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The rain was not yet falling on Monday morning, November 26, when a group of about 25 activists stormed through the streets of midtown Manhattan toward Governor Andrew Cuomo’s NYC office on Third Avenue, to demand what the state leader had already promised during his gubernatorial election: overdose prevention centers.
Stopping traffic on Third Avenue, photographer Nan Goldin joined activists from PAIN Sackler, VocalNY, and Housingworks with banners calling Governor Cuomo to action. “Governor while you wait New Yorkers die,” one said. “#EndOverdoseNY,” another advertised.
Demonstrators also carried a large white tent with them, an example of the proposed overdose prevention centers that have received municipal support statewide from figures like New York City’s Mayor Bill De Blasio and Ithaca’s Mayor Svante Myrick.
In May 2018, De Blasio announced his intention to bring safe injection sites to the city, which last year saw 1,441 overdose deaths. Experts believe that the introduction of prevention centers under the supervision of medical professionals will save considerable lives from the opioid epidemic. There are over 100 safe injection sites operating around the world in more than 60 cities, according to the Gotham Gazette. The first North American location launched in Vancouver, Canada in 2003; it helped to prevent approximately 35 cases of HIV and three deaths a year, according to a 2008 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania.
Earlier this year, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene published nearly 150 pages on the proposed overdose prevention plan. Still, the city must gain approval from the State Department of Health, which answers to Governor Cuomo. Since the election cycle ended in early November, though, the governor has not signaled whether or not he would approve the prevention centers.
“Not one more! You wait, we die!” chanted the protesters outside his office.
Hiawatha Collins spoke at the protest as a representative of VocalNY, a statewide grassroots organization of drug policy activists that led the day’s action. He expressed his frustration with the state government to Hyperallergic: “New York is supposed to be a leader and innovator, but Governor Cuomo does not have the political will and no one his pushing him to act.”
“In this country, 200 people die every day from overdosing,” Collins added. “Our message is to give people a second chance, but dead people don’t get second chances.”
Goldin agrees with Collins’ statement. She tells Hyperallergic that PAIN Sackler, the organization she founded to help end the opioid epidemic, had partnered with VocalNY to help spread their call for change.
“Show people respect” Goldin demanded from her government. “Let them go to their doctor and get what they need. [The prevention centers] should be like any clinic visit.”
PAIN has previously targeted cultural institutions who receive financial support from the Sacklers, a family whose members include the manufacturers of arguably the biggest killer in the opioid epidemic, the popular prescription drug Oxycontin. Accordingly, Goldin has led many protests and fundraising efforts against the company. In March 2018, she protested the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a large group of activists by throwing pills into the Sackler Wing’s reflecting pool near the Temple of Dendur. Four months later, she staged a die-in at the Harvard Art Museums. But PAIN’s most recent protest against the governor signals Goldin’s desire to push her organization into direct contact with policymakers to foment change.
When Hyperallergic asked Goldin about her opinion on the art world’s reaction to her protests, she simply responded, “What reaction?” indicating a lack of momentum in the cultural sector to help stymie the opioid epidemic. “The issue is that some people are refusing funding, but nobody wants to take off the Sackler’s names from their galleries.”