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BU’s John Silber Did Not Support Free Speech on His Campus

Boston University student anti-apartheid protestors in 1986. Photo of 2010 scan of a page from the April 30, 1986 edition of the Daily Free Press by Jason Pramas. Original Daily Free Press photo by Paul Callard.
Boston University student anti-apartheid protestors in 1986. Photo of 2010 scan of a page from the April 30, 1986 edition of the Daily Free Press by Jason Pramas. Original Daily Free Press photo by Paul Callard.

And I know that because his Boston University administration expelled me for participating in nonviolent student anti-apartheid protests in 1986

Recently, CommonWealth Magazine published an opinion piece by Rachel Silber Devlin, the daughter of former Boston University Chancellor John Silber, who published a book about her father last year and is giving a talk about him at BU today.

Her article paints a picture of a man who “always believed strongly in the rights of each individual and was protecting the constitutional rights—freedom of speech and freedom of assembly—of those who were trying to participate in the public discussion of issues.” And clearly seeks to link her distaste for individuals and organizations who seek to shut down civil debate rather than encourage it to her father’s views and practices. Which is obviously her prerogative.

However, although I’m not in the habit of speaking ill of the dead, I must disagree with Silber Devlin that John Silber was the model of the enlightened academic leader who encouraged reasoned debate and “had an idea of activism as an activity that was respectful of the constitution and not destructive.”

To anyone who didn’t agree with him on the sprawling campus he ran for more than three decades, John Silber repeatedly did precisely what his daughter says he inveighed against as an intellectual in her CommonWealth essay: He used the power of his office and the significant resources at his disposal to “shout his opponents down” (generally in fora in which they were never afforded the courtesy of a reply) and he regularly resorted to using “brute strength” to stifle his opponents’ voices on campus—thus demonstrating time and time again that he definitely believed that “might makes right.”

As was the case when he threw me out of Boston University in June 1986 for what was absolutely protected speech activity.

At the time, I was a undergraduate communications major in the BU College of Communication (called the School of Public Communication when I started college in August 1984) and a member of the Boston University Southern Africa Task Force, the student organization working with like-minded staff and faculty to push the school to fully divest of all its investments in the then-racist state of South Africa. For over a year before I joined the group in spring 1985, its members had tried to engage the BU administration in open debate on John Silber’s stance (a common one among powerful American corporate and political leaders of the time) of continuing to do business with the rogue nation where a small white minority kept its Black majority oppressed by its “apartheid” (apartness) system of legalized racial discrimination.

Silber and his administration resolutely refused to interact with us in any meaningful way. Instead, they did to us what they did to any student organization that was a thorn in their side. They ensured that the Student Activities Organization—which they had created to take something like half of the money raised from students from the mandatory Student Activities Fee we were made to pay (on top of the already ridiculously high tuition and fees we had to pony up annually) and use those funds to pay a bureaucracy to disburse the other half of the money—blocked us from receiving operating funds, an office, and the right to reserve campus facilities for our events. Emoluments of the very type that the Silber administration lavished upon conservative student organizations.

The same illiberal treatment was meted out to an array of (actual) liberal, left-wing, and human rights organizations. Notably, the genuinely independent, donation-funded, campus newspaper bu exposure (formerly the newsletter of the banned Student Union, the independent predecessor student government to the administration-controlled Student Senate, that the Silber administration defunded during the failed 1976 campus upheaval aimed at his ouster) that I also worked on along with colleagues from many effectively banned student groups.

Such anti-democratic measures did backfire, however. Leading to a significant campus anti-apartheid protest movement by fall 1985 that ultimately involved hundreds of students by the following spring. Our tactics were the tactics of nonviolent political movements in the tradition championed by BU’s most famous alumnus, Martin Luther King, Jr. And indeed many of our rallies were held at the university’s MLK Plaza because the kind pastors that ran the campus chapel controlled it, if memory serves.

The SATF held an array of educational events. We leafletted the campus community and passers-by constantly in those pre-Internet and pre-cellphone days. Howard Zinn, famed historian and longtime BU professor (himself having suffered greatly at the hands of Silber and his administration on numerous occasions), let us take over his 300-person class that I was taking in the spring 1986 semester at least twice to talk to that sizeable group of students about our campaign. Students from across the political spectrum, I hasten to add, since Zinn’s class was widely known to be the only place on campus where free speech was actually allowed. No accident that the class was held off campus (though surrounded by it) in a Nickelodeon movie theater.

We built a coalition that included many BU student organizations and the staff and faculty labor unions in favor of divestment. We held dozens of protest actions small and large. Twenty of us even went on hunger strike in late March 1986—for eight days in my case. A period in which I remember Rachel Silber Devlin’s father making a number of particularly unkind remarks about us in the campus and regional media. 

And what did John Silber and his Boston University administration do in response to our activities during that 1985-1986 school year? They used the BU police force that Silber had armed previously in the face of much dissent to drive us out of public spaces on our own campus. Public spaces we had every right to be in. 

For example, just prior to the protest that prematurely ended my brief BU sojourn, the SATF held a “study-in” on the first floor of BU’s main library—with strong support from the librarians, it must be said. After a few days, the Silber administration had its police remove us from the library. Our own library. Where we blocked no one and interfered with no one else’s ability to study or learn. We were simply present and bore witness to the need to overturn what we believed (correctly, I still maintain) was an unjust university policy.

Every time our SATF or any other student group held any kind of left-leaning protest action anywhere on (or at times, just off-) campus, Silber or any number of his powerful (and handpicked) vice-presidents or department heads would send the BU cops in to roust us. And there were many opportunities to protest, because John Silber invited a steady stream of leaders from reactionary governments around the world (South Africa prominently included) to be feted at significant university-sponsored events. While anyone “to the left of Attila the Hun,” as I liked to quip sardonically in that period, who had the global standing to debate such worthies was very pointedly not afforded the same courtesy.

I could go on sketching my own portrait of BU campus life in the mid–1980s at some considerable length, but to arrive at my point, what my fellow student activists and I most assuredly did not do was shut down anyone else’s ability to speak or debate. To the contrary, SATF members spent much of our time trying to get the Silber administration to really engage in dialogue with us rather than trying to simply continue to dismiss our growing ranks as unrepresentative of the student body. Only to be rebuffed at every turn. Hence, our divestment campaign was forced to focus more and more on protests.

As March turned to April, then, we decided to hold a thought-provoking educational action that was being used by anti-apartheid activists on campuses across the US that school year—a tactic we had attempted before in front of the College of Communication building on October 10, 1985. But the BU police had quickly dismantled it. 

For our second try, we secretly (or so we thought) built the frames of a few shacks that we meant to symbolically represent the “shantytowns” that Black South Africans were often forced to live in as they toiled in an array of menial, low-paid, jobs to which they were restricted. Surrounded by heavily armed police and military units as a primary means of social control. Endlessly hectored and harassed by the powerful South African government, backed by the US as it was throughout the still-hot Cold War. Too often unto death throughout the decades of the apartheid regime.

Just before the day of our planned protest, the BU police somehow found our shack frames and illegally tossed them … much in the way that campus janitors were caught illegally dumping entire stacks of our bu exposure newspapers in the trash on numerous occasions. As a result of what? High spirits? Acting without orders (ha!)? Who can say, right?

We managed to prepare new shack frames and on the morning of April 24, 1986, we arrived in front of the George Sherman Union to find BU police and right-wing department heads College of Communication Interim Dean and International Relations Department Chair H. Joachim Maître and College of Communication Assistant Dean Ronald Goldman already waiting for us—the two high-ranking academicians (who even then were quite controversially overseeing a mysterious federal government-backed “Afghan Media Program” to train the kind of fundamentalist Muslim guerillas that now run Afghanistan as “journalists”) loudly mocking us as we unloaded our materials. 

And the moment we started setting up our shacks, not blocking a single entrance of the large “community” union building in any way, mind you, the BU cops rushed in and started violently arresting Southern Africa Task Force members. Eleven of us were handcuffed and driven to the Area D Boston Police station. The BU administration said in a Daily Free Press article of April 30, 1986 that its cops arrested us “for interfering with the efforts of B&G (Building and Grounds) workers to dismantle the structure (sic, I believe we built at least two structures) and for physically obstructing police cruisers on Commonwealth Ave.”

The Boston Police at first refused to formally book us or lock our cells, telling the BU police that the city of Boston had fully divested from South Africa and we hadn’t done anything wrong (“a real bunch of criminals you’ve got here,” I recall one of them saying to BU cops). So a BU police lieutenant went cell to cell with a Polaroid and “booked” us. Eventually the BU administration managed to get us charged. Hours later our supporters paid our bail and we were released on our own recognizance.

John Silber and his administration waited until June, when most students were on summer break, to hold a kangaroo court of (again) handpicked students, faculty, and administrators empowered to judge us under the Code of Student Responsibilities (formerly the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities that the Silber administration had unilaterally changed to eliminate all student rights in campus disciplinary proceedings) that the other 10 members of the “BU 11,” as we came to be called, and I were not allowed to attend. Naturally, we were all found “guilty”—despite the fact that the city of Boston hadn’t processed our misdemeanor cases yet and later dropped all charges against us. 

Two members of the BU 11 had their degrees withheld until January 1987, the equivalent of a suspension, according to the hilarious September 1986 bu exposure article on our arrest by fellow arrestee Eileen Eckert. One got disciplinary probation until graduation (under which you’d get in worse trouble if you were dinged for even the tiniest infraction dreamed up by the Silber administration). Two got disciplinary probation until January 1987. Five were suspended until January 1987. And Eileen got this wrong since I was no longer at school when she wrote her piece, but I was given the worst sentence: One year of suspension plus disciplinary probation until graduation should I ever manage to return to BU—supposedly because I had been briefly arrested by BU police (and internally cited by the administration) at another protest that spring.

But my “judges” knew perfectly well that I would not be returning. Because the worst punishment the administration hit me with was done completely on the quiet. They rescinded my half scholarship without comment. And I don’t come from money. A fact of which they were well aware.

The Silber administration, to conclude my reverie, expelled me. For participating in a completely nonviolent student protest capping off a long series of similar protests. After using the puppet leaders of the BU Student Senate, where I was on the verge of getting a majority of senators to come out in favor of our university divesting its South African investments (and possibly even declaring ourselves to once again be an independent student government), to throw me out as one of two senators from the College of Communication in violation of Senate bylaws midway through my final school year. Not long before getting the top editors of the main (nominally) independent student newspaper, the Daily Free Press, to remove me as a very junior editor and columnist—having threatened to stop buying ads representing the majority of the paper’s budget should they fail to do so. 

And these actions against me were a result of what exactly? More high spirits and more low-level functionaries operating without authorization?! No. If one understands anything about Boston University between 1971 and 2003, it is that its administration was John Silber. Nothing of any consequence happened on that campus without his ordering it or at least signing off on it. 

So Rachel Silber Devlin will forgive me for stating that her view of her father’s attitude toward protest at the university he ran with an iron fist is a complete fantasy from the perspective of those of us who actually did it. 

In my opinion, informed through extremely direct personal experience as it is, John Silber did not want protest of any kind at his university, if he didn’t agree with it. And he rigged the system he controlled from top to bottom to prevent students, staff, and faculty with views at variance with his from exercising our rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, not to encourage them. That thousands of BU community members, some of whom I hope will join me in taking the time to publish their experiences* in the weeks to come, did so anyway underscores their tenacity in defense of those core democratic tenets, not Silber’s munificence.

Nearly thirty-seven years later, I have never received so much as a back-channel, unofficial apology of any kind—let alone remuneration for all the money that my parents and I spent for my two academic years as a student with no diploma to show for it or, god forbid, an honorary degree—from Boston University. In recognition of the real harm they did to me and my family.

For all that, I do forgive John Silber. I remember having been planning to visit him if he was willing to see me, when the news came that he had passed away. Which is a shame because I would really have liked to get his perspective on the events I just recounted. Since I owe him a debt of gratitude for teaching me the real value of reasoned debate in our failing democracy … whether he meant to or not.

*BU community members who protested against the Silber administration are welcome to contact me at, if any of you would like the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism to publish opinion articles about your experiences.

Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, editor of the Somerville Wire, executive director of the Somerville Media Fund, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.


Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Photo by Shannon McGee.
Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Photo by Shannon McGee.


Democracy is for everybody, not just the rich. So get to the polls!


Local elections are far more important than Mass voters seem to think, given the historically low turnouts for most of them in recent decades. Especially during off-year contests like this year’s. So, for starters, I just want to encourage everyone who is reading this in a municipality that is holding elections to get out and vote on November 5. Particularly working people—who are the focus of this epistle. 


Because politics in a democracy is not supposed to be solely the province of millionaires and billionaires. It’s supposed to be for all of us. However, if working people don’t use our franchise to vote for candidates who will fight on our behalf, then democracy itself is in danger. 


Not sure if you’re a working person? Well, if you’re an adult and you don’t own a big business or a huge amount of voting stock, then you are probably a working person. If you’re unemployed, but need to find another job to survive, then you are probably a working person. If you consider yourself poor, working class, or middle class, then you are probably a working person. And if politicians don’t snap to attention when you drop them a line, then you are almost certainly a working person.


I understand that working people are busy by default and that many of us are already focused on the 2020 presidential election—which is as high stakes as it gets in the American political system. But much of what happens in our daily lives is determined in no small part by municipal governments. Important decisions about housing, commercial development, transportation, K-12 education, local taxes, public health, and our lived environment are made every day by Bay State mayors, city councilors, selectpeople, town meetings, and school committees.


Failing to cast your ballot in local elections ensures that lots of important decisions that affect your life get made by politicians you had no hand in choosing. Pols who all too often end up doing the bidding of rich and powerful interests. Rather than fighting for justice for working people in an era when it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to make ends meet.


Changing that situation not only requires that more working people vote in local elections, but also that we actually take the time to inform ourselves about different candidates running for local offices. The problem is that many of the few people who cast votes in local elections don’t really pay attention to who they’re voting for. They go by which college degrees candidates hold. Or which neighborhood they grew up in. Or who their friends tell them to vote for. Or worse still, they vote for the candidates who have held their offices the longest. 


None of these are inappropriate reasons to back a politician—taken together with an even cursory understanding of that candidate’s political views and closely held beliefs. The problem is that most voters don’t have that understanding when they go to the voting booth. As trustworthy candidate information can be thin on the ground.


Traditionally, working people turned to local news media to learn more about all the municipal candidates—and read debates between their supporters—as well as synopses of campaign debates. But with local news outlets in decline, and regional and national news organizations having little time to cover local politics, it can be hard to find enough good journalism to be able to make a truly informed decision. Even in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, the main cities that my DigBoston colleagues and I cover. 


So, I’d like to offer a few suggestions for how working people can become informed local voters. Ideas which, as luck would have it, also hold true in larger elections.


1) Read candidate questionnaires

Most cities and towns have at least a few civic and political organizations that put together lists of questions on key issues that they ask all the candidates in all the local races. Find them and read them over—trying your best to get your hands on questionnaires organized both by groups you like and groups don’t like. To ensure that you get candidates’ answers to broad array of questions. This alone will give you an excellent idea of which politicians are interested in standing up for working people’s interests.


2) Find out who each candidate takes money from

It’s important to know how campaigns are financed. If your locale has at least one functioning news outlet, you may find articles by professional journalists that cover this ground. But failing that, Commonwealth voters can go to the Mass Office of Campaign and Political Finance website at and see who donates money to the campaigns of every candidate you’re considering voting for—and which candidates have the most money. Pay special attention to big donors who happen to run or own large corporations and banks. Because that will usually correlate to the candidates toiling on behalf of the local establishment, and against the interests of working people. Which is why it’s often good to support candidates who focus on raising lots of small donations from lots of regular folks. If their politics seem solid.


3) Ignore attack ads

Advertising by candidates, if done with a light touch, can be helpful and informative for voters. Unfortunately, many campaign ads are just rank propaganda—and filled with questionable assertions about the opponents of the candidates who buy them. So they are best ignored. Instead, as above, search out information about candidates’ actual positions. Preferably by buttonholing them at public events and asking them for their positions on key issues.


4) Attend candidate forums and debates

The events may be called candidate forums or debates, but whatever they’re called working people should always try to attend at least one for every significant local race. They are the best places to hear candidates’ ideas from their own mouths—plus watch how they engage with other candidates’ ideas and handle themselves under duress. A candidate that can’t take a bit of sparring with an opponent will probably not be the best person to represent working people’s interests.


5) Find the accessible candidates

Any candidate running for local office—especially one who purports to represent the interests of working people—should be easy for any constituent to contact on short notice. As the election approaches, try emailing or calling the campaign offices of candidates you like and ask to speak to them about any question you have about their policy proposals. They should get back to you quickly. If they do, it’s likely they will continue to be easy to reach once in office. For those candidates already in office, you can contact them with a constituent services request. Or contact their campaign office as with other candidates. Same drill. If they get back to you—a typical working person—quickly then they probably aren’t just catering to corporate supporters.


6) Vote for your interests, not the interests of the rich and powerful

The preamble of the constitution of the storied militant labor union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) began with the following statement: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” There was much truth in the sentiment then, and there is much truth in it now. So when you, a working person, go to the polls, keep that statement in mind. Don’t vote for candidates who work in the interest of the real estate industry. Don’t vote for candidates who say they are pro-housing when they are really pro-commercial development. Don’t vote for candidates who say they are for “smart growth” when they are really for “letting real estate developers do whatever they want wherever they want” in the interest of fatter profits. Don’t vote for candidates who feign concern about global warming, then support policies that increase the number of cars on the road. Don’t vote for candidates who say “no new taxes”—when what they mean is “no new taxes on the rich.” Et cetera, et cetera.


Vote for candidates who talk about shifting the tax burden back on the rich and corporations. Get enough of those candidates into office to control local governments, and start doing just that. Raise property and commercial taxes. Increase the pathetically small payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) that nominally nonprofit private colleges like Harvard, MIT, and Tufts University currently pay cities like Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. Then use the funds to bankroll an expansion of social programs that benefit working families. At the local level this would include—for example—building more social housing (a European term connoting public housing better than most American public housing), making public schools around the Commonwealth as good in poor towns are they are in rich ones, building more public health clinics, and rebuilding streets to favor public transportation, bikes, and pedestrians over cars.


But none of this can happen without working people getting more involved in our political process at the local level. So go forth, put some real effort into learning about the candidates for local office, and then get to the polls. Every time there’s a local election. Onward… 


Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.


Throwback screenshot via WBZ from the '90s. When TV reporters like Liz Walker still covered housing justice.
Throwback screenshot via WBZ from the ’90s. When TV reporters like Liz Walker still covered housing justice.


Mass State House, Oct 29, noon-1:30 pm


Twenty-five years after the real estate industry destroyed rent control in Massachusetts, marching season is upon us. A call to arms has been raised by tenant organizations across the land and real estate interests are being pushed back for the first time in decades. So, it’s past time that renters around the Bay State join the fight for housing justice in great numbers.


As we do, we will be in good company. In New York, according to the New York Times, a new Democratic majority in the state legislature recently expanded existing rent control protections that “would allow cities and towns statewide to fashion their own regulations, which are meant to keep apartments affordable by limiting rent increases.” And would also “make the changes permanent—a major victory for tenant activists who have had to lobby Albany every few years when the old laws expired.”


In California, the Times reports that its lawmakers approved a bill in September that “limits annual rent increases to 5 percent after inflation and offers new barriers to eviction.” Following Oregon, which “became the first [state] to pass statewide rent control, limiting increases to 7 percent annually plus inflation.”


And on the presidential campaign trail, Bernie Sanders is calling for a national rent control standard.


Now political support is growing for a bill (H.3924, the Tenant Protection Act) introduced by State Reps. Mike Connolly and Nika Elugardo and aimed at effectively reversing the real estate industry-funded referendum of 1994—Question 9—that banned rent control statewide. Providing “municipalities with the authority to implement rent-stabilizing regulations, just cause eviction protections, stronger condominium conversion and foreclosure protections, anti-displacement zones, and options to help tenants manage the upfront costs of leasing an apartment,” according to a post on Connolly’s blog


This in a period when Democrats are starting to see renters as an important voting bloc in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, and real estate industry propaganda about the virtues of ever-skyrocketing rents are sounding increasingly hollow to tens of millions of beleaguered renters nationwide. Many of whom are hemmed in economically—stuck in unstable, low-paying contingent jobs without benefits, slammed by credit card debt accrued in a desperate attempt to make ends meet, and terribly burdened with student loan debt. Seemingly as punishment for attempting to better themselves with the advanced education society has traditionally said is the path to a better life. While being only one significant accident or illness away from crushing debt for health care—including debt for dental care that is rarely properly covered by public or private health plans.


So, many candidates for local office in Bay State cities that had rent control between 1970 and 1994 are going on record in support of its reinstitution this year. Including a majority of at-large city council candidates in Boston—in a hotly contested race. A majority of city council candidates in Cambridge… notably democratic socialist Ben Simon, whose family lost rent control and got evicted when he was a child, according to the Cambridge Day. Both mayoral candidates and a majority of sitting city councilors in Somerville (which had rent control until 1979, when it was eliminated by fiat of the old Board of Aldermen).


But, in a sign of the times, they are being joined by politicians in municipalities that never had rent control… most recently Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera—who is talking publicly about the need to stabilize rents and has just appointed a rent control task force in his city. Even as legislators from across the Commonwealth have signed onto Connolly’s and Elugardo’s bill.


None of this groundswell is powerful enough to push such a bill—and several other renter-friendly housing bills Connolly, Elugardo, and their allies have filed—to passage while real estate industry friendly pols like House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Gov. Charlie Baker run state government. But the mere fact of the suite of pro-tenant housing bills reaching their first committees as the zeitgeist waxes populist marks the start of what looks to be one of the toughest political battles in recent memory hereabouts.


The perspicacious pair of legislators clearly know this and have worked with tenant-friendly organizations and select local politicians to call a Rally for Rent Control and Tenant Protections, next Tuesday, Oct 29, noon-1:30 pm at the Massachusetts State House. As of this writing, the action is co-sponsored by City Life/Vida Urbana, Chinese Progressive Association, Lynn United for Change, Mass Coalition for the Homeless, Boston Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative, Cambridge Residents Alliance, A Better Cambridge, Our Revolution Cambridge, Right to the City—Boston, Our Revolution Somerville, and Progressive Massachusetts. Elected officials confirmed to attend include Brookline Select Board Member Raul Fernandez (representing a town that also had rent control until 1994); Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Zondervan; Chelsea City Council President Damali Vidot; Somerville City Councilors Matt McLaughlin, JT Scott, and Ben Ewen-Campen; and Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone.


Yes, it’s just one rally. The first of many, to be sure. And naturally, any bill calling for rent control faces a steep uphill slog through a still-hostile legislature. But every tenant who knows that the rent is “too damn high”—to quote a famously zany New York political candidate who won eternal fame thanks to a Saturday Night Live sketch based on his timely slogan—needs to go to this rally. And bring all your friends. If you do, this can be the start of the [M]ass movement that will change everything.


I will be there. Earlier this year, I wrote about how I lost my rent-controlled apartment after Question 9 passed by a thin margin in 1994—and how that loss made my life, and the lives of thousands of fellow working people who also got screwed by the real estate industry across in Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge, much more difficult economically and politically over the years that followed than they would have otherwise been. 


A quarter century later, I am still struggling with stratospherically high rent that burns through about 50% of my income monthly. 


Even though I get a better deal as an older long-term tenant than younger people in my building get. In the same Cambridge neighborhood where I once paid under 20% of my income for rent. And even though I co-own a metro newspaper. 


I’m supposed to have finally made it to the middle class—my six-figure higher education debt and other very standard debt taken as given in this era of runaway capitalism. But I haven’t. I have no savings. My marriage to a person with a somewhat better job doesn’t save me and doesn’t make it any more possible for the two of us to buy even a small condo anywhere near where either of us work. Nor can we afford extra rent for a less miniature apartment.


So I’m going to the Rally for Rent Control and Tenant Protections. And I’m telling all my friends—including all of you, my reading audience—to join me there.


It won’t be an easy fight. But it’s marching season. And as I fought against the destruction of rent control a quarter century back, I’m damned well going to join with renters all over the state to force its reinstatement—together with a host of new housing reforms—this time. And we’re going to win. Because we have to win. More homelessness, economic insecurity, and deepening human misery is simply not an option. Not if this nation is going to remain a democracy.


Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.


Image by Don Kuss
Image by Don Kuss


November 7, 2018



Mainstream press coverage of mass layoffs like Sunday’s shutdown of almost 100 Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo fast food restaurants generally looks upon such tragic events through a glass, darkly. Because journalism in the service of the rich and powerful is a poor reflection of reality when it comes to all things labor. Which is why early reportage in major news media typically involves simple transcription of executives’ rationales for such precipitous decisions. Rather than immediate investigation of the massive damage done to the lives of, in this case, more than 1,100 area workers summarily terminated with no official warning of any kind, according to the Boston Globe.


True to form, PGHC Holdings Inc., the Dedham-based parent company of both brands, has excuses at the ready for credulous reporters. None of which explain why it’s acceptable to treat its workforce—the people that built the company and kept it running through good times and bad—like so much garbage. But that’s fine and dandy, yes? Given that few journalists ever seem particularly concerned about the human cost of mass layoffs. It’s just assumed (and sometimes stated) that “the market” will take care of everything. Such “disruption” is “good for the economy,” doncha know. And if some hapless working poor people lose their apartments, lose custody of their children, go hungry, and end up on the streets, then that’s their fault for not being “competitive” enough and getting more degrees. Or something. Not the fault of the company that put them there.


In any event, according to the Boston Business Journal, PGHC released a statement on Monday explaining “that it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. [The company] also announced that it had reached an agreement in principle to be sold to a portfolio company of Wynnchurch Capital, a private equity firm that has offices in Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto.”


“Private equity firms,” according to a major 2014 investigation by the New York Times, “now manage $3.5 trillion in assets. The firms overseeing these funds borrow money or raise it from investors to buy troubled or inefficient companies. Then they try to turn the companies around and sell at a profit.” Ironically, some of the largest investors in such firms are public sector pension funds. Whose unionized members have no idea what their money is being used for—thanks to byzantine and opaque agreements between their pension funds and firms like Wynnchurch that aim to keep them and the public at large in the dark about buyouts like the tentative PGHC deal.


The details that are visible are disturbing enough. According to Boston Globe business columnist Jon Chesto, PGHC “[c]hief financial officer Corey Wendland pointed to one big reason for his company’s need for more dough: minimum-wage increases across many of its markets, combined with higher health insurance expenses.”


You read that right. One of the executives directly responsible for destroying the lives of hundreds of working-class families in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire is blaming legislation that’s gradually raising minimum wages in three of those states (minus, sadly, the Granite State) to levels that they should have been at over a decade back for his company’s crisis. Not corporate mismanagement or malfeasance.


It’s basically all the fault of those darned unions and other labor advocates for pushing higher wage floors that still don’t even allow many workers to make ends meet once enacted. Massachusetts, for example, will go from the abysmal $11 an hour rate mandated by 2017 to a somewhat less abysmal $15 an hour over five years starting in January. For readers who think that wage is too high, try living on $15 an hour most anywhere in southern New England right now—assuming you get 40 hours work a week, which many Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo workers didn’t—and see how you do.


Naturally, since laid-off PGHC workers weren’t unionized, they had nothing and no one to protect them when the corporate ax fell over the weekend. Even the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act that provides extended unemployment and retraining benefits to victims of a narrow range of mass layoffs may not apply here. Although, as with area NECCO workers who were also laid off en masse this year with no notice, it may be worth trying a class action lawsuit to demand WARN coverage anyway. But with most of the affected PGHC workers making minimum wage, they have next to nothing saved to see them through the difficult period they now face. While the unemployment they may not all qualify for will definitely not be enough to live on until they find new jobs, given their low pay rate. So, it will even harder for them to mount such a suit than it has been for the NECCO crew.


A D’Angelo manager who writes under the nom de plume C.D. Madeira took a job at another company about three months ago and agreed to provide an insider’s perspective on the layoff crisis to me in an interview. Unsurprisingly, Madeira says that PGHC was not a decent employer even before its recent action.


“I worked for D’Angelo for two and a half years as a manager. They treated us like trash, the minimum wage employees worse. Management was paid as little as possible while required to work 50 hours a week and often much much more. More often than not they required us to work that extra off the clock so as not to skew their labor information. They refused to repair restaurants even when it was a danger to employees and customers.


“Basically, I’m glad I don’t work there anymore and that I got out before this happened, but I know many people who are now out of a job.


“They closed nearly 100 locations, between the Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo brands, leaving over 1,000 people without jobs and without notice. No severance pay. No PTO [paid time off] payout. Nothing. People went to work assuming they would have a job and they were turned away. Those who had jobs were given calls throughout the day to tell them to close up shop permanently. They were told they could apply at other corporate locations for consideration for rehire.”


Not that laid-off PGHC workers are exactly taking the situation lying down. Many have plastered the Papa Gino’s Facebook page with angry messages. Leading the parent company to respond on the page with another statement, “While we regret the rather abrupt closures, we are currently undergoing major updates to better serve our guests and ask for your patience as we make these changes. As New England’s local pizzeria since 1961, we are still standing strong and will be relaunching our restaurants, introducing improvements for the benefit of all of our guests.”


Madeira doesn’t buy it: “I saw the breakdown of the conference call they had with the general managers who remain. Basically they’re painting this as, ‘Well, now that we have all these underperforming restaurants out of the way, we can totally renovate the remaining locations!’ Many stores they closed were not underperforming. Also they’ve known about this sale for months. They were talking about putting the brand up for sale a couple of months before I left. So this has been in the works for well long enough to have warned people.


“They’ve always been shady. Papa Gino’s originally bought the D’Angelo brand to try and save itself but instead ended up dragging it down completely from what I heard from old-time employees.”


This is the testimony that the public has not yet heard in the local press. And it’s infuriating, if not much of a shock to anyone who has worked in low-wage sectors like fast food before.


The question now is: What can laid-off Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo workers do to get some simple justice? PGHC executives responsible for major social dislocation across our region thanks to the layoffs will be fine. They’ve got golden parachutes. PGHC shareholders will make some money in the sale to buyout firm Wynnchurch Capital. Wynnchurch will make plenty of money by reviving the Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo brands and selling them to the highest bidder, and/or by dumping the buyout debt on the company and making millions in “consulting” fees whether the company succeeds or tanks, and/or by gutting company assets for cash.


But what about the workers?


All I can say is what I say in pretty much every article I write about labor issues: Workers need to stand and fight. Wherever we are. Whatever our situation.


So, for the remaining Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo workers, you all need to unionize. To make sure you have at least the protection of a union contract in the likely event of more layoffs. And better wages, benefits, and working conditions while you all are still employed there. It won’t be easy. But you can be sure that at least two or three major unions—I’m guessing UNITEHERE, SEIU, and possibly UAW—are eager to get in touch with you. I recommend you work with the union that will give you the best service (in the form of staff dedicated to your group) and the most autonomy.


And for the laid-off Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo workers? You, too, need to organize. Get together. Talk things over. Get advice from some experienced union leaders and pro bono representation from some labor lawyers. Maybe find a way to sue your former bosses or the new owners for redress under the WARN Act or some other applicable law. Build community support the way Market Basket workers did a few years ago. Explain why it’s not acceptable for large companies to treat people the way PGHC treated you—and even less acceptable for government at all levels to let them get away with it. Raise money and awareness. Formulate demands. For severance pay. For extended unemployment benefits. For retraining. For damages. For whatever you all need to be made whole. Stay in close touch with your former colleagues as they try to strengthen their position.


Then figure out how to win some justice… together.


Fortunately, a Facebook page has been started to do just that. Called, fittingly, Papa Gino’s Workers’ Reparations. Here’s a short link for PGHC workers reading in print: Check it out. And best of luck to all of you.


Cartoon by Mike Flugennock
Cartoon by Mike Flugennock

The killers of the Palestinian journalist must be brought to justice


April 11, 2018



Typically, I mainly focus on Bay State issues in this column. But I’ll make an exception this time and stand with my colleagues at the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and their affiliate the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate (PJS) to protest the killing of Palestinian photojournalist Yaser Murtaja by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the strongest possible terms, and to demand that his killers be brought to justice. I encourage all working journalists and editors to do the same.


Murtaja was shot Friday by an IDF sniper near the border of the Gaza Strip and Israel, according to the Guardian. He had been covering one of an ongoing series of Palestinian protests demanding their right of return from Gaza to their families’ ancestral homes in Israel—from which they were driven in the 1947–1948 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine and the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. He was wearing a flak jacket clearly marked “PRESS” in English in huge block letters. According to the press rights group Reporters Without Borders, he was 31, the father of a young son, and one of the founders of the independent news agency Ain Media (“Eye Media”).


Based in the Gaza Strip, Murtaja was never able to travel anywhere else even once. Largely because of the difficulties created by the longstanding Israeli military blockade of the territory.


The IDF has promised to investigate the killing and the wounding of four other Palestinian journalists the same day, according to the Intercept. Regardless, calls are rising from the global human rights community to charge Israel with war crimes over the use of live ammunition on the “Great Return March” demonstrations. Starting with the 15 unarmed protesters killed and hundreds wounded by IDF snipers at a March 30 border rally of 50,000 Gazans. Followed by nine more killed—including Murtaja—and hundreds more wounded at last Friday’s action, according to Haaretz. Plus more deaths and woundings at other border demonstrations. Fatou Bensouda, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, issued a statement on Sunday saying the court is considering opening an investigation into both the Israeli actions and the possible use of Gaza civilians as “human shields” by Hamas’ military brigades.


The Gaza border demonstrations are expected to continue until May 15—known as Nakba Day (Day of the Catastrophe) to the Palestinians, the commemoration of the ethnic cleansing of their land that took place before and after the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948.


According to the IFJ, “In a statement, the PJS confirmed that they will pursue action against Murtaja’s murderers in the international forums and courts and that they will intensify their efforts to bring the murderers of Palestinian journalists to international justice. The PJS also called on the UN and all its bodies’ to act immediately and to implement its decisions, specifically the [UN] Security Council’s decision no. 2222, and to take concrete steps to provide immediate protection to Palestinian journalists on the ground.”


For up-to-date information on the campaigns to hold Israel accountable on this and related matters, check out the websites of the International Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.


And read the main 4.11.18 TOWNIE column AIRLINES SUING, UMASS SCREWING here.


Townie (a worm’s eye view of the Mass power structure) is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.


Still from NOTES AFTER LONG SILENCE (1989) by Saul Levine
Still from NOTES AFTER LONG SILENCE (1989) by Saul Levine


News from behind the editorial curtain plus support for Saul Levine


April 4, 2018



Seeking next group of working-class journalists

In November, I put out the word that DigBoston was looking for working-class Boston natives to write for us.


Specifically, I called for locals with three of the four qualities we look for in good journalists: ability to communicate, compassion, and deep local knowledge. The fourth quality, formal journalism training, was something my colleagues and I were willing to provide at an introductory level to motivated applicants.


A very diverse group of 15 DigBoston readers hit us back, and we ultimately trained four of them in a free three-hour basic journalism workshop that Chris Faraone and I prepared for the occasion. Since then, two of the trainees have filed draft articles, and you can expect to see them published with us by summer.


So now we’re ready to accept new candidates for our next class of trainees.


And I’ll ask the same questions of interested audience members that I asked before: Are you a smart, compassionate, talkative person from one of Boston’s working-class neighborhoods? Can you put words in rows, and maybe take some pictures on your phone? Do you want to learn to be a journalist? Do you want to tell the world about the place you grew up? About its problems and its successes? About its corruption and its virtue? Its shame and its glory?


Yes? Then drop me a line at Let’s talk.


Comment on reader feedback

A few weeks back, I asked DigBoston’s audience to send in comments about what they thought we were doing well and what they thought needed improvement. We then got a bunch of responses—most highly complimentary. Which were nice to read. But some folks also included some very useful criticism about some of our various beats and how we could make them better. We took those to heart and are working to make the requested improvements.


Follow DigBoston on Flipboard

In an editorial a couple of weeks ago, I announced that DigBoston is moving away from Facebook. Not so much because of the ongoing Cambridge Analytica scandal, as that the social media platform has become a drag to use and expects us to pay it to reach our own audience. Regularly. Naturally, the editorial was thin on specifics about how we would do without Facebook. I mentioned that Twitter was one logical place to focus our social media activity, but recognized that Twitter is not really so much different than Facebook that it will provide us with a long-term alternative.


However, there is one hot social network that can replace a big part of what news publications like DigBoston do on the internet… in a more equitable way for all concerned. While we participate in the movement to build the more democratic and decentralized social media we’d ultimately prefer to use.


Flipboard, which has been around for a few years, has more than 100 million users and growing, and provides a great way for people to share news articles with each other. And it’s perfect from our perspective because we don’t have to pay Flipboard to reach readers that follow us there. It pushes our latest articles to all our followers as part of its service.


After a couple of months’ wait, I’m pleased to announce that DigBoston has now been accepted as a Flipboard Publisher. And we invite all our readers to join Flipboard and follow us there. Here’s the link: You’ll find using Flipboard for your daily news dose to be a much more pleasant experience than using Facebook. And it’s just as social as Facebook with far more ways to share articles with your friends and family than the larger social network ever had.


Justice for Saul Levine

The Boston art scene was shocked last week when longtime MassArt film professor Saul Levine announced that he had resigned from his job after teaching there 39 years. Why? According to Levine, on the last day of his fall semester senior thesis class he was expecting students to present some of their work in progress. But they didn’t. Scrambling for something to discuss with them, he decided to review different editing constructions. He chose two of his short films to use as examples. One of which, NOTES AFTER LONG SILENCE, had a great number of fast cuts. He had shown the film every year in class since making it in 1989 and thought nothing of using it to make his points. The 15-minute film had some nudity and sex in it, but only a few seconds that go by so fast viewers typically barely notice it.


According to his friend, film critic Gerald Peary, in a Facebook post on Monday, at the end of the class one of the students asked Levine who was having sex in the film. He said, “It was me.” Then, unbeknownst to him, at least one student anonymously reported him to the MassArt administration for sexual harassment… or at least that’s what the school claims.


With no warning about what was coming, the administration called Levine into a Feb 8 meeting where he was “ambushed” and harangued for two hours by officials he felt sure had never watched the “offending” film. They apparently agreed with the anonymous student or students that his showing a movie in which he appeared nude and having sex (with a committed partner) did indeed constitute sexual harassment. Despite the fact that much of his body of artwork is very personal, and sometimes features him nude. And the fact that he had every right to show his own very public and very well-known artwork in his own class for completely valid pedagogical reasons. Artwork which is in no way prurient or pornographic.


Although he had a faculty union leader accompanying him in the meeting and was not fired immediately, Levine felt so pressured by the encounter that he decided to resign rather than wind up in a protracted and expensive legal battle with the administration to clear his name.


“I am a full professor in film and video,” Levine told me on Tuesday. “I am still teaching until 5/31. I chose to resign because I felt targeted. The 2/8 meeting let me know that they were gonna get me!”


Since making a video attacking MassArt last Thursday—excoriating the administration for effectively violating his artistic freedom, his academic freedom, and his rights of free speech and expression—his situation has received coverage in Artforum, Boston Globe, IndieWire, and other outlets.


Dozens of fellow artists and civil libertarians from around Boston and beyond are rushing to his defense. I strongly agree with them that MassArt’s treatment of him is unconscionable. I think the college should make a serious effort to bring him back. And its administration should put much more careful thought into how they handle similar incidents in the future.


NOTES AFTER LONG SILENCE can be viewed here: Levine’s video response to MassArt can be viewed at I encourage readers to watch both. And if they agree that justice was not done, to join me and other supporters of Saul Levine in contacting MassArt Interim Provost Lyssa Palu-ay (, 617-879-7782) and Director/Title IX Coordinator Courtney Wilson (, 617-879-7751) and demanding that MassArt apologize to him and offer to reinstate him to his former teaching post immediately—removing any blemish to his record that may have resulted from this unfortunate incident.


Levine concluded: “I’m out of MassArt but people should protest the attack on free speech—which includes showing my film and the manner in which I speak.” The last comment in reference to his lifelong speech and motor disabilities that he feels the college administration used against him.


Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. He is also arts editor and holds an MFA in visual art from the Art Institute of Boston.


Vertex Headquarters. Photo ©2015 Derek Kouyoumjian

Vertex Headquarters. Photo ©2015 Derek Kouyoumjian

Pharma’s Donation to Boston, Other Cities Converts Public Funds to PR Gold

October 24, 2017



Vertex Pharmaceuticals made a big PR splash last week with an announcement of a significant donation to Boston and other cities where it does business. The Boston-based company, best known for its cystic fibrosis meds, has pledged to “spend $500 million on charitable efforts, including workforce training, over the next 10 years,” according to the Boston Globe, and “much of the money will go toward boosting education in science and math fields as well as the arts.” The company “also wants to set aside money for grants to help young scientists and researchers.”

Well isn’t that nice. Over 10 years, $500 million works out to about $50 million a year. Sounds quite generous, yes? John Barros, Mayor Marty Walsh’s chief of economic development, certainly thinks so: “The establishment of a Vertex foundation is a long-term investment in the people of Boston and the neighborhoods of Boston … That’s ultimately what we hope for when corporations move their headquarters to the city.”

But sharp-eyed locals would disagree. We’ve seen this gambit many times before in the Bay State—most recently when General Electric played it last year: A big business that has gotten bad press for various kinds of questionable behavior and/or outright malfeasance decides it needs to improve its image. And it does so by the simple device of expanding its advertising budget in the form of “charity.”

The important thing to remember with such “donations” is that the corporations in question often get far more money from government at all levels than they ever give back to society. So it’s not really charity at all. It’s just public relations by other means. Aimed at being able to continue to dip from the great public money river largely unnoticed by everyone but the few investigative reporters managing to ply their trade in this age of corporate clickbait.

To that point, let’s look at four ways that Vertex has benefitted from public support. Then reconsider its most excellent announcement in that light.

1) Tax breaks and direct aid

Readers might remember Vertex as the company that got $10 million in state life science tax incentives between 2010 and 2014 and $12 million in tax breaks from the city of Boston—both in exchange for adding 500 local jobs to their existing staff of 1,350 by 2015 and, quixotically, for moving their headquarters from Cambridge to Boston. According to the Globe, the Commonwealth also took out a $50 million loan to pay for “new roads and other improvements” to the new HQ’s Fan Pier site.

Why? As is often the case in the wonderful world of corporate finance, Vertex told then-Gov. Patrick that it might leave the state if it didn’t get the appropriate… um… “incentives.” So that apparently played a role in getting state and local government in gear. The deal was based on the expected performance of Vertex’s blockbuster new hepatitis C drug, Incivek. But things didn’t go as planned. According to MassLive, when the company pulled the plug on Incivek in 2013 after being outgunned by another company’s hep C med, it agreed to pay back $4.4 million of the state money. In 2015, according to the Boston Business Journal, after Vertex failed to meet its job creation target, the city reduced its tax breaks to $9 million—but didn’t ask the company to pay anything back and will keep its deal in place until 2018. Leaving Vertex reaping a windfall of almost $17 million in state and local tax breaks. Oh, and that sweet loan, too.

2) Gouging public health programs

With the release of two major successful cystic fibrosis meds and more new related meds set to breeze through the FDA drug approval process, the company is starting to expand. And how could it not? In July 2017 it raised the price of its newer med, Orkambi, by 5 percent to $273,000 per patient per year, according to the Boston Business Journal. A product that did $980 million in sales in 2016 before the price increase. In 2013, the company had already raised the price of its first major med, Kalydeco, from $294,000 to $307,000 per patient per year. With some patients paying as much as $373,000 per year, according to an October 2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today article. Cystic fibrosis doctors and researchers have strongly protested, but to no avail.

It’s true that most patients don’t pay anywhere near that amount of money for the meds—because public and private insurance eat the lion’s share of the still-outrageous cost. But the final sticker price remains tremendously high. And the company doesn’t say much about who does pay a big chunk of the bill: the government, and therefore the public at large. Stick a pin in that. Vertex, like virtually every other drug company, has a business model based on gouging the public with ridiculously high prices that various government insurance programs are mandated to pay.

Programs like, in this case, federal Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). As an Oct 4 letter from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (whose eminently questionable role in the funding and development of Vertex’s cystic fibrosis meds will likely be the subject of a future column) to the Senate Finance Committee explained, about half of all cystic fibrosis patients—who used to die young before the new treatments came online—are under 18 years old. So they’re generally covered by CHIP. That program, sadly, was defunded on Sept 27 by our psychotic Congress as part of the Republican Party’s crusade against Obamacare. Most states will run out of their 2017 CHIP money early next year, and unless they find money in their own budget to replace it or Congress manages to do the right thing, over 4 million kids—including thousands of cystic fibrosis patients—are in danger of losing their health coverage.

Vertex is not directly to blame for that crisis, but the situation does make its promise that some of its $500 million donation “will be spent helping cystic fibrosis patients get access to Vertex drugs that help them breathe easier and live a more normal life” look even more ridiculous than it otherwise would. Because Vertex and other pharmas certainly have no plans to lower the outrageous prices of their top meds for any reason. They’ll give some destitute patients “access” to their drugs. But everyone else pays—primarily through government insurance, often in tandem with private insurance. After what the pharma industry terms “discounts”… that still result in usurious prices. So even if one takes whatever portion of the donation actually goes to helping patients get cheaper meds as an inadvertent giveback of some of the lucre they’ve leeched off the government, it’s going to be even less helpful than it otherwise would have been if half the patients on those meds lose their insurance next year.

But Vertex isn’t content with just draining funds out of the US federal and state governments. According to Forbesit’s pioneering ways to suck public funds out of countries with national health services. “Vertex seems to have finally cracked a long-festering problem: selling its expensive drugs in European markets, which are tougher at negotiating prices. Ireland recently agreed to give Vertex a flat, undisclosed annual payment; in return, all patients who need the drug will get access … other countries outside the U.S. will make similar deals … new CF drugs, including discounts, will cost $164,000 per patient in the U.S., where a fragmented health care system allows for less tough negotiation, and $133,000 in other countries. With almost all of the 75,000 CF patients in those countries treated, that would be an $8.5 billion market.”

3) Government-backed monopolies

Moving on, there’s another key way that Vertex makes bucketloads of money with government help: gaming the Orphan Drug Act. Passed in 1983, it was meant to create a strong incentive for pharmas to research drugs that treated conditions suffered by less than 200,000 patients. In practice, it’s become a standard way for pharmas to get a seven-year monopoly on many of their meds. And while it’s certainly true that cystic fibrosis afflicts about 30,000 people in the US—well below the 200,000 patient threshold—it’s also true that it’s no accident that Vertex chose to focus on the disease. Because, according to its 2016 10-K annual report filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company has won orphan drug status for both Kalydeco and Orkambi. Guaranteeing it seven years of monopoly production and distribution of both of the desperately needed and wildly overpriced meds. And 10 years in the European Union, under similar laws.

As Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine researchers commented in the American Journal of Clinical Oncology in November 2015, such monopolies make “it’s hardly surprising that the median cost for orphan drugs is more than $98,000 per patient per year, compared with a median cost of just over $5,000 per patient per year for non-orphan status drugs.” The same study demonstrated that “44 percent of drugs approved by the FDA [in 2012] qualified as orphan drugs.” So winning orphan drug status is one structural mechanism that makes it possible for pharmas like Vertex to charge crazy high prices for many meds.

A recent article by Harvard Business Review adds that pharmas enjoy monopolies on many other meds thanks to the 1984 Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act—which allows them to enjoy “patent protection to effectively monopolize the market” for new meds. Once that protection expires, the field is then supposed to be open to other pharmas to produce far cheaper generic versions. Which is doubtless what Vertex CEO Jeffrey Leiden was referring to in a June Globe piece when he defended the company’s sky-high drug prices, saying “‘This is a system that actually works. It rewards innovation and stimulates it. And then after the period of [market] exclusivity is over, it actually makes these innovations free’ for future patients.”

What he doesn’t mention, however, is that pharmas routinely lobby and litigate to extend their monopolies on meds, and actually pay off potential generic producers to not manufacture generics. Delaying the cheaper meds’ arrival on the market and costing public insurance programs like Medicare, Medicaid, the VA system, and CHIP huge amounts of extra money. Which then flows into corporate coffers. All the more so because the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) did not finally give the government the power to negotiate with pharmas to rein in drug prices, according to Morning Consult. The HBR story also notes that generic companies themselves often obtain exclusive monopolies for shorter periods of time and that their products are sometimes substandard—resulting in recalls. All these delays can keep cheaper meds off the market for years.

4) Public science, private profit

Finally, there’s the fact that much of the basic research that allows pharmas to exist is done by the federal government through the National Institutes of Health. In the case of Vertex, a direct connection has already been demonstrated. A May 2013 article by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today explains that the company’s first cystic fibrosis med, Kalydeco, was only possible thanks to “a hefty investment from taxpayers through grants from the National Institutes of Health, which underwrote the cost of early research, which identified the gene that the drug targets.”

If one were to put a price tag on all the basic science Vertex uses to develop its cystic fibrosis meds—and other meds—that comes straight from the NIH, what would it be worth? Tens of millions? Hundreds of millions? It would be a great research project to estimate the total, but suffice to say that it would be a great deal of money. Money that Vertex could never have leveraged on its own back in 1989 when it was a startup.

Conclusion: the racket and the damage done

Add it all up: tax breaks, direct aid, profits from price gouging CHIP and other public insurance programs, profits from orphan drug status, and profits based on research directly attributable to NIH research. How much money will Vertex ultimately get from government at all levels? A hell of a lot more than that $500 million it proposes to give back to communities like Boston—mostly in ways that either benefit the company directly by providing it with a new generation of trained researchers or indirectly by gilding its public image. Assuming that it ever actually gives that much money away. Which the public has no way of knowing at this juncture.

Any more than we can know how much Vertex spends on lobbying annually to guarantee a constant flow of fat stacks of public cash. Since its shareholders at its most recent annual meeting in June thoughtfully shot down an initiative by a small number of religious shareholders to force the company to report its actual lobbying budget going forward, according to the Boston Business Journal. Not long after Vertex successfully colluded with 10 other pharmas to get the SEC to allow them to quash shareholder resolutions from the same religious groups that would have made the company’s drug pricing formula public, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Then, taking all the above into consideration, check out Vertex’s annual advertising and promotions budget for the last three years: $16.2 million in 2014, $24.5 million in 2015, and $31.4 million in 2016, according to its latest annual report. Going up, right? So tack $50 million a year onto that last figure and we get an $80+ million ad budget. Totally doable for a company with cash, cash equivalents, and marketable securities worth $1.67 billion on hand on June 30, 2017. A company that’s now becoming profitable after years of running in debt—all of which has only been possible with massive public support.

Now come back to Vertex’s “donation.” Doesn’t look so generous anymore, does it?

Reforming the twisted wreckage of our drug research and distribution systems in this country will take a massive grassroots effort lasting years. But there’s one way that local advocates can get going on that project fast: demand that municipal and state officials stop giving public money to pharmas like Vertex, or participating in pharma PR stunts like promising to recycle some of that money to educate local kids—more of whom would have a fine education already if our elected officials stopped throwing money at giant corporations that should be going to social goods like public schools.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.