July 19, 2010
Vienna, Austria -- With a special rancor reserved for the U.S. and president Barack Obama, hundreds of AIDS activists and people living with AIDS marched en masse through the Messe Wien conference center at the start of the XVIII International AIDS conference (AIDS 2010) in Vienna, Austria, demanding more money for AIDS funding.
Amid shouts of "Obama lied, millions die!" and "Keep your promise, we want to live!" throngs of protesters from around the world snaked through the conference center giving vibrant color and sound to an otherwise staid environment.
Sex workers with red umbrellas, shirtless housing activists, traditional rabble rousers with pink ACT UP triangles on their shirts and men and women from every corner of the world assembled for the peaceful but spirited "die in" right outside of the doors of the official opening session of the AIDS conference, which included speakers such as Austrian President Heinz Fischer and AIDS activist Annie Lenox.
Over 185 groups signed on to participate in the demonstration, which kicked off with a massive banner drop outside of the conference center and a focus on the fact that in the midst of a global economic crisis, countries have decreased spending for HIV and AIDS significantly.
"Our own governments need to fund the global fund, so we're all here in solidarity marching for the cause," says Lynette, 27, a Cape Town resident and member of the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA).
In fact, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM), the world's collective economic response to the AIDS crisis, has cut funding by 25 percent over the last three years, according to the protest's organizing group, Fight Global AIDS.
President Obama and the United States, though, especially bore the brunt of much of the anger of the protesters, ostensibly because the U.S. is the fund's largest contributor.
"I'm here because I'm a betrayed American," says Dr. Paul Zeitz of the Global AIDS Alliance, a social justice AIDS organization.
"President Obama committed to ending AIDS in the United States and he only provided $25 million for ADAP, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program. But we need $125 million for Americans to get life saving AIDS medicines."
"It's great words," says Zeitz of the recently released National AIDS Strategy. "But I'm not asking for words, I'm asking for money. Money is the oxygen for action."
As the protesters marched through the convention center's halls, they practically defaced the United States' (and only the United States') booth, plastering it with signs saying "Broken Promises Kill. No Retreat. Fund AIDS."
"President Obama came into office to be the answer to so many things, including HIV and AIDS to fix what the Bush administration has done so horribly," agrees Matthew Kavanaugh of Health GAP, a U.S. based human rights organization.
"It doesn't matter that the U.S. is the biggest donor to the Global Fund because we are also the wealthiest nation. As a portion of what we can afford, this is tiny."
Phill Wilson, of the Black AIDS Institute, however, had a more nuanced look at what the Obama administration has done, yet also made it clear that he is no apologist for the president.
"The issue around AIDS today is about money but it's not just about money," explained Wilson. "There are policy issues that have been accomplished this year -- the lifting of the ban on needle exchange; the lifting of the travel restrictions. The change away from abstinence only messages. Healthcare reform is an AIDS issue. The filling of the donut hole, the elimination of pre-existing conditions, the elimination of lifetime caps. Those all help people living with HIV."
"We're not making the investment we need to make and we should continue to remind the president that we need to make a bigger investment," Wilson said. "But the policies that the president has implemented are also saving lives."
Angela Bronner Helm is a Harlem-based editor with AOL BlackVoices and board member of the Black AIDS Institute.