Acting Up Again

AIDS Activism Goes Global

During the June 3 march on Washington to mark the 20th anniversary of AIDS, John Maritim showed up after he saw the demonstration on television. The Kenyan theology student at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University asked a pair of white gay men how he could participate in an upcoming demo, the "Stop Global AIDS Now" march and rally, which will happen in New York this Saturday. "The nature and urgency of this disease call for a united front in fighting it," Maritim, a heterosexual, says. "We must shelve away our differences."

On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control reported the first cases of a mysterious disease among "five men, all active homosexuals" in New York and Los Angeles. Today HIV infects more than 36 million people worldwide, more than two-thirds of them in African countries like Kenya. Despite the existence of life-saving AIDS drugs, 95 percent of people with HIV lack access to effective treatments, according to the Nobel Prize–winning organization Doctors Without Borders.

AIDS activism, like the epidemic itself, has gone global. Unprecedented alliances have sprung up, bringing new faces and forces into the movement. For Saturday’s event, ACT UP joined forces with organizations as diverse as Africa Action, Jubilee USA, and the American Jewish World Service, as well as overseas activist groups like South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign. Two days before the UN convenes its first ever session on a disease, demonstrators will call for the U.S. and other wealthy countries to provide drugs, dollars, and debt cancellation to the developing nations hit hardest by HIV.

"Morally it’s a cut-and-dried issue," says Sharonann Lynch, a member of ACT UP and the Health GAP Coalition, an alliance active in the demonstration. "Millions of people are infected, and we have the capability to help them. What’s great is we’re in a position to stop this in its tracks." Earlier this year a Harvard study put an actual price tag on a comprehensive worldwide AIDS program that would include treatment as well as prevention. In April, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called for $7 billion to $10 billion over five years to fund a global AIDS war chest.

Last month, the Bush administration pledged $200 million, only one-tenth of what the UN is requesting from the U.S. "Sub-Saharan Africa repays $200 million every week to its creditors," says Jamie Drummond of Drop the Debt. "Zambia, where one adult in five has HIV, spends more repaying debts to the IMF than it does on health care." Along with other anti-globalization protesters, the London-based debt-cancellation advocates will travel to the G-8 July summit in Genoa, where AIDS funding is on the agenda. Meanwhile, the U.S. has earmarked its UN donation for AIDS prevention, not treatment.

Yet access to treatment has been the movement’s driving force since the early days. "Fear was a motivator in the late ’80s," says Eric Sawyer, who helped found ACT UP in 1987. "We were ill, and our friends were dying like flies, " Heeding Larry Kramer’s call to arms, the grassroots group fought both the Reagan administration’s inaction and record-high pharmaceutical prices for AZT. ACT UP relied on direct action to draw public attention to the AIDS crisis, disrupting trading on the New York Stock Exchange and storming the National Institutes of Health.

Ten years ago. ACT UP meetings attracted up to 1000 people, mostly white gay men. Two weeks ago, the group’s planning session drew only a dozen people, but two-thirds of them were women, and several were people of color. Some of them represent organizations like the African Services Committee, while others participate in groups as varied as the National Organization for Women and the Direct Action Network.

Scores of the early AIDS activists died, and some became insiders in the AIDS infrastructure the movement helped to create, but other factors also account for the changes in ACT UP’s membership. Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 defused political outrage by bringing a more sympathetic administration to power. The pharmaceutical dimension also changed dramatically after 1995, as new life-extending drugs became available, lessening the fear and urgency that had fueled massive actions like ACT UP’s Day of Desperation.

"There is a real misconception that activism is dead and the old kind of activism is passé," Sawyer argues. "Exactly the opposite is true." ACT UP Philadelphia is a prime example. Last summer the group disrupted the Republican convention. Its members suffered brutal police treatment, and were jailed on up to $1 million in bail. Nearly two-thirds of ACT UP Philly’s members are African American, reflecting how the epidemic has shifted gears in the U.S. While death rates have dropped dramatically, especially among whites, AIDS remains the number one killer among people of color aged 25 to 44 in the U.S.

ACT UP Philadelphia took to the streets in Washington earlier this month, and accounted for a large part of the march organized by AIDS Quilt founder Cleve Jones. En route from the White House to the Capitol, the demonstrators detoured to protest in front of the pharmaceutical industry’s lobbying offices. In contrast to the early AIDS marches on Washington, which framed the struggle in national terms, this event linked the local to the global. Carrying signs that read, "Stop medical apartheid from South Africa to Philadelphia," ACT UP members chanted, "Medication for every nation!"

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