“We wanted to have a celebratory element to it,” said Miles Goodrich of the Sunrise Movement, one of the groups that organized the protest.
In a statement on the demonstration, Rich Azzopardi, senior adviser to Cuomo, tore into the activists, calling them “self-absorbed hypocrites."
“By the way,” Azzopardi wrote, “we DID pass the strongest anti-climate change law in the nation last year. If they are going to rant, their rants should at least have a slight tether to reality.”
The activists came from two main coalitions: one aimed at pushing New York to adopt the Green New Deal, a suite of policies from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to mitigate the impact of climate change and economic inequality; and the newly formed #MakeBillionairesPay campaign, which aims to impose a higher tax on the state’s wealthiest residents to pay for progressive initiatives such as improvements in public housing.
The year has been marked by global protests to demand action on climate change as international panels of scientists issue ominous projections of the planet’s future if emissions continue unabated. While Wednesday night’s protest took place on a far smaller scale, protesters’ concerns mirrored those of much larger demonstrations: that they believed leaders are not doing enough, fast enough, to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
In recent years, New York state has taken legislative steps to rein in carbon emissions and promote renewable energy. For example, in July, Cuomo signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which legislators billed as one of the most ambitious such plans in the nation. It aims to make New York state carbon-neutral and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by the year 2050. Cuomo had proposed his own version of a Green New Deal for New York as part of his executive budget.
In 2014, Cuomo also banned fracking in New York after years of fraught debate about whether to allow the controversial method of energy production. He is a member of the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of governors who oppose the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and have pledged that their states will meet its goals regardless of the president’s decision.
As the protesters chanted outside, Cuomo touted the state’s climate accomplishments to attendees.
“We are the most aggressive when it comes to climate change,” he said. “We have the most aggressive climate change policy in the country. Not just in terms of goals but in terms of reality and plans to make the transition to renewables in the shortest period of time. No one is doing what we’re doing.”
While Goodrich commended this year’s climate change legislation and noted that the Sunrise Movement had pushed for it, he said he thought the climate crisis “isn’t going to be solved through one bill; it really needs an economic transformation coming from our leaders.”
“Our role here is to push the governor and really light a fire under his feet to show that wherever he goes, he needs to be answering to this crisis,” Goodrich said. “It’s the defining crisis of his governorship, of New York state, of the country and the world.”
Laura Shindell of Food and Water Action, another organizer, said the protesters were demanding that the governor reject all new proposed fossil fuel infrastructure and gas pipelines, move the state to 100 percent renewable energy, and tax its wealthiest residents to pay for the program.
Though the protesters never laid eyes on Cuomo, a handful of them made it inside the hotel ballroom where the event was held, chanting “Green New Deal!” and “Tax the rich!” before being escorted out by security.
The cake, however, may have made it through.
Activists with New York Communities for Change, one of the leading members of the #MakeBillionairesPay campaign, bought the cake from a Stop and Shop supermarket in Brooklyn the day before.
“My colleague said, ‘It’s his birthday; why don’t we bring him a cake telling him to make billionaires pay?’ ” said organizer Alice Nascimento. “We put it the fridge with a big ‘do not eat’ sign, because it belongs to the governor."
Nascimento said she was initially stopped from entering the fundraiser by four New York City police officers, but that a staffer for the governor ultimately came out to speak with her and took the cake. Nascimento said they shared a friendly interaction, and she asked the staffer “to wish [Cuomo] a happy birthday on behalf of all of us, and ask him to make billionaires pay.”
The governor’s office did not clarify the status of the cake.