Why the Cigna Seven sat in

October 19, 2009

Supporters of a single-payer health care program turned out for a protest targeting the Cigna health insurance company's Midwest sales office on October 8. When seven picketers went inside the building to demand to talk to Cigna executives and were denied, they sat down and began chanting. The protesters were later removed by police and arrested.

Marilena Marchetti and Helen Redmond, members of the group Chicago Single-Payer Action Network, describe the scene at the Cigna offices that day, and explain why actions like these are so important.

Marilena Marchetti

REMEMBER THE Baucus Raucous Caucus--the 13 doctors and activists who were arrested May 5 for interrupting Max Baucus' Senate hearing that excluded the voice of true universal health care: single-payer Medicare for all?

Like many people who are passionate about health care reform, I felt revitalized when I saw blasted all over the media that 13 people had put themselves on the line to resist the forces of the medical-industrial complex that are systematically dismembering the health care reform initiative taken up by Congress and President Obama.

For me, getting arrested with the "Cigna Seven" at a nonviolent sit-in at Cigna's offices in downtown Chicago on October 8 was about injecting the single-payer movement with a dose of momentum, like the Baucus 13 back in May.

Breaking into the mainstream media, which is so tightly guarded by business interests, wasn't easy, but we did it. My hopes are that our actions buoy the fighting spirit of fellow activists within the movement, and strengthen the confidence of those who are still on the outside.

The Cigna 7 protesters, arrested for taking direct action for health care justice
The Cigna 7 protesters, arrested for taking direct action for health care justice (www.chispan.org)

Studies show that millions of Americans want a government-run health care program--75 percent of the population in fact. Thanks to our fastidious organizing and personal sacrifice, we were able to show all those folks who know health care is a human right and may feel alone in their belief that indeed the health care justice movement is flourishing and waiting for them to join.

I knew getting arrested was going to be scary, but I was willing to risk it because I'm so sick of health care being treated like a pair of Air Jordans. It's not a commodity. It's something all people need. Shortly after the group of us seven activists entered Cigna and demanded that the corporation immediately approve all doctor-recommended treatment, my fear subsided.

Chanting in solidarity with my fellow activists in the marble, castle-like atrium of Cigna headquarters gave me courage. I remember looking in the eyes of police who expressed support for our claims and lamented having to drag us out of the building as we resisted arrest nonviolently by letting our bodies go limp, stating that we refused to leave voluntarily until Cigna met our demand.

The time spent at the booking station and the soreness in my shoulders and upper back were worthy sacrifices to make to give people a glimpse of the virility of the movement to make health care a human right. I am grateful to have had the resources and ability to participate in the action, and hope it inspires people to get involved in the fight--because it ain't over yet!

Helen Redmond

ON THE morning of October 8, I got arrested for sitting down in the lobby of Cigna and refusing to leave. The following are my reasons for engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience:

1. I despise the capitalist system and the insurance industry, which exemplifies everything that sucks about capitalism. The insurance companies are accountable only to Wall Street and put profits over patients, and the result is death. In fact, they are responsible for the unnecessary deaths of 45,000 people every year in this country. That's 122 people every day!

I want them put out of business. My sense of outrage inevitably led me to the soaring, glass atrium of the building where Cigna has offices. It's ground zero for life-and-death decisions, the place where bureaucrats make the call to either approve or deny coverage and medical treatment. And it's where the executives grow fat and rich off of our premium dollars. Last year, the CEO of Cigna, H. Edward Hanway, took home--no way did he earn it--$22.7 million in compensation. It makes me sick.

2. I have worked in health care for over 15 years, and every year, the crisis gets worse, the numbers of uninsured increase, and my patients suffer more.

I work in Fantus Clinic, which is part of the public health network in Chicago. It is the last stop for people who can't afford insurance, were denied coverage, don't qualify for government programs or are unemployed. It's also the dumping ground for all the other hospitals in the city that don't want to treat the uninsured.

A few weeks ago, I saw an undocumented and uninsured elderly patient. She needed oxygen. She had a tank of oxygen given to her from a medical supply company upon discharge from another hospital--but she was running out, and they refused to deliver more unless she paid. I thought: What kind of a country do we live in that would deny oxygen to a human being because she can't pay? Oxygen should be free! Those of us who work in health care have so many horror stories that we can no longer keep track of them.

3. As a medical social worker, I try to adhere to the Social Work Code of Ethics. It's damn hard in a health care system that daily denies, delays and rations care.

There are two ethical principles that stand out for me in the Code of Ethics. The first is: Social workers challenge social injustice. Our health care system is clearly unjust and has to be challenged. The second is: Social workers' primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems. Getting arrested to make health care a human right is one way to address the social problem of people in need of medical care and dying from lack of access to it.

The civil disobedience and legal picket were discussed and planned by members of the Chicago Single-Payer Activist Network (CSPAN), of which I am a founding member. We had great political discussions about what civil disobedience was, why we were doing it and the legal consequences of getting arrested.

Seven people decided to get arrested, and then we created a support team to organize the picket to take place outside of the Cigna building, handle the press and legal issues, follow us to the jail and bail us out.

Cigna knew we were coming because press releases were sent out several days before the protest. The day of the action, security personnel with walkie-talkies stood menacingly at the building's front entrance. The seven of us faked them out by entering through a side door.

Once inside, it was pure theater. The building manager, Heather, told us we had to leave and that Cigna management wouldn't be coming down to the lobby to meet our demand to stop denying doctor-recommended treatment to all patients. So we all sat down in a circle on the shiny marble floor and took our jackets off. Each of us wore a bright yellow and black T-shirt that declared on the front, "Victim of Private Health Insurance" and on the back, "Medicare for All."

The seven of us chanted so loudly that the sound ricocheted off the walls and glass. We were told to stop because it was disturbing the tenants in the building. We chanted louder. It felt good to disobey. It felt good to expose Cigna for the killer corporation that it is.

Incredibly, the police were on our side. One young officer said the police union was fighting with the city over health benefits, and asked if CSPAN could do something about it. Later at the police station, one commander told us that we "had a lot of good points."

We all went limp, and the police had to carry us out, but we weren't charged with resisting arrest. To be sure, the police won't always play nice--the response to the G20 protest is more the norm. However, it shows the widespread hatred and mistrust of the insurance industry, even among the most conservative and reactionary layers of society.

I feel like the movement to make health care a human right for all is carrying forward the tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience as practiced by the Black civil rights movement. When CSPAN planned the action at Cigna, we often referenced the sit-ins that took place in the 1960s at lunch counters.

Our goal was to show President Obama and the politicians in Washington that we are prepared to fight by any means necessary to win health care for all and to inspire more people to join our movement. And we understand it will take a lot more sit-ins and other methods of struggle that involve many more protesters to get rid of the private-for-profit insurance industry once and for all.

It's like Howard Zinn said, "It's not who is sitting in the White House, it's who is sitting in." The Cigna Seven sat in.

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