The First Paxil Protest
A Personal Narrative
by Rob Robinson
Paxil Protest event coordinator
Day #1: September 26th, 2004
I arrived in Philadelphia mid day Saturday, September 24th, a day and half before the "Paxil Protest" was set to begin. After checking in at my hotel I walked about a block over to GlaxoSmithKline's US corporate castle — two massive buildings linked by an enclosed pedestrian walkway. One Franklin Plaza, a bland looking skyscraper, soared over 20 stories. Three Franklin Plaza— about a third as high — was a long, rectangular structure that encompassed the entire width of a city block. Architecturally speaking, the latter building was esthetically pleasing to look at ... if you could get out of your mind what some of the people that occupied that building had done.
I studied the Glaxo buildings with a sort of strange detachment. It was odd to think I was here now, so close to where some of the company's executives had — in board room meetings, phone calls, e-mails, faxes and more — conspired to unleash the hell and horror of Paxil that very nearly destroyed my life, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others the world over. Stranger was the notion to think that, for their part, what happened to us was "nothing personal"; it was just a consequence of a series of cold and calculated "business decisions." Business decisions which, by the way, constitute the greatest fraud ever perpetrated within the pharmaceuticals industry.
Indeed, Paxil's victims might as well have been lifeless store front mannequins to these people (Garnier et al), albeit it mannequins with health care plans or bank accounts that could be tapped to feed a burgeoning multibillion dollar Paxil revenue stream.
After walking around the Glaxo buildings a few times I decided the best location for maximum exposure was to center the Paxil Protest information booth on the sidewalk between the two Glaxo buildings at 200 North 16th Street. Here, hundreds and hundreds of company employees flowing in and out of the GSK buildings would see our booth and further be able to catch glimpses out of their office windows and see us in action. Additionally, this location was perfect for capturing a huge amount of drive by traffic — thousands of cars each day. As an added bonus we would pick up all the traffic flowing in and out of the Wyndham hotel and GlaxoSmithKline underground parking entryway.
At the same time the chosen site provided us with a grand view looking up at the Glaxo buildings. It was with considerable satisfaction to know that — as much as GSK did not want us to be there — there was absolutely nothing the company could do about it. We were going to be on site for three business days, ten hours a day. That translated to 30 enjoyable hours for us, and 108,000 agonizing seconds for GSK.
Sunday was spent tracking down last minute supplies.
Monday morning. Several participants arrived on site at 8 a.m. As we unpacked boxes and prepared to set up a table and canopy a plainclothes officer from Philadelphia civil affairs approached us (not unexpectedly as I had requested their presence) and asked if we would like to move our set up to the corner of 16th and Vine Streets where (I'm not kidding) GlaxoSmithKline had set up a welcome table with cookies and tea — for us — individuals whose lives had been shattered by Paxil. It reminded me of that Grimm Brothers fairy tale Hansel and Gretel:
"The old woman had only pretended to be so kind. She was in reality a wicked witch, who lay in wait for children, and had only built the little house of bread in order to entice them there."
As we chatted with the officer a grim faced GSK security man in a dress shirt and tie and gripping a two way radio looked on in anxious anticipation. For GSK a change of venue would dramatically decrease our visibility. We recognized the strategem for what it was and dismissed the offer. "No thanks Grandma Glaxo."
The "man from GSK" paced around outside a Glaxo entryway, hands on his hips and — more grim faced than ever — watched us attach protest signs to pickets and to the legs of our information booth (like signs stacked crosswise to one another on a pole at a crossroads.) Our 18" x 24" signs, made of corrugated plastic, were emblazoned with one of three slogans:
"GlaxoSmithKline: Do Less, Feel Worse, Die Younger"
At the bottom of each sign was the web address for the Paxil Protest.
After about an hour we were more or less set up and underway. The turnout I had anticipated early on was not materializing, but people were showing up nonetheless which was good. The fact that we were there was a spectacular success in and of itself since we were, symbolically, occupying the company's own territory — for three long days. It was bound to send an eye-opening message to both the company as well as the world.
As the day progressed more people showed up, but with them came the wind, so plans for our rented plane to fly over Philly towing a protest banner were postponed. That spectacular bit would have to wait for tomorrow or the next day.
About mid day the media descended. A reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer arrived, followed by a senior writer from a prominent national magazine (who is set to publish a major story before year's end.) The Associated Press stopped by to chat. A popular talk radio show dropped by to do an on site interview. A local news channel filmed us on the ground and from the air using a helicopter. Any concerns I might have had about participant turn out were completely mitigated by the attention the press was lavishing on the event.
Throughout the day Glaxo employees streamed by (even through) our information booth and, to a person, were deferential. In fact, a lot of them were politely smiling. A few even gave us the quick "thumbs up." Maybe they had read the letter addressed to them at the Paxil Protest web site.
By day's end it was obvious all the planning and hard work had paid off. At 6 p.m. we began breaking the site down, and wondering what tomorrow would bring. We were in for some big, and pleasant, surprises.
Day #2: September 27th, 2004
Day two of the Paxil Protest got underway at just before 8 a.m. — right as the last of GSK's employees was rushing from nearby parking lots to make it in to work on time.
GSK had not set up a "hot tea and cookies" hospitality table for us — as they had the previous day — leaving us to wonder what other inane tricks the company might try to pull. (Like offering us a couple of garbage bags full of free Paxil samples.)
By mid morning we finally spotted the GSK video crew. We were being filmed from a corner office window on the second floor of GSK's main building. Someone had made a lame attempt to conceal the camera using vertical strips of manila tape covering much of the window.
As noon approached we saw a bright yellow plane towing a huge banner spelling out the Paxil Protest web address and "Ban Paxil — Boycott GlaxoSmithKline" through the skies over Philly. Another plane, and a helicopter, appeared to give chase. Was it a film crew shooting footage for Michael Moore's next film about Big Pharma? (We'll find out in mid 2006 when that film is scheduled to be released.)
After a few hours our banner plane began looping closer and closer to the GSK buildings. If you had been an executive plinking balls across a putting green atop the taller building you could have teed off and hit it. It was that close, or at least that's how it looked from the ground. Distances aside, gazing out from the top floors of that main GSK building at the plane trawling by no doubt presented a distinctly dystopian skyscape. Which was exactly the intended effect.
About mid afternoon someone stopped by with a copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer. On the front page of the business section of the paper was a large color photo of two protestors (myself and Scott Puhl) attaching a "Ban Paxil" sign to the Paxil Protest information tent. The back page of the business section carried a 13 paragraph story about the protest, along with a second photo.
True or not, by day's end a rumor was circulating that the nefarious David Wheadon had been spotted roaming the aerial pedestrian walkway that joins the Glaxo buildings. In addition to his role as Vice President Regulatory Affairs and Product Professional Services for GSK, Wheadon is infamous for playing a lead role in Wes Craven's zombie drug horror movie The Serpent and the Rainbow. Actually, Wheadon didn't star in that movie, but only because he was, I submit, stuck in med school (where they learn things like "the Hippocratic oath") studying to become — of all things — a psychiatrist. "Go figure."
By day's end we were starting to get the hang of "the protest thing." Regrettably, tomorrow was going to be the last day of the first Paxil Protest, and the day's success was going to be hard to top. Fortunately, I had saved one last arrow in our public relations quiver to fire at Glaxo; it was one I had been dreaming of using for a year before finally being in the right place and at the perfect time to use it. That day was going to be tomorrow...
Next Installment: The Paxil Protest: Day #3