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Ferguson, Missouri, Activism and ACT UP

By Aaron Laxton

August 18, 2014

Ferguson protest

By now, Ferguson, Missouri has gained international attention. Being a 4th generation-resident of St. Louis, I wish the attention was for reasons other than police brutality, riots and the death of an unarmed teenager. Last night, day seven of the movement, I decided to venture down to Ferguson. For those of you who are unaware, Ferguson is in St. Louis County, located about 15 minutes north of downtown St. Louis.

I had seen the media accounts of what was going on in Ferguson, however I needed to see first-hand. I parked my car in a Walgreens parking lot north of the now-famed QT gas-station that was looted and burned earlier in the week. I strapped on my camera and gear then set out on the trek, walking south on West Florissant Blvd. I made my way through a line of police officers that consisted mostly of Missouri State Highway Patrol and St. Louis County Police. Soon I start to encounter people of all ages who are carrying signs with various messages. The message was clear; Mike Brown, the teenager at the center of this movement, is very much alive and well in most people's memory. After walking for about 5-10 minutes I start to get closer to the QT and the scenes made famous by national media. The frustration and determination of those in attendance was palpable.

Through the course of this situation in Ferguson, I have been amazed by people's varying reaction. I have been astounded to see responses criticizing those who are protesting, especially from people living with HIV. This article is not seeking to justify any aspect of the details of the case; that is for the Department of Justice to investigate and make appropriate recommendations. I do, however, think it is important for people to remember that there was a time when ACT UP engaged in civil disobedience and protests -- protests which seemed very radical at the time. I am not suggesting that ACT UP was a bunch of rioters, looters and troublemakers; however, I am sure there were some that held this viewpoint. I mean, protestors stormed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Rockville, MD. Traffic was interrupted throughout New York and other cities. Calculated and coordinated direct actions were planned out and executed with a precision that made those in positions of authority take notice. For the first time since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we were no longer going to accept the scraps that were given to us. We were people and we demanded respect and treatment which we knew would save our lives.

Ferguson protest

When people see an injustice whether it be the treatment of those living with HIV/AIDS or police brutality then some would say that there is an obligation to address it in an effort to bring about change. Today, I have access to life-saving medications thanks in no small part to the direct actions that ACT UP took. Today, most who are protesting in Ferguson, Missouri are doing so with the intent to bring about a future where police brutality is greatly-reduced. While it is easy to get derailed by the destructive actions of a few, we must keep our sight set on the real task at hand.

As I marched with 400-500 demonstrators through Ferguson, Missouri I was reminded of various marches I have participated in with ACT UP. Whether or not you agree with facts of the case that you have been fed by the media, you should recognize the importance of what is taking place. People within a community have engaged in constitutional rights of assembly and of free speech. As a result of these issues such as police brutality, militarization of police forces as well as freedom of speech are all going to be addressed.

There was a time when those living with HIV were viewed as sub-humans who should be sterilized and segregated. Regarding police brutality, remember it wasn't too long ago in Michigan where a woman was arrested with not disclosing she was HIV positive to a police officer who was conducting a traffic stop.

As we have fought for our rights as people living with HIV to be treated fairly, we must now join the fight of others who are fighting for their own freedoms and liberties. Democracy exists with a demand that those who enjoy it's liberties to ensure that all get to share in it. Below is a poem from Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me.

-- Martin Niemöller

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