So how violent was the protest at Wharton's Private Equity and Venture Capital conference
today? Accounts of the disruption vary, with some claiming that punches were thrown and others saying that it was just scuffling or jostling.
As we first reported this morning, shortly after David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group had begun his keynote address, protesters from the Service Employees International Union swarmed the room, unfurling banners and shouting slogans, sometimes through a megaphone.
Eyewitness accounts report that around forty protesters were in the room (the Philadelphia Inquirer says only two-dozen), although protestors had been handing out fliers (click here to download a pdf of the flier or here for a grainy pop-up photo of the flier taken on the scene) outside the event earlier. Rubenstein was described as “speechless” in the moments after the protests began.
“They looked like they are going to kill the guy [Rubenstein],” a witness said over email as it unfolded. “They are on both balconies and have control of the floor. No sign of security. The speaker is in shock. One thing we now know about the venture crowd; don't count on them in a fire fight. You'd be better off with Donald Duck as a wingman.”
After a short time, a dialogue of sorts—as much as any back-and-forth that involves bullhorns can be described as a “dialogue”—began between the protesters, the audience and Rubenstein, lasting for between ten and fifteen minutes.
"Rubenstein remained on stage and agreed to address questions from a woman with a mega-phone, who said she was a Manor Care employee, and lit into him," George White of the Deal reports.
[More after the jump]
“A spokesperson of sorts began a rather predictable dialogue with Rubenstein about Carlyle's two-week-old purchase of Manor Care,” one witness said.
"I think a remedial English course would be helpful," Rubenstein said to the female protester.
Some in the audience offered less jocular responses, verbally abusing the protesters.
“One person in the front row called one of our spokespeople a ‘fat cow,’” Jule Eisenhardt of SEIU told DealBreaker.
The situation grew tense as the confrontation continued. Unlike many events in the past that have been subject to similar protests recently undertaken by the SEIU, this one seemed capable of turning violent. Many students in the crowd seemed agitated that the conference was being disrupted.
“The crowd had a large number of students, who are less inhibited than the typical attendees at these conferences,” Eisenhardt said. “They are not that deep in the industry. Usually people just stand back and wait for security.”
Witnesses at the conference reported that the situation turned “violent” and described the situation as “out of control.” There were reports that punches were thrown but Eisenhardt denies these. Witnesses who spoke to DealBreaker did not see any punches. One witness said that after the event he was told by others that there were “fisticuffs” between protesters unfurling a banner from one of the balconies and a group that attempted to stop them.
“There was lots of shouting and jostling but nothing violent,” Eisenhardt says.
Police were summoned to the hotel but did not enter the room, according to Eisenhardt. She tells DealBreaker that no-one was arrested and the protesters left on their own accord as the hotel security presence increased after about 30 minutes.
Private equity has been the target of many protests in the last several months. The SEIU organized a protest in the Hamptons last summer, as DealBook reminds us, “where protesters pretended to be billionaires and expressed mock opposition to raising taxes on private equity fund managers.” Weeks later, a private equity conference at the Waldorf Astoria was disrupted by protesters.
Eisenhardt said that the SEIU had not given the press any advance notice of the protest so that the group could avoid being stopped by security. She explained the purpose of the protest to Dan Primack at PE Hub: “We want to show that private equity has a responsibility to the community, just as any other investment class or industry would have. Right now, Carlyle and Rubenstein are involved in a number of different companies where there are serious questions about how they’re handling that responsibility.”
The story has now been reported on by the Philadelphia Inquirer, PE Hub, The Deal and DealBook. Photographs of the protest can be viewed here.