In 2008, as the stock market crashed and Congress prepared to give trillions of tax dollars to the banks, I desperately emailed all my AIDS activist friends: “We’ve got to stop this bailout! There will be no money for Obama to do anything for our communities.” I felt like a nay-saying bore for endlessly harping that getting politicians to expand their campaign promises is a losing strategy, because politicians lie, and only ending capitalism will shift power and priorities toward health. But when Occupy Wall Street protesters started camping out in lower Manhattan last September, chanting, “All day! All week!” and never leaving, the AIDS movement lost no time in recalling its birth in ACT UP New York, which brought the stock exchange to a screeching halt one day during a protest against price-gouging AZT (watch this thrilling interview with Peter Staley describing the 1987 action or read this recent interview with Douglas Crimp). AIDS activists got involved in OWS immediately, to the great benefit of both movements.
The HIV Prevention Justice Alliance intends to seize the bull by the horns this year, putting “generic drugs and drastic price reductions at the top of the agenda for the domestic HIV/AIDS movement in 2012, moving beyond the ADAP waiting lists to insist on treatment on demand for all.” Alright, PJA! (Read the PJA Action Agenda here). With this kind of vision, the campaign should attract tons of new activists and enliven the rest of us (Join a PJA working group here).
Targeting Big Pharma is not just the most direct route to the root of the problem — the exorbitant profits made at the expense of access to lifesaving treatment. It’s also a way out of the trap of merely resisting the budget cuts that have wracked our communities, or demanding more funding from a government that cares more about banks and corporations than human beings. Led by ACT UP Basel, Switzerland, the current AIDS activist campaign against Novartis is an inspiring example. Why focus all our attention on getting presidents to pledge more tax money for pricey patented meds in developing countries, when we can get generics for all if we keep fighting for them? Novartis sues India to stop making generics for the world: activists occupy Novartis offices in 3 cities during a global day of action. Bam. Let’s build on this! Last week, India issued a rare compulsory license to allow generic production of a Bayer anti-cancer drug, which will save many lives and also bring more Big Pharma pressure to bear on the country. Our voices are needed.
And just before May Day — when occupiers everywhere call on the 99% to carry out a People’s General Strike — ACT UP New York will return to Wall Street for its 25th anniversary action.
How AIDS Activists Have Occupied Since September
This year’s actions should be fierce, building on the strength of last fall. AIDS activists didn’t sit around wondering if the new 99% movement would invisibilize AIDS, they stepped up to build a true, strong unity that appreciates the strengths that difference offers. A complex unity, as envisioned by revered anti-prison activist Angela Davis, who spoke of the convergence of single-issue movements at Occupy Philly in October. AIDS activists passed out this excellent flier from Housing Works at #OWS to educate occupiers and link the issues.
Andrew Coamey, a Housing Works senior vice prez, penned “Why I Occupied Wall Street” to inspire others to take the plunge. After a gay, HIV positive AIDS activist was punched by a New York police official at an #OWS protest, even more outraged AIDS activists marched with the new movement (see video of police official punching AIDS activist Felix Rivera-Pitre here). After participating in the #OWS global day of action in November, AIDS activists staged a sit-in dressed as Robin Hoods on World AIDS Day, demanding a financial transaction tax to fund the fight against AIDS locally and globally (see video and photos here).
More than 20 cities participated in the Occupy our Homes day of action in December. AIDS activists at VOCAL helped lead the occupation of a home in Brooklyn, where predatory lending and foreclosures have thrown many families onto the street, and helped a homeless family move in (watch this incredibly inspiring video). As longtime AIDS activist Sean Barry said to The Raw Story in an article about the action, “We’re here because [there are] a lot of empty buildings owned by Wall Street banks and we’re going to liberate them.”
As the AIDS movement returns to its rabble-rousing roots, it’s up to us to tell the story of the early days of our movement, as Douglas Crimp’s recent Atlantic Monthly piece on the 1988 activist takeover of the Food and Drug Administration does.
As for myself, I spent a few months last fall shirking any form of paid work, spending my time making videos for Occupy Philly Media and working on Prison Health News. Now, I’m working full-time as a copy editor for a medical publisher to catch up on my rent. But this blog is still on! See you in cyberspace….