Category Archives: Drug users' rights
You knew it was coming. It’s been almost 30 years since the International AIDS Conference was in the U.S. — and this year, it will be in the nation’s capital just a few months shy of an election that many see as a referendum on access to healthcare. The worldwide media will be there. AIDS policymakers from all over will be there. And AIDS activists will gather to make as big a splash as we can.
The thing I love about this protest is not just how big and gorgeous it’s going to be — with 5 branches representing unique struggles that make up the AIDS movement — but that it unashamedly tackles the real problems, the complicated mess of profiteering and stigmatizing and controlling human beings that has caused and perpetuated the AIDS crisis. Please go to www.wecanendaids.org immediately to find out how you can get on the bus, meet up with the convergence in D.C., and get more involved. Read the captivating platform here and find contact info for transportation from your city here. For more information about the 5 branches of the protest, click here.
1. Fight Pharma’s Corporate Greed: People over Profits, Health Care and Treatment Access for All.
2. Tax Wall Street: Use a Robin Hood Tax to Fund AIDS Treatment, Prevention and Health Care, Provide Jobs, and Fight Climate Change at Home and Around the World.
3. Promote Sound Policies: Public Policy Based on Science and Human Needs; Lift the Federal Ban on and Fully Fund Syringe Exchange Programs.
4. End the War on Women: Reproductive Justice and End Gender-Based Violence
5. Respect our Human Rights and Promote Harm Reduction: End the War on Drugs and Drug Users; Confront HIV Criminalization, Stigma, Mass Imprisonment and Anti-LGBTQ Violence and Discrimination.
Every other year, AIDS activists everywhere travel far and wide to attend the International AIDS Conference, pushing for access to HIV prevention and treatment for all. The conference hasn’t been in the U.S. for eons, because back in the 80s, a widely reviled individual named Senator Jesse Helms made sure that anyone living with HIV could not enter the country. Two years ago, the HIV travel ban was lifted, and this year, the conference will be in the U.S — in Washington, DC from July 22 to 27.
But this country is still excluding countless people living with HIV.
When people from other countries apply to enter the U.S., even just to attend a conference, they must answer these 2 questions:
- Are you or have you ever been a drug abuser or drug addict?
- Are you coming to the United States to engage in prostitution or unlawful commercialized vice or have you been engaged in prostitution or procuring prostitutes within the past 10 years?
If you know how it is that we humans get HIV, you know that drug use and sex work are among the ways. Why talk about fighting a disease without the people who are dealing with it? This policy cuts out a massive number of people around the world who are living with HIV or at risk for HIV, including those working in the field and organizing for an end to this disease, from going to the International AIDS Conference. In response, drug users and sex workers and their allies around the world have set up hivhumanrightsnow.org to educate the world one blog entry at a time. Drug users and people living with HIV in Eastern Europe will have their own conference in Kiev to strategize the fight against AIDS. Sex workers and their allies will meet in Kolkata.
Tune in to
@HIVhumanRIGHTS for tweets from sex workers, drug users and their allies about what the world needs to do to fight AIDS, and keep checking the blog at hivhumanrightsnow.org for inspiring updates.
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.
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….
So the US Social Forum starts tomorrow in Detroit!
I had a life-altering, mind-blowing experience at the first-ever USSF, in Atlanta in 2007, and wrote this open letter to the AIDS movement and the Left: https://aidsandsocialjustice.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/open-letter-to-the-left-and-the-aids-movement-two-ships-passing-on-our-winding-way-to-a-new-dawn/
This will be the second-ever USSF. I’ll be blogging about sessions I go to that are inspiring. But I probably won’t post anything here til after I get home, exhausted as my aching bones get at conferences, and me without a laptop.
Here are some sessions I’d recommend for AIDS activists and all social justice activists who are blessed to be going to Detroit!
WED, 10am-noon, Cobo Hall: O2-42
Join in the Whirlwind: A Cooperative Panel on Research and Movement Building
Team Colors Collective
WED, 1-5:30pm, Cobo Hall: D2-08
The Take Back the Land Movement: Realizing the Human Right to Housing in the US
Take Back the Land (Miami), Survivors Village (New Orleans), Chicago Anti-Eviction Coalition
WED, 1-5:30pm, Cobo Hall: W2-67
US Social Forum Queer People’s Movement Assembly
co-hosted by The Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex (TGI) Justice Project, which works on prison issues, along with other groups including Queers for Economic Justice, SONG: Southerners on New Ground, and more groundbreaking LGBT groups Continue reading
— Suzy Subways, Editor, Solidarity Project
November 2007 • Issue 7
*Activist Snapshots #1*
Will Parrish says he habitually shared needles with other users before activists started the Atlanta Harm Reduction Center, the city’s first and only syringe exchange program, in the early 90s. “We would keep the syringes in a jar, and we would pick the one that we thought was sharpest, because it wouldn’t hurt,” Parrish says.
Now four years in recovery and an outreach worker at Recovery Consultants of Atlanta, Parrish credits the Atlanta Harm Reduction Center for keeping him HIV negative. Now, he agitates with a brand new activist group, the Georgia Prevention Justice Alliance (PJA), to demand that the county legalize and fund syringe exchange.
“We have one syringe exchange program in Atlanta that has operated for the past 13 years,” Parrish says. “I was there when they first showed up, and they needed people to look out for when the police would come around.” While volunteering as an outreach worker about five years ago, he says, “I got locked up myself because I had a bag of unopened syringes. I spent 15 days in jail.”
While the center is still an underground effort, he says, it has a better rapport with the local precinct now. “They don’t arrest the workers, but it’s left to their discretion whether they’ll arrest the users.” This shaky but relatively workable trust relationship would have to be built anew, precinct by precinct, if the program expanded to other neighborhoods.
Georgia is consistently in the CDC’s top ten states of reported HIV and AIDS cases, and Atlanta is the state’s epicenter. The PJA’s briefing paper argues that one-third of HIV and nearly all hepatitis C transmissions in the county could be prevented with improved access to clean syringes. But the county has ignored the overwhelming body of research showing that syringe exchange is highly effective in reducing the spread of HIV and viral hepatitis among injection drug users and their partners, without increasing injection drug use, drug-associated crime, or the number of discarded syringes.
“It’s unconscionable that these volunteers, who are well-respected in local communities by neighborhood and religious leaders, and even local police, have to risk arrest every day,” says longtime AIDS activist Jeff Graham.
“The PJA started in March 2007, and we’ve come quite a ways already,” Graham says of the new activist group, Continue reading
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
[Note: I am a queer, white, HIV-negative person who uses female pronouns and has non-transgender privilege. These ideas are the result of conversations with many people, but I wrote this as an independent AIDS community journalist and a leftist, and I don’t speak for any group. Many thanks to my mentors who gave me feedback yesterday! It has changed a lot.]
The US Social Forum blew my mind, it grew my mind like a wild weed, it heard my voice and it rendered me inaudible—I talked and cheered and chanted so much that I couldn’t speak above a whisper from Saturday morning until today. It gave me a feeling like, the Left is finally getting its shit together. I got a sense that people of color—especially immigrants, indigenous people, women of color and queer people of color—were like, “the Left is ours,” and were bringing the most innovative strategies and concepts to be seen in years, rocketing the whole thing into another dimension.
The speech by Andrea Smith of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence at the plenary on Liberating Gender and Sexuality: Integrating Gender and Sexual Justice Across Our Movements—and the audience of hundreds’ overwhelming response to it—was one of the most inspiring moments of my life. Not only did Smith question the domestic violence movement’s reliance on the state to protect us, her organization’s work offers all our movements the building blocks of an alternative.
I’ve been an activist for 17 years (mostly on access to higher education and queer and AIDS issues), and I feel like this is what many of us have been hoping for, yet not daring to imagine. Could the Left really be shedding its massive layers of racism, sexism, and homophobia? But the most inspiring moments always leave room for us to grow. This is a moment of great possibility for the AIDS movement and the Left. I won’t make a list of reasons why the AIDS movement had moments of feeling marginalized at the USSF, but to illustrate this, I will say that HIV/AIDS was not mentioned once at the plenary on gender and sexuality.
For those of us in the AIDS movement, this kind of silence tugs at old wounds, because Reagan did not say “AIDS” out loud until 1987, by which time an average of nine Americans had died of AIDS for every day that he had been in office. Now, we have lifesaving medicines in the US and other rich countries, but about 8,500 people around the world die of AIDS every day, and according to the NAACP, every day 72 African Americans contract HIV.
My goal with this letter is to point toward the light the Left offers the AIDS movement now, and ways the Left can learn from the AIDS movement now. The Social Forum illuminates both, because without women of color at the center, neither will ever find its way—and without the innovative new strategies emerging now, we would all just be talking.
Life after nonprofits
INCITE’s second book, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, sold out all copies at the Forum, and its panel by the same name filled up so quickly that organizers had to post a sign on the door saying, “Please do not open – Fire Hazard!”—and still people squeezed in. Southerners on New Ground (SONG, a multiracial LGBT/queer group) held a workshop where participants also discussed the limits of the 501c3 model (for example, competition for funding between community groups; letting funders set your agenda; allowing college graduates to serve as front lines in communities they know nothing about or are themselves gentrifying; big nonprofits setting movement goals; grassroots groups not being taken seriously; self-perpetuation being valued over service and honesty, etc.) and exciting new ways to do what SONG called “free organizing.” There were also “hybrid models,” with some aspects of both the 501c3 and the free, such as a working board of directors with no staff, or having members vote on organizational decisions and pay dues. (For questions to ask yourself and help stimulate more ideas, see http://www.southernersonnewground.org/?p=53)
One attendee talked about her childcare collective, which charges only $75 every five months (for groceries). An activist from Louisville said that her community trusts her group more now that they’re not backed by a white funder from outside the community. An activist from LA told how the Garment Worker Center is moving from a paid-staff model to all volunteers, with mentoring from Brooklyn’s Sista II Sista.
In the AIDS movement, we know how the move from street action to institution-building meant that we had built the capacity to provide lifesaving services to our communities. Plus, AIDS organizations are the biggest employer of LGBT people in the US—and in some places, a provider of jobs to many people in our community who have a hard time finding work in a discriminatory environment due to their experience with prison, homelessness, drug use, or sex work, or because they’re trans or gender non-conforming or living with HIV.
But our institutions are now turning on their creators—people living with HIV—and turning them into passive “consumers” of services, as if your local AIDS service organization were the local mall and HIV is no longer political. And “AIDS, Inc.” took us off the streets, cooled off our activism. Who among us hasn’t feared losing our jobs if we speak at that demo, or been told protests are a relic from the past? At the Campaign to End AIDS, a major national mobilization in 2005, Sean Strub, the PWA founder of POZ magazine, listed the major AIDS advocacy organizations that had failed to endorse or support the campaign, and railed against the lack of HIV positive inclusion on nonprofit boards. [note: “PWA” means “person/people living with HIV/AIDS”]
SONG members pointed out that whether or not we choose to find new ways of serving and organizing our communities, we’ll be forced to anyway, because our community-based nonprofits are dying. This especially speaks to the AIDS movement. Small HIV prevention and support organizations that Black, Latino, gay and other communities started 20 years ago are closing their doors all over the country because the federal money is being cut back to just cover medical care and HIV testing, not vital programs like condom distribution, street outreach, counseling, buddy programs, language interpretation, and housing. (For more info see http://www.poz.com/articles/401_11463.shtml)
The most inspiring and transformative HIV/AIDS program I’ve ever witnessed, Philadelphia’s TEACH Outside, has been on the chopping block several times this year. Run by John Bell, who was a leader in ACT UP for years and is an HIV positive, African American Vietnam vet in recovery who spent years in prison, TEACH Outside is a class for people living with HIV who are newly released from incarceration. John Bell teaches how to live healthy with HIV and strategies for dealing with life on the outside, mentors students in activism, and tells them to call him anytime—but the biggest challenge for students is dealing with the double stigma of prison and HIV. I asked him once if the program is more than just a class, and he said, “It has to be. Because people aren’t just unfeeling beings. Even though people have been incarcerated they’re still human beings. To allow that person to become a working member of society, we’re going to have to actually address the totality of their being. The emotional side, the spiritual side, the intellectual side.”
Philadelphia’s Project TEACH classes keep facing the axe because they are “psychosocial programs,” not medical programs. So what are we going to do about the totality of the human being when the government will no longer fund it? Let’s figure it out. The AIDS community should aim to be among those at the forefront of this effort, because our communities may have the most to lose, with lives depending on our services.
Protecting each other
We can also learn new ways to protect our communities from violence. At another Social Forum panel, the Young Women’s Empowerment Project (a youth leadership organization grounded in harm reduction and social justice organizing by and for girls and young women ages 12-23 impacted by the sex trade and street economies) from Chicago talked about defending each other from street violence without relying on the police, who offer their own forms of violence. Some of the ways they suggest creating conditions in which violence against women is unacceptable include solidarity among women (sisterhood in the hood), safe housing, allies who can deal with pimps, and self-defense training. However we do it, finding new ways to protect each other from violence is an urgent need for the AIDS community, because the police do not protect people who are most at risk for HIV, like trans and gender non-conforming people, sex workers, and drug users. And the link between HIV and violence—which messes with people’s ability to protect themselves from HIV—means that protecting our communities from violence is HIV prevention work.
Taking inspiration from each other’s movements
In the HIV/AIDS movement, we need to make sure that women of color and queer people of color are at the center, and also that HIV positive people are at the center. We need to take inspiration from this moment in the Left and be reminded that we can’t afford to compromise on taking the time to build new leadership among people directly affected by the issues, even when our time is urgently demanded to push for policy that can save millions of lives around the world. A strong movement is a social force that shifts policy in its wake or renders government decisions irrelevant by taking care of its own community’s needs.
We also need for the Left to understand that our leaders are still dying. And it’s mostly the people of color in our movement who are dying, for many reasons related to intersecting forms of oppression, but also because people with both HIV and hepatitis C have even more complex health challenges and treatment options than those with HIV alone. In other words, neither the Left nor the AIDS movement can afford to sleep on the issue of hepatitis C.
AIDS is now the leading cause of death among Black women aged 25 to 34. Nearly half of Black men who have sex with men are HIV positive. I’m not saying that people with HIV aren’t living full, healthy lives, with stigma being their most pressing HIV-related problem. But ACT UP Philly still has too many funerals. Within a few months several years ago, the New York City HIV/AIDS housing movement lost three beloved leaders—Joe Capestany and Joe Bostic of the New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN) and Keith Cylar, cofounder of Housing Works.
But it’s also a movement full of life. Have you ever been to a global AIDS conference? The Zapatistas’ Other Campaign (La Otra Campagna) was there last summer in Toronto. Korean activists were marching through the conference site against the impending US-Korea Free Trade Agreement. South Africans demanded treatment, Indian activists in bright colors chanted, “Big Pharma – Quit India!” and a Russian activist speaking at the closing plenary said, “Down with the imperialism of the pharmaceutical companies!” It was like the Social Forum, without the standing ovation (activists had to demand that people with AIDS be allowed to speak at the global AIDS conference).
And where else but the AIDS community have you seen heterosexual ex-drug users bond so closely with the most fabulously gender-bending queers? (This is not a rhetorical question, I’m sure it happens elsewhere, and I’d love to hear about it!) The AIDS movement at its best links together some of the most pressing issues of our time: homelessness, prison, the war on drugs, gender, sexuality, immigration, and displacement.
But if you want to tackle one thing, I’d say the Left can start with stamping out any tendencies toward HIV denialism, the idea that HIV does not really cause AIDS. While handing out flyers for the AIDS march at the Social Forum, my friend encountered some folks who said things like, “Well, if they would just stop taking those medicines that make them sick….” These comments were fairly insulting to my friend, who is HIV positive. This foolishness would not take root in the Left without our (the Left’s) willingness to let our intelligent distrust of pharmaceutical companies go uncomplicated by any understanding of the privilege many of us experience—not having to deal with HIV, and not living in communities whose health is compromised in so many ways by systemic racism, poverty, homophobia and transphobia. For more information about HIV denialism, please see AIDSTruth.org or the website of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign.
A moment of possibilities
Partly to push visibility of AIDS issues in the Left, and in the tradition of marches at the global AIDS conference, AIDS activists at the Social Forum decided to march up from the basement of the Atlanta Civic Center, through the lobby filled with people milling around t-shirts and literature, out the doors and past the tables outside. It was a fun, chaotic moment that people responded to with excitement and support. We stopped across from the Health Tent, where among the activists who joined us was Panama Vicente Alba, a longtime New York City labor and police brutality activist and former Young Lords Party member. I was thrilled and surprised to see him get on the mic (at the invitation of NYCAHN), because I’d never thought of him as an AIDS activist.
NYCAHN’s Jennifer Flynn enlightened me to the fact that Panama has been an AIDS activist for more than 15 years. “Needle exchange exists in the Bronx because of Panama,” she said, and I was struck by how within my own mind I have such a separation between my lefty world and my AIDS activist world that it has gotten me to where I’m putting people into boxes. Jennifer also pointed out that the Young Lords were well known for tackling tuberculosis, and for their understanding of how government neglect in communities of color leads to epidemics.
I had slept on the fact of Panama’s deep involvement with the campaign to demand HIV treatment for people on waiting lists in Puerto Rico. He had been in New Orleans at the HIV Prevention Leadership Summit in May, one of the activists whose graceful and somber protest interrupted a Bush administration speaker to draw attention to the crisis in Puerto Rico. “We know that more than a thousand people are on waiting lists for HIV medicines,” Panama told me. “But the mayor of San Juan said nobody died. As long as Puerto Rico is a colony of the U.S., this is the political reality that exists. We need a third party, outside the colonial government, to allocate the funds.”
The moment Panama united the AIDS movement and the Left was for me a moment of the clouds parting and the stars emerging to show our ships the way forward. Let’s take the opportunity now, with the excitement the Social Forum has hopefully instilled in us, to chart our courses a little closer together, share our stories, and really listen to each other.
Editor, Solidarity Project, Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP), 2006 – present
Independent AIDS community journalist and active/inactive member of ACT UP Philly, 2004 – present
Assistant Editor, POZ Magazine, 2001 – 2004
Founding member, Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM), City University of New York, 1995/96 – 2001
Member, New York Local, Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, 1995 – 98