WHITE PLAINS, New York — Today, Monday, August 9, the manicured shrubbery at the entrance of the US Bankruptcy Court in White Plains, New York, functioned as a symbolic graveyard. Activists had set up cardboard tombstones bearing the names of individuals who died as a result of opioid-related overdoses and complications. Many of them were grieving their own relatives and friends.
The protesters had gathered at the courthouse where Judge Robert D. Drain has presided over the bankruptcy proceedings of Purdue Pharma. The pharmaceutical giant, owned by the Sackler family, was found guilty of falsely marketing and encouraging over-prescribing of its signature drug, OxyContin, propelling the opioid epidemic that has claimed at least half a million lives in America alone. Advocacy organizations Pain Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) and Truth Pharm have fought for years to hold Purdue and other opioid manufacturers accountable; today, they protested what they view as Judge Drain’s protection of the billionaire family and an all-too-lenient bankruptcy restructuring plan.
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“Sacklers lie; people die! People, not profit!” chanted the crowd of about 50. Members of PAIN, founded by the artist and opioid survivor Nan Goldin in 2018, unfurled banners decrying Judge Drain’s “morally bankrupt bankruptcy court” and scattered fake prescription bottles and mock one-dollar bills with the word “Oxy.” The face of Judge Drain, his eyes colored bright red, loomed over the scene, printed on a massive fabric sheet suspended from a metal rack accompanied by the text “the devil’s judge” and “iron curtain of the Sackler massacre” — an artwork created by gallery owner and activist Fernando Luis Alvarez, founder of the Curtain Project.
(Hyperallergic contacted the Chamber of Judge Robert D. Drain for this article but was unable to reach a staff member for comment.)
“We will not let this injustice go down in history without our resistance,” said Alexis Pleus, founder and director of Truth Pharm, addressing the group. “We say no and we object.”
“We object!” the crowd yelled back.
Halfway through the event, a police officer approached the protesters to inform them that the cardboard tombstones would have to be removed, accusing them of defacing government property.
“We won’t take that. Let’s let the officers remove the tombstones on their own. And let’s take as many photos and videos as we can,” Pleus told the group. (The police did not interfere further, and the signs were removed at the end of the action.)
“The Sacklers remain unscathed by the drug war while it rages on, decimating communities of color, impacting all of our loved ones,” she continued. “Everyone is harmed by the drug war except the Sacklers.”
Last year, Purdue Pharma reached an $8.3 billion settlement with the Department of Justice, but as Goldin and Pleus noted at today’s protest, only $4.5 billion of the total amount comes from the Sacklers, members of whom held leadership positions at the company. Additionally, the company agreed to the settlement on the condition that individual members of the Sackler family would be protected from any future litigation. Many bankruptcy courts do not allow such provisions, known as non-consensual third-party releases, but Purdue “handpicked” a judge known to be sympathetic to them, the activists said.
“It’s an egregious case of injustice,” Goldin said. “[The Sacklers’] friends, family, heirs, lawyers, everybody they know will get complete immunity. They’re walking away with most of their money.” The payout is a fraction of the family’s estimated personal fortune of $11 billion, much of it stemming from sales of OxyContin that raked in $35 billion in revenue. Purdue, Goldin added, drained the company and transferred funds to offshore accounts in order to claim bankruptcy, “because they knew we were coming for them.”
“Purdue is bankrupt, but the Sacklers are not,” Megan Kapler, a member of PAIN, told the crowd.
In a letter to Judge Drain, copies of which were distributed to attendees at the protest, Truth Pharm wrote, “The supposed bankrupt Purdue Pharma afforded over $600 million in attorney fees which will surpass payouts to the individual claimants harmed by Purdue Pharma.”
Following Goldin and Pleus’s speeches, survivors and relatives of victims stood up to share personal stories, including moving testimonies about the devastating impact of opioids on their lives. Katherine Mooratad, a survivor, had flown from Louisville, Kentucky, to attend the event.
“In 1999, I had a bachelor’s degree in engineering. I got sick and was prescribed 100 milligrams of hydrocodone a day for seven months. I lost my mind; I lost everything. I went to prison for two years for calling in prescriptions in my own name,” she told the group. “But the worst part was the trauma to my children.”
Jade, a member of Truth Pharm, read a poem titled “The Thousands of Doctors Held Unaccountable” that addressed the medical professionals responsible for overprescribing OxyContin — many of them motivated by Purdue Pharma’s zealous targeting of clinics and doctors and its downplaying of the drug’s addictive properties. Some protesters then participated in a “die-in,” lying down on the pavement while others drew the outlines of their bodies in colored chalk. After a moment of silence, families and friends of victims wrote the names of the deceased inside the silhouettes.
“I lost my son Parker at 30 years of age, on June 11, 2020, due to a heroin laced with fentanyl overdose. He struggled for 15 years, starting with OxyContin,” Mary Butler Fink, who attended today’s demonstration, told Hyperallergic. “He lived a life trapped by this addiction.”
“I resent that the Sacklers refer to the people who are addicted to their drugs as less than, because they’re addicted to money, and that’s pretty morally corrupt in my book,” she added, referencing the disparaging language used by some members of the family to shift blame from the company to the victims.
The recent settlement also includes a clause forbidding the Sacklers from seeking naming rights from museums and other institutions for nine years, the period allotted to the family to pay their opioid debt in full. Goldin and PAIN have centered much of their activism around the family’s use of philanthropy to “artwash” their business dealings. While some institutions have taken down the Sackler name from their spaces, among them the Louvre in Paris and New York University, others have chosen to keep it. The Metropolitan Museum of Art suspended accepting gifts from the family but has not renamed its Sackler Wing, though a representative told Hyperallergic last year that it was reviewing the presentation of the name in light of the settlement.
But PAIN’s activism extends beyond Purdue’s case and the role of corporations in the crisis. More recently, the group worked with a harm reductionist organization in North Carolina, fundraising over $30,000 to produce and distribute mass spectrometers — tools that help drug users determine whether a drug has been laced.
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“People think we’re anti-drugs. But we’re not. We’re not even anti-opioids,” Goldin told Hyperallergic. “We’re anti-profiteering. We’re anti-those who are making money on getting people addicted.”