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Say What? HIV-Positive Wall Street Protester Tells Cop Who Punched Him to Get Tested

By Warren Tong

October 24, 2011

According to the Gothamist article "HIV Positive Protester Says Cop Who Punched Him Should Get Tested," last Friday, an Occupy Wall Street protester was punched in the face by a New York City police officer. The protester, Felix Rivera-Pitre, who is openly gay and HIV positive, told Gothamist, "The cop just lunged at me full throttle and hit me on the left side of my face. It tore my earring out. I remember seeing my earring on the ground next to me and it was full of blood. I was completely dumbstruck. I'm HIV positive and that cop should get tested."

The last time I checked, it's pretty difficult to transmit HIV through a punch in the face, even with an open wound.

Now, given all of the court cases and stories about people living with HIV who are thrown in prison for spitting on or biting a police officer, it is disappointing (and dangerous) for someone who works in the HIV field as a volunteer for VOCAL-NY, and who is himself positive, to be spreading mistruths about transmission. VOCAL-NY is an HIV grassroots organization that advocates for low-income individuals living with HIV, and while the organization may not specialize in HIV prevention or education, its volunteers should at least know the basics.

Thankfully, Sarah R., a reader, contacted Gothamist to set things straight and her email was added to the end of the original article:

I understand that you are directly quoting Felix Rivera-Pitre but feel that you are inadvertently perpetuating a dangerous myth about HIV/AIDS transmission.

I work as an HIV/AIDS educator and as anyone with knowledge of the virus can tell you, the risk of infection from the assault experienced by Rivera-Pitre is practically impossible. The common misconception that such contact can result in infection has contributed to the stigma and ostracizing that people living with HIV/AIDS experience on a regular basis.

The fact that this headline and article reinforces this harmful idea is evidenced by some of your readers comments with one stating that Liberty Square should be disinfected. I admire your aim to cover the police brutality and give voice to Felix who has bravely chosen to reveal his status but I ask you [to] reevaluate how what appears to be a sensationalizing headline can be damaging to the community you are trying to present.

What's extremely problematic is that, had this person not written this letter, Gothamist might have never corrected its article -- and that is a serious journalistic ethics issue. People can say what they want, but media organizations have an obligation to fact check such statements and provide the reader with accurate information and context for those statements.

It's important to note that what happened to Rivera-Pitre is unfortunate and despite there being allegations that homophobia is the reason behind the altercation, the last thing that the HIV community needs is continued perpetuation of HIV transmission myths and more sensationalistic media headlines.

Watch the video below:

Warren Tong is the research editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

Follow Warren on Twitter: @WarrenAtTheBody.


Copyright © 2011 The HealthCentral Network, Inc. All rights reserved.

See Also
10 Harmful Myths About HIV/AIDS
AIDS Myths

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Michael Irwin (London) Wed., Oct. 26, 2011 at 7:38 am EDT
Last time I checked is indeed possible to get infected if two people have open wounds that are in contact and once is HIV positive. We do, of course, need to make sure that myths aren't perpetrated but the protester was absolutely right to tell the cop to get tested. If the cop were negative at the point of testing I would have recommended he start a couse of Post Exposure Prophylaxis.

Shame TheBody is so ignorant on this one.

Sarah R comments weren't helpful.
Reply to this comment
Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Warren Tong (TheBody.com) Wed., Oct. 26, 2011 at 6:30 pm EDT
Hey Michael, thanks for writing. I want to clarify that I never said it's impossible to transmit HIV with open wounds. I said it's pretty difficult. And just because Rivera-Pitre may have had an open wound, doesn't mean the cop did.

What's disappointing is that Rivera-Pitre and Gothamist did not take this opportunity to educate the public about HIV transmission. To say that it's extremely difficult to get HIV from punching somebody in the face. And that even if the police officer were to get tested, the window period is three months after last possible exposure.

Also, Sarah R's comment were spot on. Not everybody is educated when it comes to HIV transmission, especially made evident when the article gets a comment like, "After they clean the park they should also disinfect it. And all those protesters who were pulling the parasite by his hands should get tested."


Comment by: Jeannie Wraight (Bronx, New York) Mon., Oct. 24, 2011 at 2:57 pm EDT
Great blog, thanks for writing about this. I'm so glad the author added Sarah R.'s email to the article to correct what was most likely an attempt to sensationalize this article. We need to hold the media accountable for promoting such inaccuracies which add to the stigma and misconceptions about HIV. I do wonder, however, if Felix Rivera-Pitre made this statement as a sort of retaliation against the officer in order to scare him and make him think twice. In the heat of the moment he may not have realized the implications. I'm not defending his quote just wondering if there's more to it then just him making an uneducated statement. After being punched like that and in the environment of a huge protest that may have been the case. Maybe this should serve as a reminder to all of us, people in general, to think about what we say before we say it. Thanks again for writing about this.
Reply to this comment
Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Warren Tong (TheBody.com) Wed., Oct. 26, 2011 at 6:32 pm EDT
Thanks, Jeannie. He might have said it just to scare the officer, sure. But he also had plenty of opportunities after the fact to clarify!


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