when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

VOCALizing in New York City—and beyond

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Last Thursday, July 28, members of the advocacy group VOCAL, Voices of Community Activists and Leaders, subwayed from across the city to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. They gathered on a shady stretch of 78th Street to ask one member of the Merck board of directors, Rochelle Lazarus, to reconsider the pharmaceutical company’s pricing of its Hepatitis C medication, Victrelis, which at $80,000 for a 48-week course, is beyond the means of most people who actually need it. The group, about two-dozen strong, was respectful, but loud—vocal, as the name implies.

VOCAL protests outside home of Merck board member, July 28, 2011

Members rang Lazarus’s doorbell. No one answered. Upstairs, a woman stood at the window, holding a telephone and looking down at the demonstration. Several VOCAL members chose to block the street and halt traffic. A police cruiser arrived, perhaps summoned by the board member herself or the polo-shirted private security guard who took a powerful interest in the demonstration. The police officer calmly asked the protesters to move, which they did. Eventually. After making their point: The price of this life-saving medicine is extortionate. It should be lowered. It reminded me of ACT UP demos I photographed in the early 1990s. (Full disclosure: I put my camera down, left my NYPD press pass at home, and participated in one such block-the-street action. This got me a one-way ride down a one-way street “at a high rate of speed,” as cops say, to a holding pen in a Lower East Side precinct.)

ACT UP’s mantra: Silence=Death.

Figures from the corporation’s 2010 IRS filings and annual report indicate that Merck and its execs are not hurting for cash. Merck’s 2010 worldwide sales: $46 billion. The corporation’s 2010 marketing and administrative expenses: $13.2 billion. President/Chairman/CEO Richard T. Clark’s salary in 2009: $16,838,367. Board member Lazarus’s total 2009 compensation: $191,080. Not too bad for a part-time job.

The VOCAL crew—black, white, Latino, young, and oldish—decamped to the offices of another board member, Leslie Brun (2009 Merck compensation for his part-time service: $178,200.) Mr. Brun was not available to meet with the group, according to a building security guard. When VOCAL members began chanting, security called the police. VOCAL took the street again, halting traffic on Park Avenue. Major police response this time, followed by much negotiation between the lead organizer and the officers—plus a fair amount of cursing from motorists blocked by VOCAL. Emotions rose with the temperature. Again, VOCAL stepped to the sidewalk after stating its case.

VOCAL blocks Park Avenue, July 28, 2011

As part of my documentary project on community organizing, I showed up to photograph VOCAL’s work—rather the culmination of one aspect of the group’s work. Direct action of the civilly disobedient type such as this is the product of a long and deliberative process that’s heavy on organizing, research, and planning. For some people, this sort of action smacks of class warfare, have-nots pressuring the haves to give up chunks of their hard-earned profits. For others, it is an object lesson in grassroots democracy. Merck, as a publicly held corporation, is accountable to the market and to citizens, the latter being the primary element of the former. Wall Street isn’t the market, nor is the amorphous “consumer.” The market is people, the public, in whose space the firm operates. VOCAL stood up in that space to remind Merck’s officers that they are accountable, not just to shareholders, but ordinary folks, too.

Earlier this week, members of VOCAL and another grassroots group, Community Voices Heard, launched an action in DC. They disrupted the debt bill debate in the House of Representatives to press legislators to stop pushing spending cuts, which will have a disproportionate impact on the working and middle-classes, and focus on revenue increases.

“John Boehner should stop worrying about keeping his job as Speaker of the House and start worrying about creating jobs for the millions of Americans who are unemployed,” VOCAL board member Bobby Tolbert said. Tolbert relies on Medicare and the Federal/state Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS program.

Twenty-two people from the groups were arrested. Half are living with HIV. They made themselves visible as citizens and spoke up, when and where it mattered. They disobeyed, civilly—again—because policymakers do not seem to pay any attention to the obedient.

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Written by bxpnyc

2011/08/04 at 14:36

2 Responses

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  1. To remind us of the power of civil disobedience, the MLK memorial on the National Mall in DC will be dedicated in just a few weeks, on August 28 (the anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech). I thought it was worth pasting in the vision statement of the Memorial Project below.

    Dr. King championed a movement that draws fully from the deep well of America’s potential for freedom, opportunity, and justice. His vision of America is captured in his message of hope and possibility for a future anchored in dignity, sensitivity, and mutual respect; a message that challenges each of us to recognize that America’s true strength lies in its diversity of talents. The vision of a memorial in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. is one that captures the essence of his message, a message in which he so eloquently affirms the commanding tenants of the American Dream — Freedom, Democracy and Opportunity for All; a noble quest that gained him the Nobel Peace Prize and one that continues to influence people and societies throughout the world. Upon reflection, we are reminded that Dr. King’s lifelong dedication to the idea of achieving human dignity through global relationships of well being has served to instill a broader and deeper sense of duty within each of us— a duty to be both responsible citizens and conscientious stewards of freedom and democracy.

    Erin Hollaway

    2011/08/05 at 12:14


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