Silence STILL Equals Death ...
When I first joined the staff of AIDS Survival Project some eight years ago, I chose to name this column Action = Life. I primarily did this to draw attention to the power of individual acts of advocacy and to pay tribute to accomplishments of the ACT UP movement where I learned so many lessons about AIDS activism. In the era before protease inhibitors, resistance tests, and the wide-spread use of combination therapy, I felt that this was also a nice reminder that so many of were poring heart and soul into the work of helping people to live a higher quality of life when all around were reminders of death.
This month, as I return from Washington, DC where I have spent several frustrating days trying to convince Congress and the Bush Administration that AIDS is still a crisis for so many, I knew that now is the time to remind folks of the old rally cry of ACT UP and the desperation that it called to mind.
Ryan White CARE Act Funding
There is no doubt that there continues to be much to celebrate about the AIDS community. However, I have grave concerns of where the future will lead us. By the time you read this column, we should know what next year's federal budget includes in the way of funding for the Ryan White CARE Act. As I have mentioned throughout the year, nationally, we need an overall increase of nearly $304 million in the next federal fiscal year to keep up with the demands for service. The President recommended no increase at all. The Senate, which passed their version of the budget earlier this year, has recommend $161 million in new funds. The House of Representatives, which had not acted on the budget by mid-September, would therefore decide what, if anything, would be the final fate of CARE Act funding in the coming year.
In a highly unusual move, the President was putting pressure on the House to by-pass the time-honored course of action where each budget item is debated in sub-committees and then voted on by the entire appropriations committee before a final vote on the floor of the House. We were told by many sources, both Republican and Democratic, that the President was working to have the leadership of the House take his budget recommendations directly to the floor without benefit of the analysis and opinions of those who work closely on individual line-items that comes from the full committee process. The rationale being that in time of war and national crisis, business as usually should be suspended. If such action does occur, it will not only have disastrous results for the ability of AIDS service providers around the country to provide the level of care that the community has deservedly come to expect, but it also sets a dangerous precedent for silencing debate in the U.S. Congress.
During my time in Washington, there were many conversations about the future of community-based advocacy. Every success won on behalf of people living with HIV in this country has been driven by an empowered group of consumers working in tandem with passionate advocates and service providers. In the past year, this passion and commitment has been re-ignited out of concerns for the future. An excellent example is the response of both the public and the providers to the speech made by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, at the World AIDS Conference in Barcelona. When the Secretary began to speak on how the current Bush Administration had done more for people living with AIDS than any previous administration, people began to shout, eventually drowning out the Secretary. While I was not at the conference to witness this event first-had, from speaking with others who were in attendance, it was not any more confrontational that other responses to similar remarks that AIDS activists have felt were misleading when made by other key decision makers in the past. And while I do not know the Secretary personally, in speaking with others who do, he seemed to take it in stride. In fact, what has been portrayed as a very positive meeting took place immediately after the incident so that the Secretary could hear first-hand, the frustrations that had led to the outburst. Everyone felt that while the discourse may have been tense at first, a new respect and understanding from both sides was beginning to emerge.
However, this period of hopefulness was short-lived, when several members of Congress immediately called for federal audits of those organizations in attendance at the meeting. These members of Congress were so outraged that the community would speak out against the Presidential Administration, that they quickly responded by attempting to silence further dissent by using the tools of government to intimidate people into silence.
Losing Our Most Powerful Voices
The demise of AIDS activism has been written about for almost as long as AIDS activism has existed, so perhaps there is nothing newsworthy here. However, this time I wonder if the warning signs are more dire than before. There has been tremendous turnover in the past couple of years in the leadership of many local and national organizations. While the new leaders taking control are just as committed as the leaders of the past to providing quality services, many of them do not have the benefit of remembering the "lean and mean" years of the AIDS community. While any generalization does a disservice to the tens of thousands of fine and dedicated folks doing this work on either a professional or volunteer level; there seems to be a heightened degree of complacency that suggests a mentality that we need to learn to make do with what we have and that frowns upon rocking the boat in efforts to ask for more. Such short-sightedness, when combined with forgetting how we were able to build such an exemplary system of care in the first place, puts the entire advocacy movement on the brink of silencing itself permanently.
Returning to Action = Life
In the coming months, there will be a renewed push to fight this complacency and epidemic of silence. AIDS Survival Project will join with many colleagues from around the country to let you know what you can do to help turn the tide. Please, if you have not already done so, take the time to join our Action Network by visiting our website at www.aidssurvivalproject.org
and signing up to receive our e-mail alerts. When you hear of an action taking place in Atlanta or any other community where you live, find the time to get involved. Do not be afraid to ask your service provider what they are doing to combat the epidemic of silence, and do not forget to thank them for what they are doing in the midst of so much fear and intimidation. I have not given up yet, but I am afraid.
Remember Them With Your Vote
What you can do right now to combat this silence is to vote in the upcoming elections. On Tuesday, November 5, people in Georgia and around the country will have the opportunity to speak out on what is happening. A third of the U.S. Senate, the entire House of Representatives, and thousands of state of local positions will be up for grabs. Voter apathy is expected to run high in the aftermath of last year's presidential election fiasco. Do not give in to the cynicism! Know who will support your concerns. Know who is in favor of increasing funding for our overwhelmed system of care. Think about what the future holds for you and others living with HIV around the globe.
If you are not registered, do so today. In Georgia, you may contact the Secretary of State's office at 404-656-2871 or on the web at www.GeorgiaElections.org to find out how to register. Outside of Georgia, click here. You may also contact our office if you are unsure of where to vote or who is running in your district.