Category Archives: New York City
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
Che Gossett on AIDS activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya’s legacy and the intersections between all movements for liberation
At Movements For Change, an event in honor of Kiyoshi Kuromiya on June 10th in Philadelphia, student activist Che Gossett incited a room of sleep-deprived AIDS activists to shouts and tears, reminding us why we are doing this work and inspiring us toward new ways of doing it. The event was hosted by longtime activist Chris Bartlett at the Church of St. Luke and The Epiphany, where ACT UP Philadelphia meets each Monday night at 6pm, and strategized for the future while remembering Kiyoshi, a beloved member of ACT UP who died 10 years ago.
“Kiyoshi believed in intersectionality long before that was a term people used,” Chris said in his opening remarks. “He brought what he learned from the Civil Rights, Gay Liberation and other movements to all of the work he did, and wherever people struggled for human rights and dignity, he was there.”
Che generously shared the text of their talk with us here. Enjoy!
“The white middle-class outlook of the earlier [homophile] groups, which thought that everything in America would be fine if people only treated homosexuals better, wasn’t what we were all about…We wanted to stand with the poor, with women, with people of color, with the antiwar people, to bring the whole corrupt thing down.” Kiyoshi Kuromiya
This quote, especially the call to stand with the poor, women, people of color, anti-war people and for a radical alternative is what, in my understanding, animated Kiyoshi’s life. To me, it represents the core of his legacy and stands as an imperative for discussions of the future.
My talk is supposed to be about the future of gay rights, but how do we talk about a future that, as defined by homo-normative groups and political formations like the HRC [Human Rights Campaign], neither centers nor sometimes even includes those categories Kiyoshi mentions — women (trans and non trans), the poor and people of color? How can we hold a mirror up to a future in which we are not reflected? How is it that we, as queer and transgender people of color are evacuated and disappeared from a future we helped to create?
The Lawrence v. Texas legal decision that struck down sodomy laws has been heralded by gay rights groups, yet it is haunted by the racial violence of its past — the legal basis for the police invasion of Lawrence’s apartment was not “consensual sodomy,” but a false report of a weapons disturbance — the Harris County police dispatcher was called and told, “There’s a nigger going crazy with a gun.” How is it that this racialized past now exists as a sign of a post-racial queer future? In which gay rights are the new civil rights, and the civil rights battles of the 60s have been won? How did we move from gay and trans liberation to queer neoliberalism? From gay anti-capitalism to the depoliticized neoliberal gay market niche? How did we get from the gay anti-imperialism of the Gay Liberation Front, the Philadelphia chapter of which Kiyoshi and Basil O’Brien created in May of 1970, to homonationalism — the marriage and military rhetoric — of today? Why, instead of fighting US imperialism, and standing in solidarity with anti-occupation struggles and against political repression, such as the recent Israeli military attack on the Gaza aid flotillas — are queers rushing to join wars rather than protest police and state violence? Continue reading
The Politics of Impatience:
An open letter from anarchists to the anarchist movement
As anarchists from a variety of different projects and political perspectives, mostly in the U.S., we are inspired by the courage of students fighting for access to public universities in New York, California, and everywhere. At a time when politicians take money out of schools and build prisons to fill with young people of color and poor people – while giving away trillions to the banks, health insurance companies, and war profiteers – any movement that takes back space and resources for public use wins our hearts. Many of us are not students, but we will continue to demonstrate our solidarity in whatever ways we can when students are beaten and arrested, and colleges themselves start to look like jails because administrations are afraid of the power of student organizing.
We are shocked that on March 4th at Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY), some anarchists harmfully disrupted a protest against tuition hikes, budget cuts, and childcare cuts. Some of the facts of what happened are in dispute. Some are not, including the following: A faculty member and longtime media activist was injured in the head, sectarian graffiti was spray-painted, and a parent from Defend Hunter Childcare was targeted with a sexist epithet that was heard by some as a rape threat. Some of the individuals involved have apologized for their actions. But we still need to ask why this happened, how anarchists could be responsible for these things. And how to make sure it never happens again.
At the root of the incident was an impatience by some anarchists with a rally and walkout that they decided should have been an occupation. This letter will talk about the politics of impatience and offer some ideas for action.
A movement that stands for childcare, healthcare, and education for everyone means more to most people than slogans shouted by those who are “pushed by the violence of our desires” to act as individuals. A statement with that phrase as its title, written by some folks involved in the altercation at Hunter, claims, “We do not need the ‘consent of the people.’” But militant direct action needs to take place within the context of a movement, not outside of it. To single-handedly declare that a protest is not radical enough without participating in the democratic processes of the movement is vanguardist. It’s ironic–and tragic–when it comes from anarchists. When we want to occupy, let’s reach out to those who might want to occupy too, so there’s a chance they might occupy with us.
Peace to the villages, war to the palaces
We are deeply frustrated with the lack of militant resistance across the U.S. while the powers that be are murdering millions of people with impunity, transferring our wealth to the richest, and destroying the planet. In many areas, the only options being offered are lobbying, actions pre-determined by media-savvy advocacy nonprofit staff, and grassroots campaigns that only demand what they believe to be immediately “winnable” from local, state, or federal governments.
We’ve all felt the transformation and possibility that resonates in the air at more spontaneous mass protests where, however briefly, the streets or the schools are truly ours. If that moment of freedom can also feed the bellies and minds of people’s children, people will do it again, and more will be inspired to try it on their own terms.
Learning our movements’ histories can give us a few ideas. CUNY, for example, has a tremendous militant history of student occupations, Continue reading
As many as 60% of all HIV positive people have experienced homelessness or unstable housing (such as staying on a friend’s couch, where a person could be kicked out at any time) in their lifetimes, according to research by Angela Aidala, Ph.D. of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. But often, even when organizations or governments provide housing as a part of HIV services, the issue is talked about in a way that blames individuals for “risky behavior” and assumes that if someone is dealing with both housing problems and HIV, these two challenges are a result of being a “risky person.”
For 20 years, AIDS housing activists have known that housing challenges are often beyond the control of an individual because lack of stable, adequate housing affects whole communities and is rooted in racism and poverty. The research of Mindy Fullilove, also at Mailman, has shown that destruction of urban neighborhoods uproots whole communities of people and makes them vulnerable to homelessness, drug use, and HIV.
Rodrick Wallace, an epidemiologist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, also points to the forced displacement of Black neighborhoods, whether through urban renewal programs, redlining (when banks refuse to lend money to African Americans to buy homes), eminent domain (a legal process by which houses are taken for city or commercial use of the land), gentrification (when residents are priced out of their neighborhoods by an influx of wealthier residents), or disasters like Hurricane Katrina (due to neglect of infrastructure), and the Bronx fires in the 1970s (due to the closing of firehouses). “Health disparities in the Black community can be traced to a 70-year course of serial forced displacement,” Wallace says, and he offers a dire warning for New York City. “Gentrification is driving African Americans from Harlem, the South Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant [Brooklyn], which will create a ring of refugee camps around an alabaster white city. Multi-drug resistant HIV will be allowed to grow in these communities over time before spreading to the rest of the world.”
Poor communities are experiencing forced displacement in cities around the world, with even worse implications in places like South Africa, where the HIV rate is already extremely high. But people living in shacks around the cities of South Africa are resisting forced evictions, and people living with HIV in New York City are demanding housing – not just for their own survival, but also as a prevention tool. Activists at Housing Works, Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), and the New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN) are leading a campaign to force New York City to provide housing to all people living with HIV by expanding the city’s unique policy that guarantees housing only to people living with an AIDS diagnosis.
“One of the single biggest ways to prevent HIV by reducing risk behavior is to provide stability in housing,” says Charles King, president and CEO of Housing Works. “As long as you have chronic homelessness, people will be involved in drug activity that’s related to their homelessness and sex trade that’s related to their homelessness. Whether you’re HIV positive or negative, homelessness increases the risk of HIV transmission. The more people are forced to engage in survival activities, the greater the risk.”
Alan Perez, coordinator of the Legislative Action Group at GMHC, agrees and emphasizes how unstable housing puts people at risk. “We have clients who have to sell their bodies just to stay where they’re at,” he says.
With organizing help from Housing Works and the National AIDS Housing Coalition (NAHC), researchers have come together with new data showing that housing is integral to HIV treatment, care and prevention. And activists are using the research as tools in their advocacy. This collaboration between activists and researchers is further strengthened by collaboration between AIDS housing activists and housing justice activists, people who fight to end homelessness and gentrification in cities around the world. This issue of Solidarity Project explores some of this inspiring work.
|This mural, “House Every One,” is a collaboration between Groundswell Community Mural Project and NYCAHN (© Groundswell Community Mural Project; Lead artist: Belle Benfield; Assistant artist: Claude Cantave, with youth from TEMA (Teen Empowerment Mural Apprenticeship Program); 14 x 28 feet on canvas, Park Slope, Brooklyn, 2004).|
Twenty years ago, when 30,000 people with AIDS were at risk of dying homeless on the streets of New York City, AIDS housing activism was born. “In 1988, activists took over the Human Resources Administration Commissioner’s office [in New York City] to demand they honor an injunction to take a plaintiff living with AIDS out of a shelter and put them into single-room occupancy housing,” Charles King, cofounder and CEO of Housing Works, explains. In 1990, Housing Works grew out of ACT UP/New York to provide housing, job training and other services while organizing homeless people with AIDS to fight for their rights and survival.
Now, a coalition of activist groups led by the New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN), Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), and Housing Works – the HASA For ALL campaign – is fighting to expand the city’s unique guarantee of rental assistance, a nutritional allowance, and transportation for people living with AIDS to all low-income New Yorkers living with HIV.
The HASA For ALL battle began in 2006, when activists successfully pressured the city’s health department to release data on the health of homeless adults. AIDS was the primary cause of death for women in the shelters and the second leading cause of death for men, accounting for 11 percent of all shelter deaths. But people with AIDS weren’t supposed to be in the shelters. A 1998 lawsuit brought by activists guaranteed medically appropriate, same-day emergency housing assistance to homeless people with an AIDS diagnosis through the city’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA).
|About 700 AIDS activists demonstrate in support of HASA For ALL at New York’s City Hall, September 25, 2007 (photo courtesy of Housing Works).|
According to Sean Barry, co-director of NYCAHN, the problem is that “people who didn’t have an AIDS diagnosis and didn’t qualify for HASA because of that are dying because the bad conditions in the shelters worsen their health so quickly – before they can go through the bureaucratic process to get HASA benefits once they do get sick.” Housing Works estimates that 7,000 low-income people living with HIV would benefit from HASA For ALL, including an estimated 800 individuals in the shelter system.
“It took me two years to get on HASA,” Alan Perez, coordinator of the Legislative Action Group at GMHC, says. “I had to stop taking my meds just to get on it. A lot of people are doing something to get sick, especially people who are in the shelter system. They should be in permanent housing.”
The irony that people with HIV who are doing relatively well are making themselves sick just to get needed help is not lost on activists. They developed a cost-benefit analysis revealing that, despite an estimated $68 million per year price tag, HASA For ALL would save the city money in shelter and hospital costs, keeping people with HIV healthy – and preventing as many as 66 new infections each month.
Assisting People With and Without HIV
The idea is a sort of “prevention for positives” approach, but activists appreciate that HIV negative community members need permanent housing as well to protect themselves from HIV and the many other hazards of being homeless. Young trans and gender non-conforming people, as well as men who have sex with men (MSMs), are especially vulnerable, explains Johnny Guaylupo, intake outreach coordinator at Housing Works. Continue reading
- Advocate for Policy Changes: This Tool Kit from the National AIDS Housing Coalition can arm you to advocate for housing on both local and national levels, using research findings to demonstrate the link between housing and health for people at risk for or living with HIV.
- Donate to Abahlali baseMjondolo’s women’s support group: Women of Abahlali have just started an income generation program for the survival and independence of women shack dwellers who are at risk of HIV because of their economic dependence on men. The group hopes to purchase a sewing machine and other supplies. Visit Supporting Abahlali baseMjondolo to donate – specify that the money is for the women’s support group.
- Stay informed and active: Subscribe to the Housing Works AIDS Issues Update to read action alerts in your e-mail in-box and support AIDS housing rights.
- Help build the movement against gentrification and the destruction of neighborhoods:
- Visit the Right to the City Alliance and click on “Alliance Members” to find a group fighting gentrification near you.
- Defend New Orleans Public Housing supports the Coalition to Stop the Demolition in its resistance to displacement of communities in New Orleans, which is increasing HIV risk.
- Sign on to the International Declaration in Defense of El Barrio [English and Español] and support Harlem’s Movement for Justice in El Barrio by hosting a fundraiser, launching a support committee, attending a protest, or just expressing your organization’s support.
- Two more New York City groups to watch: Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, an activist group that uses lawsuits and organizing strategies to defend communities from displacement; and the New York Is Our Home!: Affordable Rent Campaign, which fights for affordable housing.
— Suzy Subways, Editor, Solidarity Project
November 2007 • Issue 7
*Activist Snapshots #2*
“The Black gay community suffers from HIV invisibility, so the New York State Black Gay Network (NYSBGN) is forthright, vital, and visible,” says Mark McLaurin, the network’s executive director. “Our key demand is that resources for domestic prevention have to follow the epidemiologic data.”
And those data are clear about where the epidemic is headed. HIV rates have reached a staggering 46% among Black men who have sex with men (MSM) and 21% among white MSM. In a presentation at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago on October 10, University of Pittsburgh researcher Ron Stall observed that, with the relatively small increases already occurring year by year, each new generation of gay men will have much higher HIV rates.
Same Behavior, Double the Risk
The disturbing racial disparity cannot be explained by risk behavior – Black MSM have similar or slightly lower rates of unprotected sex, including with partners they know to be HIV positive, than white MSM. Also at the Chicago event, Greg Millett of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) presented an analysis of all studies on the subject (both presentations are viewable at http://www.lifelube.org/). One 2004 study of MSM ages 15 to 22 found Blacks to be nine times as likely to have HIV as whites, and Latinos twice as likely, despite more unprotected sex among young white MSM. Across all studies, Millett found that white MSM were more likely to use drugs that can increase the possibility of HIV infection, including crack. One study found that white MSM were more than twice as likely to use crack than Black MSM.
The prevalence is already so high among Black men that the odds of potential partners having HIV are much higher, making the risk associated with forgoing condom use much greater. “You’re swimming in an infected pool,” McLaurin says. “The question is, how did that pool get more infected in the first place? We need more research. Every time we meet with the National Institutes of Health and the CDC, we say, ‘We need to figure out what’s going on now.’”
Another Urban Legend: The “Down-Low”
What about the media hype of the “down-low” – the racially loaded term referring to the universal phenomenon of men who identify as straight but have sex with men and don’t tell their female partners? “It’s a titillating conversation, but there’s little evidence to show that this is a serious bridge population for HIV transmission,” McLaurin says. “Unless you can show me that this is a significant factor, then we’re not talking in terms of HIV prevention, we’re talking in terms of entertainment value.”
Millett’s research shows that while Black MSM who do not disclose their sexuality are more likely to report unprotected sex with women than are Black MSM who are open about their sexuality (not surprising, since the latter are likely to be gay-identified and not sleeping with women at all), non-disclosers are also less likely to be HIV positive or have unprotected sex with men.
In a March 2007 commentary in Annals of Epidemiology, researcher Chandra L. Ford writes, “Common perceptions about the DL [down-low] reflect social constructions of black sexuality as generally excessive, deviant, diseased, and predatory.” McLaurin agrees. “It pits Black gay men against Black women at a time when we need each other more than ever.” 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