Wake Up, Billionaires: The Occupiers Are Coming for the Hamptons

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Along for an early morning “billionaire wake-up call” with protesters on Meadow Lane.

Winsome Pendergrass (in orange) and other protesters outside of the home of the billionaire Daniel Loeb.
Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

On Tuesday morning at 5 a.m., before the day’s oysters were unloaded from their fishing boats and the first bikes churned at SoulCycle, 16 protesters showed up on East Hampton’s Further Lane, one of the mega-richest blocks in one of the country’s mega-richest enclaves. They were there to stage what they described as “billionaire wake-up calls.”

The group, mostly members of New York Communities for Change — a progressive, grass-roots nonprofit that focuses on everything from taxing the rich to making housing affordable and fighting climate change — wanted to start at the summer home of the controversial, Donald Trump-supporting Blackstone Group chairman and CEO Stephen Schwarzman.

But they had the wrong house.

“We just received intel that it actually belongs to Ellen Schwarzman, his ex-wife,” said Alicé Nascimento, NYCC’s policy director. “And it may have been sold in 2017.”

No matter, said Alice Hu, a climate campaigner for the organization: The second house on the list, of the hedge-fund manager and activist investor Daniel Loeb, was a three-minute drive away.

“We can start there and then go to Schwarzman’s house,” said Ms. Nascimento, who now understood it to be in Water Mill and wasn’t about to waste the opportunity to troll a tycoon whose philanthropy stands out even among the superrich for how often it gets his name onto buildings — see the New York Public Library, Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (In 2010, Mr. Schwarzman infamously compared President Obama’s tax hikes on corporations to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, for which he later apologized.)

So the group packed up their belongings — among them pots, pans, tambourines, a portable loudspeaker, posters that had “WANTED FOR DEBTS TO SOCIETY” above Mr. Schwarzman’s photograph, and a pair of pitchforks. They headed instead, in Ms. Nascimento’s borrowed Toyota Highlander and an Uber, to the nearby mansion that Mr. Loeb, 60, bought in 2003 for just over $15 million.

The NYCC has helped wage primary campaigns against centrist Democrats, lobbied for bills around taxing big corporations and the super-rich, and successfully helped push through the 2021 legislation that raised the minimum wage for New York State fast-food workers to $15 an hour.

But its most visible work is in direct action, by staging theatrical events that bait press coverage. (Naturally, a reporter was welcome to ride along for Tuesday morning’s protest.)

The NYCC first came to the Hamptons in 2017 while doing a campaign for Wall Street accountability they called Hedgeclippers. In 2020, they returned for a tax-the-rich campaign called Make Billionaires Pay. (This year’s campaign is Occupy the Hamptons.)

Embarrassing billionaires “is fun,” said Ms. Nascimento, who in 2019 heckled Mr. Schwarzman during an onstage interview he gave to promote his book “What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence.” It was great therapy, she said, to see the look on Mr. Schwarzman’s face when she asked him if he had any idea how much people suffer because of his environmentally unfriendly investments and pursuit of deregulated capitalism. “He looked so mad,” she said. (Neither Mr. Schwarzman nor Mr. Loeb agreed to comment for this article.)

Jose Gonzalez, the group’s director of data, says he sometimes looks at the campaigns and says to himself, “What the hell are we doing?” He’s aware that bringing plastic pitchforks to the homes of billionaires won’t cure climate change. (“We got them at a Halloween costume shop in Brooklyn,” Ms. Nascimento said.) Still, Mr. Gonzalez said, even “demanding and forceful” campaigns with concrete objectives are at their best with “an edge of humor.”

In New York City, Ben Furnas, the former director of the mayor’s office of climate and sustainability, said the organization’s “splashy actions” have produced tangible results on legislation related to building emissions. “They make good trouble,” he said.

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Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

Tuesday’s wake-up calls were the capstone of a five-day-long Hamptons agitation in support of an upcoming New York State bill to levy a tax on the very wealthiest New Yorkers, which would be used to pay for green, affordable housing.

On Friday, around 150 people had protested on Main Street in Southampton in front of the local outpost of Sant Ambroeus, the Milanese-style cafe where a cappuccino costs $8.50. Some of the posters they held up about conserving land for the Shinnecock Nation, the area’s Native American tribe, seemed a little dated to Jay Schneiderman, the town supervisor of Southampton. “A lot of what they’re asking for, we’re already doing,” he said, noting as an example land the town recently purchased to preserve the ancestral burial grounds of the tribe.

On Saturday, NYCC members — in concert with people from organizations such as the Long Island Progressive Coalition, the Suffolk Democratic Socialists of America and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance — marched down nearby Meadow Lane in Southampton, otherwise known as Billionaire’s Lane. (It’s been home to the real estate developer Aby Rosen, the private equity guru Henry Kravis, and Leon Black, the investment banker whose close ties to the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein resulted in the loss of his chairmanship at the Museum of Modern Art and his job as the head of Apollo Global Management.)

Next, they hit Cooper’s Beach, to offer support to members of the Shinnecock Nation who are upset about their inability to secure the free, much coveted parking stickers that are given to village residents, despite having made a deal in 1640 with the town’s white settlers that granted the tribe permanent access to the beach. On Sunday, they protested in front of the Cartier store in East Hampton. And on Monday, they placed a protester atop a 20-foot tripod in the center of the road in front of the East Hampton airport, blocking access to the main entrance of the building, though anyone could still get to the tarmac.

At night, around 30 people affiliated with the NYCC stayed in — or around — a five-bedroom Airbnb in Southampton. Some slept in a U-haul out front. Others on pool chairs inside sleeping bags. Between Friday and Monday, 16 people were arrested.

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Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

Ms. Nascimento, 35, who grew up in Salvador, Brazil, got her B.A. at New York University in 2009 and in 2014 got a masters in public policy at the University of Cambridge. “Half of my classmates are McKinsey consultants,” she said.

“Same,” said Ms. Hu, 24, a first-generation Chinese American who grew up largely in Champaign, Ill., and in 2019 graduated from Columbia University. “I see them now and they ask me what jail’s like.” She estimates that she has been arrested “six or seven” times doing acts of civil disobedience, though not this past weekend.

After leaving the home that may or may not belong to Mr. Schwarzman’s ex-wife on Tuesday morning, Ms. Nascimento and her crew sailed down Further Lane, past the historically lily-white Maidstone Golf Club’s rolling greens.

“It looks like it needs some mowing,” Ms. Nascimento said, shortly before she parked on nearby Dune Lane. This was as close as protesters could legally get to Mr. Loeb’s; the short road to his house has a No Trespassing sign.

Winsome Pendergrass, a home health care aide, led the crowd outside Mr. Loeb’s property in a series of chants that included “Billionaires you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side.” (Almost every clapboard mansion behind her was obscured by hedgerows.)

Mr. Loeb, a major donor to congressional Republicans as well as former Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Eric Adams, has committed millions of dollars to LGBT causes and been an outspoken supporter of criminal justice reform and charter schools. He has also courted controversy. Last year, he wrote a Facebook post likening a Black member of the State Senate to the Ku Klux Klan.

None of the neighbors came out to watch. But someone seemed to have called 911. A police car rolled up, just as the protesters left to go find Mr. Schwarzman’s house. (“We never get permits,” said Ms. Nascimento.)

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Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

After 15 minutes, the car passed a mansion unobstructed by gates or shrubbery. “Wow, that’s big,” said Jeremy Maldonodo, a 26-year-old janitor and Uber driver, who ordinarily recruits people to climate-change causes while longboarding around the city.

Soon after, the cars parked on a cul-de-sac overlooking Mecox Bay, and the protesters once again took out the anti-Schwarzman signs. This time, they could walk up his driveway to the front of a white wooden gate. But the property, purchased in 2005 for around $35 million, was largely obscured by trees. Still, Ms. Hu had to admit one thing: “This is nice.”

That seemed to energize her at the mic. She railed against the Blackstone Group’s past investments in fossil fuels and fracking. “While he condemns us to a miserable future, he lives here in this beautiful house with these beautiful trees, next to this beautiful bay.”

“And this clean air,” someone yelled.

At 6:15 a.m., the action was over. “People have trains to catch,” said Ms. Nascimento, stepping into the car and putting the key into the ignition.

She looked to the right and noticed a man standing in the driveway next door. He wore the typical Hamptons uniform — black polo shirt on top, something khaki on the bottom — and was taking a video on his iPhone. With the window open, Ms. Nascimento yelled out, “Your neighbor sucks.” (Mr. Maldanado noted that he thought the man had a walkie-talkie and was in fact security staff.)

The Toyota drove off. The birds kept chirping. The only memento left behind was the anti-Schwarzman poster, left at his front gate, propped up by two pitchforks.

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