On Wednesday, March 25, activists from around the U.S. flooded the Twitterverse with the hashtag #FreeBlackGayMen to raise awareness around the case of Michael "Tiger Mandingo" Johnson. Johnson, a black gay man living with HIV, is currently serving time in prison while his case awaits trial. He was arrested in 2014 after reports surfaced that he had consensual sex with more than 30 men in the St. Charles, Missouri, area. Johnson was a student on the school wrestling team at Lindenwood University when he was arrested.
Johnson's case involves complex social issues, including race and sexuality. The mostly white suburb of St. Charles is not very far from Ferguson, the town where unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer. While stories such as those of Brown have proliferated in the news, contributing to the growth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Johnson's has not gained much traction outside of a slew of sensationalist headlines.
Charles Stephens, founder of The Counter Narrative Project, wants to change that. The Counter Narrative Project is a black gay men's advocacy organization whose strategies involve mobilization, messaging and political education. "We hope to elevate and amplify his story, to build national solidarity and inspire cultural change," Stephens said in an exclusive statement to TheBody.com.
Stephens is part of a group of activists and journalists working to reframe the issues surrounding Johnson's case. In January, Stephens reached out to Steven Thrasher, a freelance journalist who wrote an article about Johnson for BuzzFeed, and brought him into The Counter Narrative Project's network of advocates, black gay men and allies.
Stephens organized Wednesday's Twitter chat to raise awareness about Johnson, whose trial was moved to May. "There is still a lot to learn around how to use social media as a strategy to build power among black gay men," Stephens said.
Stephens was inspired to develop the #FreeBlackGayMen hashtag by an HIV awareness campaign created by black gay writer and activist Craig Harris in New York City in the 1980s. The campaign, called F*** Black Men, challenged indifference to black gay men's lives.
"Craig Harris is an important figure in black gay men's HIV/AIDS activism. And also 'freedom,' or being 'free,' is an important theme in the theorization and political action of early black gay HIV/AIDS activists. I wanted to capture that," Stephens said.
While Stephens does acknowledge Johnson's case as part of a larger cultural narrative around #BlackLivesMatter, he also believes that it is part of a longer historical narrative of black gay men being vulnerable to state violence, including violence perpetrated by the criminal justice system and the medical establishment.
"The specific criminalization of our sexuality, as black gay men, is an important point of departure to begin a strategy of resistance," he said. "HIV criminalization is just another manifestation, another form in which we are criminalized. For us, if we don't resist, we will remain vulnerable to this clinic-to-prison pipeline."
News of Johnson's arrest in St. Charles came only about a month after the Iowa Legislature made national news with the nation's first HIV decriminalization law. The law was made possible through grassroots organizing. Though national efforts to decriminalize HIV are strong, almost nine months after Johnson's arrest, few voices have come forward to speak for the man referred to as "Tiger Mandingo."
Below are some tweets that came out of the #FreeBlackGayMen Twitter chat:
Early Gay Liberation had a strong movement of support for men and women in prison. Important work. #freeblackgaymen— Chris Bartlett (@harveymilk) March 25, 2015
The burden of disclosure&transmission cannot be placed only on HIV+ ppl. We all in this when fucking/protesting/organizing #freeblackgaymen— Kenny Pass (@kennedyforpres) March 25, 2015
Integrating decriminalization into an abolistionist framework requires the belief that HIV poz folks are worth fighting for.#freeBlackgaymen— Steven (@steven_brooklyn) March 25, 2015
The language of "responsibility" distracts us and is too individualistic #freeblackgaymen— Charles Stephens (@CharlesStephen2) March 25, 2015
Should I Press Charges for HIV Nondisclosure? Think carefully before initiating a legal process you might later regret. #freeblackgaymen— Robert Suttle (@i_Suttle) March 25, 2015
Black gay and bisexual men have to adjust their eyes and see that we can't end HIV without decriminalizing the virus. #freeBlackgaymen— Steven (@steven_brooklyn) March 25, 2015
for black gay men its the clinic-to-prison pipeline if we don't intervene NOW #freeblackgaymen— Charles Stephens (@CharlesStephen2) March 25, 2015
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