Category Archives: economic justice

Why Ideology Matters, and what the AIDS Movement Can Teach the Left about Organizing

Every day I read another depressing news article about how the lame duck Democrats are going to cut off unemployment checks for millions of people right before the holidays and keep Dubya’s tax cuts for the super-rich intact. And sometimes I start to think, OK, maybe this does mean that we should drop our organizing for justice against mass imprisonment and AIDS, and all get together to fight back against this corporate class warfare, something almost everyone in the country could get behind if we all stood together.

But then I think, Wait a minute. How did we get in this situation? How did so many Americans get so screwed up in their thinking that we could allow the government to start dismantling social security and endlessly wage two wars (or three, if you count Pakistan) funded by devastating cuts to our libraries, hospitals, schools, everything that’s left of the New Deal? For us to roll over and take this, we had to be persuaded to blame ourselves for everything bad that happens to us. They started with blaming drug users and people with criminal records, and they really started winning when they blamed “welfare mothers.” Now they can blame the young people for all the violence in our communities, and if the parents don’t want to accept that, the parents can blame themselves and each other. If we can’t find a job, it’s our own fault. Failure and shame.

Blaming the Victim

My dear friend and study group comrade Dana Barnett turned me on to an amazing book called Blaming the Victim by  William Ryan. He wrote it in 1970, but I think it’s even more infuriatingly accurate for our own times. Here’s a bit from page 5: “The miserable health care of the poor is explained away on the grounds that the victim has poor motivation and lacks health information…. The ‘multiproblem’ poor, it is claimed, suffer the psychological effects of impoverishment, the ‘culture of poverty,’ and the deviant value system of the lower classes; consequently, though unwittingly, they cause their own troubles. From such a viewpoint, the obvious fact that poverty is primarily an absence of money is easily overlooked or set aside.”

The rich, the Right, and the liberals started off by blaming the people who can most easily be marginalized, and then they came for the rest of us. This means our best hope to take apart this incredibly successful victim-blaming ideology is to learn from the movements built by the most stigmatized, the people most abandoned and hated and feared by the majority.

Re-Building Ourselves, Building Our Movements

People with AIDS deal with stigma most of us can’t imagine, the kind where your family refuses to share plates or toilet seats, where telling others your health status in prison can get you killed. How do HIV positive people get past the self-blame, too, the sense that you failed because you didn’t insist on a condom, you shared needles, or you were raped? The only way to do this is by building a movement and community based on supporting and believing in each other, encouraging each other to take on new challenges and skills and make changes we never thought possible. In the AIDS movement, a person living under a cardboard box can make a speech in front of City Hall at a rally. In the AIDS community’s support groups, domestic abusers and survivors can find themselves hugging in celebration of their newfound power to overcome and become someone new.

Any strategy to build popular refusal to pay for the corporate elite’s economic crisis has to be rooted in taking apart the ideology of blaming the victim. People cannot believe in themselves and become leaders if they are blaming themselves for their own oppression. And we can’t let ourselves take the short-cut and accept the myth of the “deserving poor,” the people who used to be middle-class and have had the rug pulled out from under them. We have to fight this thing on all fronts – for our rights to housing, education, health care, the return of our loved ones from prison, meaningful jobs, everything – but wherever we do, we have to consciously attack the ideology of blaming the victim, and not let anyone get marginalized out of the movements we are building. Those are the folks we can learn from the most.

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Filed under disaster capitalism, economic justice, people with AIDS in leadership, prison, revolutionary strategies, stigma, Uncategorized

Kazembe Balagun pushes the Left to bring the margins to the center

Sometimes I am the person who criticizes the AIDS movement for not being radical enough… and other times I poke the Left for perpetuating the marginalization of communities most impacted by HIV/AIDS. This critical blog post by my friend and old comrade Kazembe Balagun challenges other leftists in some ways that I think are sorely needed. With the economic crisis, some of the best and brightest thinkers on the Left have argued that we should organized the “oppressed majority” — meaning, in my interpretation, that we should not concentrate on fighting homophobia, racism, transphobia, the prison industrial complex, etc. and instead focus somewhat narrowly on economic issues like foreclosures and unemployment, without an analysis that talks about how all of these issues intersect. In the AIDS movement, we know that the same people losing their homes are often those with loved ones in prison, LGBT people, people who will become marginalized and isolated after becoming homeless due to eviction…

What I’ve learned from the AIDS movement about the importance of confronting stigma is amazing. Cathy Cohen argues in The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics http://www.amazon.com/Boundaries-Blackness-Breakdown-Black-Politics/dp/0226112896 that the failure to fight the stigmatization of Black queers, homeless people, drug users, prisoners — everyone most at risk for HIV — has hurt the whole Black community by allowing the proliferation of prisons, the War on Drugs, gentrification, etc. What I see in movements that take on stigma and celebrate our vulnerable, creative, marginal humanity is this incredible, energetic defiance that really moves people to participate and become leaders.

Now more than ever we have to bring the margins to the center, as Kazembe argues. See the full post on his blog by clicking here:

No Chart Paper is Big Enough to Hide The Sky: Some Thoughts on Organizing Upgrade and Beyond the Choir

Sept. 16

here is a snippet:

“…the vitality of any movements come from bringing the the margin to the center, not the other way around…. There is an overwhelming logic that the only way for activist movements to be effect is to bring the center to the margin: tone down the rhetoric, clean up your act and then people will listen.And maybe they will. But whats the point of speaking if you have forgotten what to say?

That is understandable because the center has gravity: money, connections, power, and popularity. But movements don’t grow from the center. They grow from the margins and take over the center. Think about it; every musical movement in this country has come from the oppressed experiences of Black and Brown people. Blues, jazz, salsa,  hip hop are common currency and they all occurred at the bottom.

At the same time, successful social movements have married avant garde elements with vanguard elements. The Black Panther Party was as much into Bob Dylan, Cuban Poster art and film as they were into Mao Zedong. The German Communists of Weimar married expressionism with jazz and a free sex movement. The Harlem Renaissance was as purple as it was red, with queers like Langston Hughes going to Moscow after the Russian Revolution.”

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Filed under African Americans, Alternatives to 501c3, economic justice, gay and bisexual men, revolutionary strategies, stigma

ACT UP Philly still taking it to the streets! End waiting lists in Philadelphia, the U.S., and around the world!

President Obama promised to ensure that everyone has access to AIDS drugs by 2010. But now, the year that everyone was supposed to have access, 70% of people with HIV still lack access to medication!

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Join us as we tell Obama:

END THE WAITING LISTS
FOR PEOPLE WITH AIDS!

MONDAY, SEPT 20TH @ 2PM
Meet at Broad & Arch
We will march to a fundraiser Obama is attending at
the Convention Center
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– The US is limiting access to treatment to only those in the most dire need around the world. Others are being forced to wait in line until they get sick before they are eligible!
– In the US, more than 3,000 people with AIDS have been forced onto AIDS drug waiting lists, due to state budget cuts!
– Here in Philly, hundreds of people with AIDS are forced to wait in line for housing. A stable home makes it possible to take meds regularly.

Sponsored by:
ACT UP Philadelphia, Health GAP and Philly Global AIDS Watchdogs (GAWD)

More info:
actupphilly (at) gmail.com

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Gone ’til November? Wyclef Jean and the Haitian elections

I’m a huge fan of Wyclef Jean’s music, from 1996’s height of Fugees glory, The Score — an album played nonstop at every activist dance party that year — to his solo efforts, which never fail to lift my spirit. I was intrigued to hear that Wyclef was running for president of Haiti, one of the first places in the world to be hit hard by HIV in the ’80s. So was the AIDS activist group Housing Works, which does some organizing there and asked on August 2nd, Would President Wyclef Jean Make HIV/AIDS a Priority? Unfortunately, my research on Wyclef’s politics sang me a tune that was not music to my ears. It turns out Wyclef Jean supports the policies that keep 90% of the population desperately poor and without the resources to recover from famine, tropical storms’ destruction, and HIV/AIDS.

This cartoon, created Aug. 15 by Mykel Archie, was inspired by an article in SF BayView (http://sfbayview.com/2010/wyclef-jean-for-president-of-haiti-look-beyond-the-hype/). Check out more of Mykel's artwork at http://www.perfectmandesigns.com.

Well, the question may be moot, as Wyclef was kept out of the race by the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP). He has declared his intention to sue the CEP for deciding he has not lived in Haiti the past 5 years, but this may do no more than keep him in the election spotlight for the next few months. The media spectacle he is creating — with his song hating on the CEP and onstage pot shots at Sean Penn — may be exactly the point. Wyclef is global capital’s answer to the nation that freed itself from slavery in 1804 and refuses to accept the kidnapping and banishment of its beloved president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Haiti is still not free, but neither has it been defeated, because it has successfully resisted what Czechoslovakian writer Milan Kundera called “laughter and forgetting.”

I’ve always loved Wyclef Jean’s goofy humor, but lately he’s looking more like a minstrel show, playing the fool for the powers that be. He actually supported the right-wing coup against Aristide, who as president refused to sell the phone and electric companies, using their profits to cut illiteracy in half and make food accessible. Aristide wanted to raise the minimum wage to $2 a day, while Wyclef Jean supports Bill Clinton’s plan for more sweatshops. Even before January’s devastating earthquake, Haiti’s elected government was not allowed to implement its own recovery plans after the food crisis and the economic crisis. Haiti is occupied by UN forces, and its only resources for recovery are controlled by nonprofit organizations from the countries that staged the coup.

Yet Haiti’s popular movements remain strong, demanding Aristide’s return and $21 billion in restitution from France, which forced Haiti to pay French slave owners for its freedom after the revolution.

Aristide’s political party, Lavalas, remains the largest and most popular in Haiti. When Lavalas was officially banned from last year’s Senate elections, a popular boycott resulted in a meager voter turnout of 3 to 5%. This year, Lavalas was disqualified again despite full compliance with all requirements. To prevent another boycott, what else but the distracting dazzle that American voters know so well — the meaningless spectacle of celebrity posturing?

When Lavalas candidates were barred from the ballot for the Senate election of April 19, 2009, almost no one voted; even some poll workers refused to vote. That's how loyal Haitians are to the Lavalas Party. – Photo: Alice Smeets

The challenge for AIDS activists in the U.S. is to reject our own brand of laughter and forgetting: our pragmatic acceptance of the status quo in fighting HIV/AIDS and poverty here, where large nonprofits only take on one “issue” at a time and are not accountable to any kind of popular democracy. Because we can’t imagine a different kind of system, one based on solidarity not charity, we can’t hear the demands of Haiti’s popular movements to control their own recovery from the intertwining crises of food, jobs, HIV, and environmental destruction.

For more information, please read this August 28, 2010 article by Haiti Action Committee member Charlie Hinton: “Haiti’s Election Circus Continues, and Wyclef Jean Won’t Take No for an Answer”

Bill Clinton, Wyclef Jean and U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon visit a Cite Soleil school where children are fed in March 2008. – Photo: Marco Dormino, MINUSTAH

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Filed under Alternatives to 501c3, arts and culture, disaster capitalism, economic justice, Haiti, imperialism/colonialism, Uncategorized

Follow the Activist Media from the Global AIDS Conference in Vienna!

Global AIDS activists will be blogging from AIDS2010 at Take a Number (in Vienna!), a grassroots activist media site that is being organized by Health GAP.

Be sure to check it throughout the week! The conference only happens every 2 years, and activists fiercely make their presence known while the corporate media is paying attention to AIDS and world public health leaders are assembled. Activists are angry that wealthy nations are using the financial crisis as an excuse to renege on their commitments to make sure everyone in the world who needs AIDS treatment has access to it. Here are some photos from day one of the conference by Kaytee Riek:

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National AIDS Plan a Tragic Anticlimax

1991 ACT UP Philadelphia poster

For more than 2 decades, activists have fought for a coherent, human response to the devastating losses of our communities to HIV/AIDS. As of last Tuesday, the United States finally has a national plan to fight the epidemic. This is such a non-event in terms of what it means for us in reality that I won’t blather on about it here.

Please read the insightful commentary from community members on POZ.com, the Huffington Post, Housing Works AIDS Issues Update, and LifeLube.

OK, I will say that Obama’s plan is a relief after W’s anti-science administration brought the Christian Right in to run the country’s HIV prevention efforts. In 2002, Republicans threatened PBS funding at the mere thought that South Africa’s HIV positive muppet Kami might come to the U.S. (see this brilliant scathing critique in POZ magazine). After all, the Obama administration actually lets members of the AIDS community physically enter the White House.

Kami, the South African HIV-positive Muppet on the November 2002 cover of POZ magazine (before ICE, there was INS)

But if this plan is the best we can get when we have Democrats running the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, it’s time to look at the bigger picture. Why is the best we can ever get from Obama all talk and no action? We are so happy with the talk that we forgive the fact that we are not getting any tangible resources. We need to look deeper than party politics for the answer to that.

The economy is tanking, but also, the economic system we are part of has gone through some crazy changes that mean we are up shit’s creek for ever getting our social safety net back. The New Deal is gone forever. So is this country’s economic base as a producer of real products that you can use — our factories are gone, and most of our jobs exist because of some financial bubble or another that is bound to burst. I can’t explain this stuff very well, so please check out this reader-friendly analysis from Midnight Notes.

Basically, the budget cuts we have received as body blows for the past 10+ years are the new reality, but only if we let corporations continue to control the government. We know this is what’s happening. But we are at a loss for an alternative, so we are kind of scared to say it out loud.

I think our big AIDS advocacy organizations have worked for so many years, for such long hours — and I mean the kind of long hours when activists get so sick and tired that having a “life” is not an option but they keep fighting because they believe in a better world — to make this National AIDS Plan finally happen, Continue reading

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ADAP Crisis: More people on waiting lists for HIV meds than ever before

“We die — you make money!” That’s what we shouted at the stock exchange in 1997, during ACT UP New York’s 10th anniversary Wall Street action. How is Wall Street doing today? It’s hard to tell. The Campaign for America’s Future reported in April that “multiple federal agencies have disbursed $4.6 trillion dollars in supporting the financial sector since the meltdown in 2007-2008…. This is an astonishing 32% of our GDP (2008) 130% of the federal budget (FY 2009).”

OK, so how are people living with HIV and AIDS doing? Well, The Body reports that as of July 1st, 2,090 individuals in 12 states are now on waiting lists for lifesaving medications through the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP). Since its founding more than ten years ago, ADAP has always been in crisis. But this is the longest the waiting list has ever been.

According to a July 1 New York Times article, Arkansas and Utah have dropped people from the program, cutting off meds they were already receiving. New Jersey plans to cut eligibility on August 1st, removing 600 of the 7,700 people in ADAP in that state. The article goes on to say, “Louisiana capped enrollment on June 1 but decided against keeping a waiting list. ‘It implies you’re actually waiting on something,’ said DeAnn Gruber, the interim director of the state’s H.I.V./AIDS program. ‘We don’t want to give anyone false hope.’”

OK, so how are the drug companies doing? A September 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation chart shows us that the pharmaceutical industry is doing quite well, thank you very much, while other industries are tanking due to the recession. I’m not exactly sure what 19.3% profitability means, but I’m told it translates to very fucking profitable, and try to chase our asses to our private island resort to get some of your money back, suckers!

I worked at a pharmaceutical advertising agency for a year to pay off my credit card debt and learn medical copyediting. They threw money at me — a $45,000 salary to make zerox copies and put them in a binder. Why is the pharmaceutical advertising industry so rich? Why does it even exist?

What if, like every single other country in the world except for New Zealand (according to ABC news), drug companies weren’t allowed to advertise to consumers? What if instead of spending $5 billion in TV, radio, magazine and newspaper ads each year (says Nielsen Media Research, cited in the ABC news article above), they simply lowered their prices? What if corporations weren’t allowed to sell lifesaving medications at a profit? Imagine that.

Advocates from the Fair Pricing Coalition have negotiated rebates and better prices from drug companies for ADAP in recent years. But their hard work and success have not been able to prevent the current ADAP crisis. Activists from every major AIDS advocacy organization are issuing action alerts this week. Currently they are asking everyone to call the president. Go to the Bilerico Project to take action: http://www.bilerico.com/2010/07/president_obama_address_the_adap_crisis.php

Check out the AIDSConnect.net blog for ideas on how to build a lasting and powerful movement to fight for our community’s right to the medications that keep people with HIV and AIDS living strong.

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Filed under disaster capitalism, economic justice, imperialism/colonialism, Southern United States, treatment access