Artist Nan Goldin leads protests at the Guggenheim and the Met over their reputation-laundering of the Sacklers' opioid epidemic fortunes

The Sackler family (previously) is one of the richest in the world, and if you've heard of them, it's probably because their family name adorns so many art galleries, museums, and academic institutions around the world: but they way they got that money is less-well-known.

The Sackler fortune was made through the family pharma company, Purdue, which used illegal tactics, fraud, bribery and disinformation campaigns to deliberately create the US opioid addiction (read about it here), whose death toll puts the Vietnam wars and other great national scars in the shade. What's more, Purdue is recycling the tactics it developed to trick, coerce or bribe doctors into overprescribing its flagship product Oxycontin in other countries, creating fresh mountains of corpses and mountains of cash.

The Sacklers are pretty much Exhibit A when it comes to using philanthropy to launder the reputations of capitalism's most immoral, rapacious beasts. As Anand Giridharadas has forcefully argued, one of the major functions of "charitable giving" is to deflect attention away from the blood on a billionaire's hands (the other function is to allow billionaires to turn their pet theories into public policy, and here the Sacklers also shine, helping to destroy the life-chances of a whole generation by funding privatization efforts that shut down public schools and replace them with underperforming "charter schools").

Nan Goldin is a legendary photographer who nearly died when she got hooked on the Sacklers' products after a routine surgery. She's the founder of a pressure group called PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), which is modelled on the AIDS activist group ACT-UP, following their example with high profile, flashy direct actions that lift the rock on wrongdoing and its enablers.

This weekend, PAIN targeted both the Guggenheim and the Met in New York; groups of activists dressed as normal museumgoers trickled into the Guggenheim and fanned out in small cells. Then Goldin entered the building and drew a small crowd (her work hangs in the Guggenheim) and at an agreed-upon signal, the activists showered "prescriptions" from the atrium railings on every floor of the Guggenheim, in which Robert Sackler, MD prescribes massive amounts of Oxycontin to Solomon R. Guggenheim — calling attention to the massive sums that the Guggenheim has taken from the Sacklers, and the massive credibility that the Guggenheim has returned to the Sacklers, helping to make them synonymous with philanthropy, rather than murder.

Goldin let the protesters in a call-and-response that made their message and demands clear: "We want their money. For safe-consumption sites. For harm reduction. For treatment. It's time, Guggenheim! Take down their names!" Then the chant broke out: "Oxy money is in the halls! Throw them out if you have the balls!"

The prescriptions that PAIN showered the Guggenheim with bore a quote from a discussion between Oxycontin inventor Robert Kaiko and Purdue's Richard Sackler, revealed in a filing by Massachusetts Attorney General in a lawsuit over Purdue's wrongdoing in the opioid epidemic: "If OxyContin is uncontrolled, it is highly likely that it will eventually be abused . . . How substantially would it improve our sales?"

The protesters staged a march without a permit from the Guggenheim to the Met, ignoring police entreaties to stick to the sidewalk, and staged a rally where survivors of opioid addiction and those who lost loved ones told their stories and called for the Sacklers to be brought to justice, their fortunes turned to helping those whose lives they destroyed and extinguishing the wildfire of addiction they deliberately set.

Masha Gessen's moving account of the day for The New Yorker reveals the power of the action, and illustrates how inequality and the proliferation of ever-richer billionaires connects directly to misery and death. There are no good billion-dollar fortunes.

Protesters stood on the steps of the Met holding their banners, and Goldin spoke from the sidewalk, facing the stairs. "We have to bring down the Sackler family," she said. "They should be in jail, next to El Chapo!"

"In the ground, next to Pablo Escobar!" another speaker, the harm-reduction activist Robert Suarez, proposed.

A third speaker, a woman named Alexis Pleus, who said that she came down to New York City from upstate with "a group of grieving families," said, "I don't care if they go to jail. I want their money. And buprenorphine," an opioid derivative that is considered far less addictive than OxyContin, which makes it the drug of choice for treating opioid addiction. Buprenorphine, however, is much more difficult to obtain than OxyContin, at least in part because Food and Drug Administration guidelines for prescribing it are much more stringent than for OxyContin.

Nan Goldin Leads a Protest at the Guggenheim Against the Sackler Family [Masha Gessen/The New Yorker]

(Image: Colin R Moynihan)

(via Naked Capitalism)