On a drizzly morning in New York, at a protest advocating for the creation of overdose protection centers in the city, artist Nan Goldin and members of P.A.I.N., the activist group she founded to combat the opioid crisis, were arrested.
The protest was staged in front of the office building where New York City Governor Andrew Cuomo’s staff is headquartered, and it was intended to raise awareness of the rising numbers of overdoses in the city each year. The activists in attendance called on the governor to create overdose protection centers, which allow users to take drugs in controlled spaces, under the supervision of medical officials, with the hope of avoiding overdoses. In 2017, an estimated 1,487 people died of drug overdoses in New York, more than 100 people more than in 2016.
Activists allege that, while Cuomo has spoken about combatting opioid deaths, he has not pursued enough concrete actions. In response, they have led various protests, some of which have had Goldin and P.A.I.N. in attendance. Earlier this year, the governor unveiled a series of initiatives aimed at drug-addiction treatment and education, but he has not voiced support for overdose protection centers.
“Governor Cuomo has led an aggressive, comprehensive response to the opioid epidemic with a focus on prevention, harm reduction, treatment, recovery and enforcement, and we are committed to exploring all options to reduce opioid deaths,” a spokesperson for Cuomo’s office said in a statement. “We have been in active dialogue with advocates and the City on the proposal while addressing potential law enforcement concerns and the threat of legal challenges. Above all, our top priority is protecting the lives of New Yorkers.”
Goldin—who, until last year, when P.A.I.N. was formed, was best known for her documentary photographs of the queer community and her own life in New York during the 1980s—could be seen at Wednesday’s protest locking arms with other activists. She sat in front of a glass door and held a sign that read: “GOVERNOR WHILE YOU WAIT NEW YORKERS DIE.” With the prospect of arrests looming, attendees threw red and white flowers in front of a sunglasses-wearing Goldin and her fellow activists, raised their fists in their air, and held a moment of silence for people who have fatally overdosed.
After about an hour of sitting and chanting in front of the Third Avenue skyscraper, NYPD officers arrived to arrest Goldin, members of P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), and other activists. As they were being loaded into a police truck, they chanted, “Cuomo lies, people die!”
The majority of P.A.I.N.’s efforts have been focused on the Sackler family, which has been a force in art-world philanthropy, providing significant sums to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Freer/Sackler museum in Washington, D.C., Tate in London, and the Louvre in Paris.
The family’s pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma, has been accused of misleading the public about the addictiveness of its painkiller OxyContin; it has denied wrongdoing. On Tuesday, the company was reportedly proposing to pay between $10 billion and $12 billion to settle 2,000 lawsuits against the company. Through the proposal, the family would no longer have control of the company.
Founded by Goldin in 2017, P.A.I.N. has led high-profile protests at institutions that have received donations from the Sackler family. Its first protest was held at the Met in 2018, and involved participants raining empty pill bottles into the reflecting pools by the Temple of Dendur. In July, the group took to the Louvre and staged a die-in in protest of a “Wing of Oriental Antiquities,” which at that time bore the Sackler name. Their actions have led many museums, including the Louvre and the Met, to say they will no longer accept Sackler donations.
The Sackler name was not mentioned at Wednesday’s protest, however. The activist’s efforts were focused on opioids as they affect New Yorker. Jaron Benjamin, an activist from Housing Works, a New York–based organization dedicated to fighting AIDS and homelessness, told the crowd that he had overdosed twice and that he felt fortunate to have survived. “I came here to tell you today that good luck and good fortune are not very good health management strategies,” he said. “There are too many people in New York City dying of overdoses.”
Marching back and forth in front of the office building, attendees chanted, “OPC saves lives!” Signs that were brought with them read: “NO MORE DRUG WAR” and “#ENDOVERDOSE.”
As the protest wound down amid arrests, there were shouts of, “We’ll be back!” One person added to them, “We gotta continue to help save lives!”