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Going Places

‘No Hamptons on a Dead Planet’

On Wednesday, Extinction Rebellion protesters tried to shut down a Manhattan heliport.

11:26 AM EDT on September 14, 2023

Protesters' banners flap in the prop-wash of a helicopter.

Protesters’ banners flapped in the prop-wash of a helicopter landing at the West 30th Street Heliport on Thursday. (Hell Gate)

A little after quarter past three on Thursday afternoon, about forty people with the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion ambled north through Hudson River Park to the West 30th Street Heliport where the Blade helicopter service operates, and arrayed themselves across the patch of asphalt that connects the heliport's parking lot to the West Side Highway.

"No more luxury emissions," they chanted. "No luxury emissions on a dead planet!" 

Blade and heliport staff were clearly irritated. "You're mad about helicopters?" one employee, who declined to give his name, shouted at the protesters. "Why aren't you at LaGuardia, JFK?"

"This is different," one of the protesters explained.

"No it's not," the employee replied.

The blockade was hardly leak-proof. Helicopter enthusiasts passed through the cordon on foot, some of them looking sheepish, some defiant. The only real consequence of the picket's positioning was that one black SUV already in the parking lot couldn't get out, and the black SUVs picking up and dropping off helicopter passengers couldn't pull in, so they mostly hovered in the right lane of the southbound side of the West Side Highway, blocking traffic, while their passengers, waited on by apologetic Blade staff, helped them through the line of protesters.

At one point, an SUV attempted to nose its way off the highway and through the protesters, but they stood their ground. A heliport staffer then got into a shouting match with the protesters, and had to be calmed down by a highly made-up Blade attendant.

"Helicopters, private planes, your emissions are insane!" the protesters chanted.

The heliport blockade was part of a planned week of protests pegged to the meeting of the United Nations Climate Ambition Summit. Janet Apuzzo, who initially identified herself to me as "Dancing Leaf," said world leaders are not doing enough to end the use of fossil fuels. "There's a lot of talk, but at the end of the day, it's not happening," she said. "Emissions are going up."

A big part of the problem is "luxury emissions," Apuzzo said. "Helicopters should be restricted for emergencies," she said. "If you're using a helicopter and burning all that jet fuel just for your personal leisure and ease, that's about as conspicuous consumption as you can get." (There is abundant data on the obscene emissions caused by private jet flights—and the failure of the people who take them to pay for the damage they are doing—but less on private helicopter usage, though few would suggest that private helicopter travel is climate-friendly.)

The heliport blockade was part of an effort by Extinction Rebellion organizers to be more targeted in their protests, specifically focusing on a small group of elite, worst offenders rather than blocking rush-hour traffic for all of the city's motorists, Apuzzo said.

"These [helicopter passengers] are people who could make a huge difference with their choices," she said.

As the picket entered its second hour, a family with two small children tried to make their way to the helicopter pad. As the parents tried to herd their children through the picket, one of the protesters locked eyes with the kids: "Fear for the future, children," she said.

More choppers came and went, thumping waves of hot jet fuel-scented air over the narrow strip of land between the highway and the river. A group of young people dressed like they were just back from the yacht club disembarked and made their way around the protesters to a pair of black SUVs idling in the right lane of the highway. 

"No Hamptons on a dead planet!" the protesters chanted at them. The women in the group were still carrying in-flight cocktails in their hands. "No cocktails on a dead planet!" the protesters chanted. A man in the group with elaborate neck tattoos waved jauntily at the protesters, and the cars drove off.

Blade CEO Rob Weisenthal pointed out the protesters to the police. (Hell Gate)

Blade's CEO, Rob Weisenthal, wearing a lavender button-down, matching lavender sweater, and a pained smile, ushered his customers through the picket and to their waiting car services. I asked him what he made of the protester's claim that he is in the business of selling "luxury emissions." 

"One SUV with one person in it has more emissions than one helicopter with six people in it," he told me. "Our helicopters burn 40 gallons of jet fuel an hour." (Since jet fuel produces 21 pounds of climate-cooking carbon dioxide per gallon burned, this would mean that every hour of Blade flight produces 840 pounds of CO2.) In any case, Weisenthal told me, Blade is technically carbon-neutral through its purchase of carbon offsets.

Later in the afternoon, a pair of cops from the 10th Precinct finally arrived. Weisenthal rushed over, urging them to eject the protesters. A delegate from the protesters approached and conferred with them as well.

The police retreated to their vehicle and got on their radios. After fifteen minutes, a team from the NYPD's Strategic Response Group was parked on the highway, plastic flex cuffs dangling from their duty belts. SRG commander John D'Adamo conferred with some captains about how to proceed. Who owned the narrow strip of cobbles between the highway and the bike path where the protesters were now lined up? Could they be arrested for trespassing?

"We've gotta wait for legal to get here," D'Adamo concluded. He summoned a cop wearing a backpack-mounted long-range acoustic device to be ready to broadcast a dispersal notice. After another 10 minutes, a young man from the NYPD Legal Bureau arrived and surveyed the scene. The protesters could be arrested for blocking vehicular traffic out of the heliport parking lot, he told the cops.

The LRAD blared a warning: The protesters were blocking vehicular traffic. If they did not move, they would be arrested and issued a summons for disorderly conduct. Most of the protesters moved away from the driveway area.

Strategic Response Group police arresting some of the protesters. (Hell Gate)

Six remained. The police cuffed them, searched them, and took their names. The remaining protesters cheered their arrested fellows on, by name, as police led them one by one into a van.

"Charles is doing this for all of us!" they called out. "Thank you, Charles!"

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