Taking It to the Streets
On July 7, 2009, 35 activists chained themselves together in the Capitol Rotunda and unfurled a giant banner demanding that Congress fund global AIDS, syringe exchange, and AIDS housing. They chanted loud enough that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi could hear them in their offices, and were arrested. On World AIDS Day, hundreds of AIDS activists held a funeral in front of the White House to mourn the loss of life due to Obama's broken promises. They released a report card on the administration's progress on fighting global AIDS. The grade: D+.
In early 2010, Obama proposed to freeze all non-military spending, so activists brought 600 pounds of ice to the White House, a reminder that a frozen budget leaves people with AIDS out in the cold. When the President's budget came out, global AIDS programs received an insignificant 2% increase not even enough to keep pace with inflation. But worst of all, Obama proposed to cut funding for the Global Fund. Every year since 2002, the Global Fund had received an increase. This was a huge blow, especially since the Global Fund was facing a financial shortfall so severe that existing grants might be cut.
There had always been suspicions around the administration's claims that these tiny funding increases were having no effect on the ground. But soon after the budget was released, activists found a smoking gun -- a memo from the CDC to organizations implementing U.S.-funded AIDS programs in Uganda. It read:
This needed to become public. We took it to the New York Times, which ran a front-page story. It told of one Uganda clinic turning away 800 people a month because there was no funding for new AIDS treatment. Worst of all, these were mostly people who had been tested for HIV with U.S. money and promised medication when they got sick.
On May 13, 2010, as President Obama attended a fundraiser in New York City, 500 people marched through the streets carrying signs reading, "Obama to People with AIDS: Wait to die." Nearly a dozen were arrested trying to enter the fundraiser. On June 17, 2,000 people marched to the U.S. Embassy in Johannesburg, South Africa. They delivered a letter calling on the U.S. to increase funding for PEPFAR and the Global Fund to the levels Congress had authorized.
In July, over a thousand activists from every corner of the globe marched through the halls of the International AIDS Conference in Vienna and staged a "die-in" in front of the opening session. Chanting "Broken promises kill," they took the stage, making sure that everyone in the room knew that governments around the world -- not just the U.S. -- were failing to keep their commitments to fund AIDS programs.
The Obama administration could no longer ignore us. Eric Goosby, the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, used the conference to claim that the U.S. was not breaking its promise. Dr. Emanuel blogged that the U.S. was not retreating from AIDS funding promises. National Security Council Member Gayle Smith wrote a piece for the White House website detailing the administration's commitment to fighting AIDS. But at every turn, there were activists demanding that the U.S. increase funding.
The activism continued at a U.N. summit on poverty in September, where President Obama spoke about the U.S. commitment to fighting AIDS. But activists in New York and Philadelphia marched in long, single-file lines, visually demonstrating the consequences of broken promises. A handful of activists disrupted Obama at a fundraiser in Manhattan, and later in Philadelphia and Boston, garnering national attention.
Where Are We Now?
Fall is the time when the administration takes stock and begins to plan the next year's budget. Obama could reverse course and dramatically increase funding for global AIDS to the levels promised. He could propose $8.25 billion for PEPFAR and another $2.25 billion for the Global Fund, which would be on par with what Congress authorized. He could speak out in favor of the Financial Transaction Tax (see "Could a New Tax Save the Lives of Millions of People With HIV Around the World?" in this issue) -- a tiny tax on the trading of currencies by banks. Economists estimate that it could raise $33 billion a year. France and the U.K. are already in favor of it. But will the U.S. support it?
This campaign has been a success in that people took to the streets and demanded that the president keep his promise. But we haven't won yet. There are still ten million people in need of HIV treatment. Programs are continuing to turn people away due to lack of drugs.
There's a real chance to win this campaign and ensure that every person has access to lifesaving treatment. We can demand that our Congresspeople push Obama to increase global AIDS funding. We can write letters to local papers. We can join protests, especially on World AIDS Day, to demand that the President keep the promise he made three years ago to fully fund global AIDS. You can learn more about the campaign at www.TakeANumber.org. I can't wait to see you on the streets!
Kaytee Riek is a member of ACT UP Philadelphia and Director of Organizing for Health GAP.
This article was provided by ACRIA and GMHC. It is a part of the publication Achieve. Visit ACRIA's website and GMHC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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