In its four months of existence, the Washington, D.C.–based activist youth group Climate Defiance, whose stated visions include “racial justice,” “economic equality,” and “a planet that sustains life,” has confronted everyone from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to Amy Klobuchar and Joe Manchin. Its members have “blockaded” the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and been arrested for disrupting a meeting in a House of Representatives office building as well as a fireside chat with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo at the Congress-chartered Wilson Center.
And yet, according to its members, no protest has been met with so much aggression, and never has the threat of violence felt so high, as at a wine event held in honor of Massachusetts governor Maura Healey on August 19 on Nantucket.
Historically, the tiny island off the coast of Cape Cod has been known as the blueblood Republican counterpart to the neighboring, Democrat-heavy Martha’s Vineyard. Yet, in spite of the sea of cranberry-colored pants and Lilly Pulitzer dresses, plenty of prominent Democrats summer on Nantucket. The journalist Tim Russert was a devoted Nantucketer; the TV presenters Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski owned a house there; John Kerry only recently swapped Nantucket for Martha’s Vineyard; and Biden has opted to spend Thanksgiving on the island for years.
The Democratic fundraiser, which was held at the modernist island home of Ballard Spahr partner Ken Jarin and Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency C.E.O. Robin Wiessmann, marked Healey’s first trip to Nantucket as governor, following her defeat of her Republican opponent, Geoff Diehl, in 2022.
It was hosted by a group that included Massachusetts state senator Julian Cyr, Massachusetts state representative Dylan Fernandes, and Naomi Aberly, the former board chair of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Guests, who paid between $100 and $5,000 to attend, ranged from Nantucket attorney Adam Dread to Governor Healey’s sister.
Ten Climate Defiance protesters attended the event. About half bought tickets with their own money, while the others told the people working the door that host Robin Wiessmann (formerly the treasurer of Pennsylvania, who was nominated by Biden to serve on the board of Amtrak) had invited them, and they were given name tags like everyone else. “They had high-school students running security,” says Bex, a Climate Defiance protester who asked that her name be changed for this story, “which shows how rich people think about these events.”
The group mingled with guests for the first part of the event, listening to speeches by Weissmann and Senator Cyr. After Governor Healey spoke, a member of Climate Defiance asked her if she would stop the development of new fossil-fuel infrastructure in Massachusetts. “She starts stuttering a bit. That’s when we go in,” recalls Bex. Members of Climate Defiance then held up a sign reading END FOSSIL FUELS and began chanting.
“Pretty immediately, people started yelling at [us],” says Bex, who notes the protest lasted all of 15 minutes before she made the call that the group should leave before the situation escalated. That’s when “Percelay started to follow us out,” she recalls.
Bex is referring to the 68-year-old real-estate executive Bruce Percelay, a party guest who, in a video from the event that has since gone viral, can be seen screaming, “I don’t mind if you die!,” at Alaina Giglio, a 20-year-old member of the Climate Defiance group.
Dressed in a tan blazer, a light-blue button-down, and white pants, Percelay can then be seen flashing a Norfolk County, Massachusetts, sheriff’s badge—later found to be both out of jurisdiction and expired—at Giglio and another young Climate Defiance member, Martin Gioannetti, and identifying himself as a sheriff, which he is not. “[It was] definitely, definitely intimidation,” Gioannetti tells me.
Political confrontation is rare on Nantucket, usually taking the form of Susan Cary (Nantucket Democratic Town Committee co-chair) and a few of her friends picketing when Mike Pence comes to the island. This was different. “You expect the police to be rough. You expect private security to be rough,” Bex says. “But rich people will deputize themselves and threaten you like almost no one else.”
“I don’t mind if you die!”
Bruce Percelay is one of Nantucket’s most prominent newspaper publishers—the man in charge of both N Magazine and the Nantucket Current, a newer publication championed for its promotion of free speech in combating local government officials and island corruption.
Percelay has also had a successful career in real estate with the Boston-based Mount Vernon Company, which owns Nantucket’s 76 Main and 21 Broad hotels. And he’s the force behind a long list of philanthropic endeavors on the island, including the building of the Nantucket Whaling Museum and the renovation of Nantucket’s hospital. (He raised $120 million and gave $10 million to the hospital, whose main building was renamed the Percelay Pavilion.)
Off island, Percelay serves as director of the President’s Council of Massachusetts General Hospital, has served as chair of Habitat for Humanity in Boston and the Massachusetts chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and is currently a member of the board of the Rappaport Institute at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, whose missions include “invigorating civil discourse” and “inspiring the next generation of citizens and leaders to engage in the civic life of their communities.”
Yet, at the wine event for Governor Healey, Percelay seemed to be fed up with the next generation.
“We are afraid because our lives are going to end,” the Climate Defiance member tells Percelay in the video.
“My life, too. We are all the same age,” Percelay responds.
“No, we are not. I am 20. How old are you?”
“I have kids that are nine,” he responds as he escorts the activists out of the event.
Looking back on his “I don’t mind if you die” statement, Percelay tells me, “Shortly after those words left my mouth, I was upset because of course I didn’t mean it. I looked for her to apologize, but she and her group had left.” Percelay added that he “share[s] many of the environmental beliefs of the protesters.”
As for the sheriff’s badge snafu, he acknowledged that the Norfolk Sheriff’s department has since reached out to him, saying: “It was brought to my attention that my deputy sheriff’s status is no longer active, a misunderstanding caused by the fact that I never received notification of the expiration due to the transition of sheriffs. I have since spoken with the Norfolk County Sheriff and the matter has been resolved.”
“Rich people will deputize themselves and threaten you like almost no one else.”
Percelay actually did have a valid badge, but that was then. In June of 2019, he was deputized in Norfolk County by interim sheriff Jerry McDermott. However, his position expired in January 2021, when Sheriff Patrick McDermott won an election against Jerry McDermott. (There is no relation between the McDermott sheriffs. Welcome to Massachusetts.)
When the Norfolk County Sheriff’s Office learned that Percelay had used an expired badge and pretended to be an acting sheriff, they responded, “This incident highlights an important change that was made when Sheriff Patrick McDermott took office in 2021. The sheriff ended the policy of giving deputy badges to individuals not actively in the service of the sheriff’s office, as was done by previous administrations.” They added that Sheriff Patrick McDermott has since instituted a “rigorous application and review process for any person seeking a Deputy Sheriff commission, doing away with the past practice of bestowing badges on individuals as a political gift.”
Under Massachusetts state law, impersonating an officer is punishable by as much as one year in prison and a $400 fine. The Norfolk County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on whether it plans to investigate the incident further.
In a statement to AIR MAIL, Percelay’s public-relations counsel said: “Given the intensity of the demonstration, Mr. Percelay was concerned about the governor’s safety. He did not see any police officers present and thus, acted.”
It just so happens that Nantucket’s sheriff, James Perelman, was also at the event. “He wasn’t the one whipping out the sheriff’s badge,” says Bex.
“[It was] definitely, definitely intimidation.”
“I’ve worked at the State House; I’ve worked for the E.F.S.B. I’ve never spoken a word to Maura Healey. I don’t think I will ever in my life. But these incredibly wealthy voters basically can buy her time,” says Gioannetti. “It’s really important that we, as youth climate activists, get into those spaces that are where the decisions are made and the priorities are set.”
When asked about the incident, Representative Fernandes stated in an e-mail: “The planet is on fire and I’m all for people being more aggressive and combative when it comes to fighting for a liveable future. I don’t get the logic of spending thousands of dollars and fossil fuels to travel to a remote island to spend ten minutes yelling at Maura Healey who is the first person to successfully bring Exxon Mobile to court for their role in global warming and the first to appoint a cabinet level climate chief, among other nation leading actions to save the planet.”
“It really shows how inadequate [our elected officials] are on climate,” Gioannetti says in response to Fernandes’s e-mail. “The fossil-fuel industry has been spinning an individual responsibility narrative for the last 50 years, which basically puts the responsibility on each of us.… And it is really disheartening to hear that fossil-fuel propaganda is coming from our elected officials now.”
The other two faces in the viral protest video belong to Michael Stratton—a D.C.-based Democratic strategist and a Democratic National Committee member under Biden, as well as a longtime natural-gas lobbyist—and host Robin Wiessmann.
“I’ve been a climate activist longer than you’ve been alive,” Stratton says to a 20-year-old Climate Defiance member in the video. He tells another protester, “I’m gonna touch you.” Wiessmann, meanwhile, can be seen screaming, “Get out! Get out! Get out!,” at one of the protesters.
Neither Stratton nor Weissmann could be reached for comment on the incident. Ken Jarin, Weissmann’s husband, declined to comment. Percelay’s N Magazine and Nantucket Current had yet to mention the incident at the time this story was published.
Clara Molot is an Associate Editor at AIR MAIL