Audre Lorde wrote, "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives." In the world of HIV activism, that quote was embodied wholly by the life and work of Mario Cooper, who passed away at the age of 61. Cooper had been living with HIV since the early 1990s, but he died after he ceased eating, according to his sister Peggy Cooper Cafritz.
Cooper rose to prominence in the 1990s as a political player who pressured leaders in Washington and the black community to address HIV among black people. "Our community is being ravaged by AIDS, yet most black leaders continue to treat the disease as if it's a problem of 'those' people," he said in 1996.
In the same year, Cooper organized the Leading for Life initiative at Harvard University to mobilize black leadership to speak about HIV in the black community.
Leading for Life played a direct role in getting then President Bill Clinton to declare the HIV epidemic a crisis in communities of color and allocate $156 million of funding to fight it. Cooper's reaction? "It's a shot in the arm," he told a Washington Post reporter at the time. "It's really only chump change for what is going to be needed for this disease."
A decade later, he was still very much concerned with the state of HIV when he wrote "Get Your Black Up!" in which he said, "I look at where we are in 2006 compared to where we were a decade ago, and it's as if we're in the same place -- and that is heartbreaking. It's not that we haven't made progress. It's that the virus has made so much more." In the article, Cooper also advocated for a renewal in HIV efforts within the black community, even expressing the desire to see a completely black ACT UP.
What we need, right now, is for 20 African Americans with HIV to do a sit-in at the offices of the Congressional Black Caucus and demand that the caucus make AIDS the number one issue on its agenda. If Magic Johnson wants to come risk arrest, he's more than welcome, but we cannot wait: With or without the support of our celebrities, our churches, our family and friends, African Americans with HIV must hold our own leaders accountable. ... what we need is a movement. A national group of people with HIV, church leaders, grassroots prevention and treatment advocates, policymakers. A black ACT UP.
Obituaries for Cooper appeared in both The New York Times and POZ magazine.
"He was a master at bringing diverse people together who realized that AIDS was extremely disproportionately occurring in African-American communities," Richard Marlink, a professor of public health at Harvard, told The New York Times.
Writing for POZ magazine, Sean Strub recalled that some activists had to hone their skills over time, while "for Mario, it was in his genes." Strub added, "Mario never knew a life different from one led at the nexus of Democratic politics, the civil rights movement and elite African-American intellectual and political circles."
Many took to Twitter to remember Cooper, including Us Weekly Editor Kevin O'Leary.
As we move forward as a community affected by HIV, cognizant of the importance of our intersectional identities, Cooper's spirit and words ring just as true as they did a decade ago.
And with that, I will leave you with his words.
We must fight to lift the veil of denial, and we must do so with dignity and leadership. We must come together hand in hand to fight both AIDS complacency and AIDS stigma in the African-American community. Every denial, every "no" -- no to condoms, no to getting tested, no to Christian charity, no to voting -- equals a death when dealing with AIDS. A denial of AIDS Drug Assistance Program drugs could mean a death. A denial of a child's homosexuality could mean a death. As African Americans with HIV, we know this better than anyone else, so it's our responsibility to lead the way, to refuse to accept no for an answer, to lay our bodies on the line. Act up.
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