“Sacklers Lie, Thousands Die”: P.A.I.N. Against Big Pharma

Lauren O’Neill-Butler on the activist organization P.A.I.N. and its ACT UP-influenced actions.
Documentation of a P.A.I.N. protest at the Louvre, Paris, on July 1, 2019.Photo: Stephane de Sakutin/Getty Images
They were fighting for their lives. They were very well organized. They worked well together. Whatever problems they had were discussed. They knew their targets and they went after them, sometimes by creating sexy media campaigns, as we now do. The main thing is that there was a deep truth behind them.

That’s artist Nan Goldin in February 2020, responding to a question I asked her during an interview on the influence of the activist collective ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) on P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), an advocacy group she founded in late 2017. I was particularly curious how ACT UP New York, the “mother ship” chapter, which was founded in 1987, had guided her organizing.

“P.A.I.N. began from my learning about the Sacklers’ involvement with the opioid crisis through Patrick Radden Keefe’s story for the New Yorker,” Goldin explained first. She read that watershed article in 2017 while in recovery at the age of sixty-two, after nearly dying from an overdose related to her OxyContin addiction, which developed after she was prescribed the drug following an injury. Goldin spent two months in treatment in rural Massachusetts. Upon leaving, she had a feeling similar to one she felt in 1989, after another time in rehab—that she was witnessing a generation being wiped out by a plague. Certainly, the trauma Goldin experienced in the late 1980s and early 1990s endures—and in many ways seems to be repeating itself. ACT UP was a direct response to the institutionalized homophobia that so greatly intensified the AIDS crisis, which was driven in part by the ravages of years of conservative rule in the U.S. and increasing violence against gay people. Once again, in 2017, Goldin observed a group of people dying from governmental neglect, and she decided to do something.

Becoming an activist has been “more important to me than propelling my art career,” she told me. By the time I spoke with her, P.A.I.N. had already led a series of successful protests in international museums—such as the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (April 2018), the Guggenheim in New York (February 2019), the Louvre in Paris (July 2019), the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (November 2019). P.A.I.N. targeted these major institutions, in the same way that ACT UP protested in specific locations, for a reason—a “deep truth.” The museums had taken donations from the billionaire Sackler family, members of which own the private company Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, a drug that, as you likely know from a friend or relative, has caused profound human suffering. The Sacklers are also notorious for hiding some $10 billion in profits and for proposing to settle all litigation for $3 billion, an offer rejected by attorneys general in 26 states. Goldin knew how this “artwashing” on the Sacklers’ behalf came with contractual obligations, specifically naming rights to galleries. So, P.A.I.N. effectively lobbied these institutions with two reasonable and attainable goals: to urge them to refuse the family’s money and to remove the Sackler name from public spaces.

For each protest, P.A.I.N. took a cue from ACT UP’s media-savvy actions, such as “Seize Control of the FDA” (Rockville, Maryland, October 11, 1988), the first major victory for the AIDS activism movement, and a case study in Sarah Schulman’s epic book Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993 (2021). As I’ve noted before, this was not your usual “rally,” with people marching, picketing, or listening to speakers at a symbolic location, such as the White House. Members of ACT UP, led by Gregg Bordowitz and David Barr, developed a new way of thinking about protest, and a savvier way of dealing with the media. Over several months of teach-ins, regional ACT UP groups together conceived of a specific event to call out the FDA for better access to experimental drugs. More than a thousand activists attended this debut national mobilization. Affinity groups were tasked with doing small, independent actions—one crew appeared in white lab coats with bloody handprints on their chests, while another held a “die-in,” holding cardboard gravestones. ACT UP members broke into the FDA building; 178 were arrested.

A police officer poses above several people laying on the ground with tombstones they've drawn protesting the FDA.
Demonstrators from the organization ACT UP protest in front of the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA opened up access to experimental drugs soon after. Photo: Scott Applewhite/AP

“I watched ACT UP become huge,” Goldin recalled, adding:

I wasn’t really a member. I went to a few meetings and protests. But the important thing was that there was a lot of photography going on showing AIDS victims, as in Nicholas Nixon’s work, which the community of people living with AIDS hated. They supported the work I was doing around the crisis. They told me that, and it was very important to me that I was working in parallel on some level.

In 1989, Goldin organized one of the first New York exhibitions about AIDS, “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” at Artists Space. While she wasn’t too involved in ACT UP, she was aware of their strategies, such as pre-publicity and prepping spokespeople. ACT UP knew how to “speak through the media, not to the media,” as ACT UP facilitator Ann Northrop would say. Nearly thirty years later, P.A.I.N. would do this too. Like ACT UP, the group embraced an experience-based agenda—issues had to be urgent to the thousands suffering with opioid addiction. P.A.I.N. held Wednesday night meetings in Goldin’s Brooklyn apartment, where they planned their ambitious events, and organized via encrypted phone apps outside of meetings.

To date, P.A.I.N. has deployed key strategies such as the die-in, ACT UP’s signature tactic, where protestors feign mass death. This action stems from a long history of activism in the U.S. that has made the body the central point of protest—think of the February 1, 1960, Greensboro sit-in, for instance, when Black students from A&T State University convened at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and refused to leave after being denied service. The die-in, however, offers something different, specifically for the camera. As the historian Daniel Ross notes, “The die-in is attention-grabbing, inexpensive, and easy to organize using social media: the perfect protest for the Internet age.” Little wonder it’s been more popular in the last decade than in the past fifty years when it first began showing up in U.S. newspapers (the first citation comes from Boston in 1970, regarding a protest on the first Earth

P.A.I.N.’s debut, and perhaps most notable, direct action occurred at 4 pm in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 10, 2018. (In 1974, the Sackler family donated $3.5 million toward the new wing’s construction.) That Saturday, as some demonstrators unfurled banners that read “SHAME ON SACKLER” and “FUND REHAB,” a hundred or so others laid down on the floor and staged a die-in, positioned like corpses to reflect the death toll of OxyContin. They chanted “Sacklers Lie! Thousands Die!” and called on the family to fund rehab and education programs. Members of the press who had been tipped off to the event snapped photos and captured video. Later the activists tossed orange prescription pill bottles, which they labeled “prescribed to you by the Sackler family, major donors of the Met”—into the reflecting pool that surrounds the Ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur. After being escorted out of the museum by security, Goldin turned to face the museum and shouted, “We’ll be back!”

Artist NAN GOLDIN Stages #SacklerPAIN Opioid Protest Die-In @ Met Museum Sackler Wing 3/10/18

There have been many victories (and arrests) for the group since then. As a result of the Louvre protest, the institution removed the Sackler family name from wall placards in the Oriental Antiquities gallery, formerly the Sackler Wing of Oriental Antiquities. Beginning in 2019, other major museums and galleries began to reject support from the Sackler Trust UK, including the National Portrait Gallery and Tate. For another spectacular surprise protest, this time at the Guggenheim—in response to the Sackler’s support of the museum and its Sackler Center for Arts Education—P.A.I.N. activists released a cascading flurry of fake OxyContin prescriptions inscribed on white pieces of paper from the upper levels of the museum’s rotunda before unfurling banners and staging a die-in. (This action referenced a chilling sentiment that Richard Sackler reportedly stated upon the launch of OxyContin, that “the prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense, and white.”) The fake prescriptions included excerpts from communication between top Purdue executives, including members of the Sacklers, about how to increase sales of the drug and the likelihood that it would be abused.

More recently, P.A.I.N. organized a die-in while protesting the frustrating summer 2021 Sackler bankruptcy hearings. Along with members from the nonprofit harm reduction organization Truth Pharm, a coalition of survivors and advocacy groups working in response to the overdose crisis, P.A.I.N. activists demonstrated outside of the United States Bankruptcy Court in White Plains, New York. In 2019, the Sacklers transferred Purdue’s headquarters from Connecticut to White Plains so that they could file for bankruptcy in the district of corporate-friendly Judge Robert Drain, one of the only judges in the country known to grant liability releases to private owners—which he did for the Sacklers on September 1, 2021, by yielding them immunity from getting sued in civil lawsuits related to opioid deaths in exchange for contributing payments amounting to $4.5 billion of their personal wealth. After a year of feeling constrained by the COVID pandemic, this was a major blow to the movement.

By the end of 2021, however, it became clear that the bankruptcy proceedings would not be the final chapter in the Sackler’s saga. Through coalition building—with groups such as Vocal New York, Housing Works, ACT UP NY, the Center for Popular Democracy Action, and the North Carolina Survivors Union—the activists began to win. Three nearly back-to-back events have made for a thrilling and hopeful end to another miserable pandemic year. On November 22, the state of New York officially shut down the corrupt practice of judge-shopping (filing numerous lawsuits for the same claim to increase the likelihood of a favorable outcome) for mega corporations. “While we’re frustrated this didn’t take effect during the Purdue bankruptcy,” P.A.I.N. noted on Instagram, “we’re glad that we took to the streets to demand this important structural change.” Then, on December 9, 2021, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Sackler family announced in a sculpted, joint PR announcement that the Sackler’s name would be removed from seven exhibition spaces, including the Sackler wing. The Met had already severed financial ties with the Sacklers in May 2019, but this moment of removing their name was a real victory. Keefe—author of the New Yorker story about the Sacklers and the book Empire of Pain (2021), which extensively chronicles the family—reported the day after the Met’s news broke that a group of more than seventy artists had pressured the museum’s board of trustees to end its association with the Sacklers. In a letter dated November 3, 2021, the artists wrote that the museum “is a public institution dedicated to art, learning and knowledge . . . Honoring the Sackler name on the walls of the Met erodes the Met’s relationship with artists and the public.” They pointed out that “last year, Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, pled guilty in federal court to three criminal conspiracy charges,” adding:

They admitted that they defrauded the United States government, lied to the Drug Enforcement Agency, and violated federal anti-kickback laws—paying providers to prescribe more of Purdue’s products. The company also pled guilty to federal criminal charges in 2007, as did the company’s President, Chief Legal Officer and former Chief Medical Officer.

Clearly it was hard to argue with that. Finally, on December 16, 2021, judge Colleen McMahon overturned the Purdue settlement from September, declaring that it should not move forward because it releases the Sacklers from liability in civil opioid-related cases. The ruling was yet another major blow to the family, and a triumph for P.A.I.N.’s calculated warpath.

It’s important to note there are two galleries at the Met that will continue to bear the Sackler names—those of the “good” Sacklers: Elizabeth A. Sackler, for example, who claims she has not made any money from sales of OxyContin and has come out in support of protests (including P.A.I.N.’s) against her uncles’ company. However, as it’s made clear in Empire of Pain, her father, Arthur M. Sackler, was the mastermind behind the marketing model used to sell the drug. One of the most captivating aspects of the book is the sad debate between the “Valium Sacklers” and the “Oxy Sacklers”: Arthur M. Sackler developed the tranquilizer Valium and the advertising for it, but he died before OxyContin was introduced by Purdue. For some people, including Goldin, the entire Sackler-Purdue clan is evil, while for others, exceptions can and should be made. (I tend to agree with Goldin—they’re a dynasty of billionaires who have ultimately profited from mass death: Almost half a million people have died from opioid overdoses, including prescription and illicit opioids, from 1999 to 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This public health emergency has become much worse during the COVID-19 pandemic—the result of lost access to treatment, rising mental health problems, and wider availability of dangerously potent street drugs.)

To finally see the Sackler name removed from the entrance of one of the Met’s most iconic spaces is astounding, and a positive sign that other large institutions might follow suit and also examine the often-dubious process of naming rights. As Keefe notes, the boards of many organizations who still list the Sackler name in their buildings “have been watching the Met to see how the museum would react. As long as the Met did nothing, inertia might have seemed like a viable option.” Through all their efforts, P.A.I.N. has become a ground zero for addiction-related activism and direct-action campaigns, in ways adjacent to ACT UP—chiefly because they identified specific goals and are achieving them. They might not have been able to meet those objectives without the star power of a major artist; most, though certainly not all, political collectives need a fierce leader. Ideally, P.A.I.N. will grow beyond the accolades of one person and continue to strategically fight the overdose crisis in the years to come. But one more thing is clear right now: after learning so much from ACT UP, P.A.I.N. is now, in turn, inspiring a new generation of activists—and that’s how change begins. ♦

Change the frequency.
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