lawsuits, imposing a temporary restraining order in May 2022. The T.R.O. remains in place.
Additional protests were scheduled for Saturday, when members of New York Communities for Change and the Shinnecock Nation were to march in Hampton Bays; on Sunday, where activists plan to march at the Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, and on Monday at the Riverhead residence of John Dugan, a Citibank official, and the Southampton residence of Henry Kravis, a co-founder of the global investment company KKR and Co.