NEW YORK — Wearing shirts that said “Victim of Private Health Insurance,” protesters occupied the Park Avenue offices of Aetna Insurance Tuesday — the sit-in ended when police arrested 17 of the activists for misdemeanor criminal trespass. Outside the office building, observers from the National Lawyers Guild, members of the press and another 30 protesters looked on. The protesters, many holding signs that said “Aetna Is A Death Panel” chanted “Arrest the real criminals” as police dragged their colleagues away.
ARRESTED AT AETNA
Health care reform activists gathered at 99 Park Avenue, just south of Grand Central, around 10 a.m. Tuesday morning. Half an hour later several of the activists, many wearing white t-shirts that read “Victim Of Private Health Insurance” — and “Medicare For All” on the reverse — entered the building to request a meeting with Aetna officials. Their request denied, the activists sat down in front of the entrance to the building, linking arms. As the protesters chanted “Aetna profits, people die,” Aetna employees stepped over the protesters sitting in front of the main entrance. The symbolism — of Aetna personnel stepping over bodies — was not lost on this reporter. Aetna was founded in 1850 and provided insurance to slave holders (insuring the slave owners’ “property” – the slaves).
As police gathered and the building property manager looked out from behind the building’s glass facade, the activists chanted, “Patients not profits – Medicare for all!”
Half an hour into the sit-in the activists stood and entered the building. Forming a large semi-circle facing the entrance, the activists sat down in the lobby, arms linked. Chanting resumed — and reverberated.
As the activists chanted, officers from the NYPD Manhattan South Task Force arrived — with stacks of plastic handcuffs clipped to their trousers. Two prisoner transport vans idled on Park Avenue. Entering the building with police, the property manager read a statement telling the activists to leave or risk being arrested. Although she borrowed a police bullhorn to address the group, the woman’s appeal was completely drowned out by chanting. A minute or two later Lieutenant John Wolf raised his bullhorn and issued a warning: get out or be arrested for criminal trespass. No one moved. Police moved in, observers were ushered out, and the arrests began. 17 protesters were brought out in flexcuffs. Some of the arrestees declined to assist in their own arrests — and were carried out. Police said that individuals who were carried out would likely receive additional charges.
As the arrestees were loaded into the police vans, protesters watching from the sidewalk yelled to their colleagues: “Thank you!” Among those arrested were a registered nurse with 30 years experience and a licensed practical therapist with 20 years on the job.
“AETNA IS A DEATH PANEL”
Katie Robbins, an organizer with Healthcare Now!, briefed the press shortly after the arrests: “16 people were just arrested for sitting down demanding that Aetna immediately approve all doctor requested lifesaving treatment for people in critical conditions. And they were arrested. Aetna is the real criminal.”
Robbins said that the sit-in was the first of many actions to come. She said that next week protests would be held in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
Mark Milano, an organizer from ACT UP, explained the purpose of the event — to demand Medicare-type coverage for all Americans — and commented on what he called the myth of the death panels.
“The reality is that the death panels are the people who are paid every day to deny care to people. That’s their job — the more people they deny, the bigger bonuses they get,” he said.
RETURNING TO THE SCENE OF THE CRIME(S)
The protest broke up shortly after the police vans headed downtown — with several activists following to provide jail support — but later in the day a second, much larger, protest brought demonstraters back to the Aetna offices.
At 4 p.m. activists gathered outside the offices of Bristol-Myers Squibb, the global drug company that donated $250,000 to George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. 250 protesters picketed for half an hour before starting an unpermitted march down Park Avenue to Aetna. On arrival, demonstrators held a block long picket for over an hour as police and passersby looked on. There were no additional arrests.
The sit-in and subsequent picket were part of the “Patients Not Profits campaign of the “Mobilization for Health Care for All.” The mobilization is a relatively new formation formed by longtime health care reform activists in Private Health Insurance Must Go and other organizations including the Prosperity Agenda, the Center for the Working Poor and Healthcare-NOW.
According to campaign organizers, “Patients Not Profits” looks to “End insurance abuse and build support for real reform — Medicare for All, a single payer plan. The mobilization involves civil disobedience at insurance company offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities throughout October.”