HIV on the Agenda at #M4BL, the National Movement for Black Lives Convening

Kenyon Farrow of Treatment Action Group (TAG) is one of the HIV activists leading discussions at the Movement for Black Lives Convening.
Kenyon Farrow of Treatment Action Group (TAG) is one of the HIV activists leading discussions at the Movement for Black Lives Convening.

As people from across the U.S. converge at Cleveland State University for the inaugural national convening of "The Movement for Black Lives" -- hashtag #M4BL -- HIV criminalization features prominently on the agenda. The conference was inspired by the ongoing national conversation on race and deadly police brutality after a series of incidents have created racialized flash points across the country: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York City, 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and, most recently, Sandra Bland in Texas who subsequently died while in police custody.

The conference will feature three workshops that will discuss HIV, its racial disparities and criminalization:

  • "Making All Lives Matter: Merging and Intersecting Movements to End Criminalization,"
  • "HIV Is Not a Crime or Is It? Intersecting HIV Criminalization and Race" and
  • "Black Side of the Red Ribbon: Black Activists Share Strategies From Past and Present HIV/AIDS Activism."

The Movement for Black Lives Convening comes at a time of heightened discussion of intersectionality -- the complex ways in which discrimination, oppression and marginalization interconnect -- and its impact on people of color in education, housing, development, employment and more. The workshop topics were selected by an open vote by those who registered for the convening.

"Our workshop -- 'HIV Is Not a Crime or Is It?' -- received the sixth highest number of votes," said Bryan C. Jones, a Cleveland-based prevention and anti-criminalization advocate. Jones has been living with HIV for more than 30 years. "It made me tear up to see that people were concerned about 'my' life. Michael Johnson could have been me. We can't pick and choose which lives matter and which don't."

"We thought it was important to discuss HIV in the larger context of black activism and social justice work," added Kenyon Farrow, the U.S. and global health policy director of the Treatment Action Group. Farrow will moderate two workshops at the convening. "We have a history of 30 years of activism around this issue."

An Expanding Agenda

Many younger activists in the Black Lives Matter movement want to broaden its agenda, said Waheedah Shabazz-El, the Philadelphia-based founding member of the Positive Women's Network-USA, who will be a panelist at two of the three workshops. "I'm 62 years old and didn't know if I would live to see another evolution in the black community. It is our time to progress from 'civil rights' to 'human rights.'"

"There are so many racial disparities and inequities that create a heightened risk for HIV and mortality in black people," added Marsha Jones, the Dallas-based co-founder and executive director of The Afiya Center, which supports marginalized women living with HIV. "It's a natural and organic progression to have the Black Lives Matter movement connect our work. We are going to say HIV criminalization should not be a crime and will list the reasons. We want them to think about it even if they don't agree with our position."

Farrow, Shabazz-El, Marsha Jones and others are hopeful that the movement will become more intersectional. "When we hear black lives matter, we think of black people who are shot dead in the street either by police or vigilantes. That work is important," said Farrow. "But we need to broaden the focus to how we experience premature death across a range of institutional settings. Black people have higher mortality rates in many settings and environments."

Criminalization and Race

On July 13, 23-year-old Michael Johnson was sentenced to 30 years and six months in prison in a sensationalized HIV criminalization case that attracted media coverage from across the country. The former student and star wrestler at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, was accused of "recklessly infecting" one male sexual partner with HIV and exposing four others to the virus. Johnson was convicted of four counts of HIV exposure and one count of HIV transmission on May 15.

Missouri is one of at least 32 states and two territories that criminalize exposure or transmission of HIV. Johnson is African American. His conviction under Missouri's draconian HIV criminalization statute was decided in a racialized trial by an almost all-white jury.

Johnson's trial in St. Charles was less than 10 miles from the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. Ferguson has come to symbolize modern racial oppression after the August 2014 death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The national Black Lives Matter movement that arose following the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 has stood behind the Ferguson community, calling for justice and conversation around police- and state-sponsored violence against African Americans.

African Americans comprise about 14% of the nation's population, but almost 44% of all new HIV infections. Seroconversions are rising fastest among black men who have sex with men -- especially the younger demographics. The trend is particularly acute in the South.

Black women, black and Latina transgender women and Latino communities also experience significant HIV disparities. African-American women account for more than 60% of all infections among women.

Black men and women also appear to be more likely to be prosecuted under HIV criminalization statutes according to some research. For instance, Michigan's harsh HIV criminalization laws produced "an overrepresentation" of black men "and an underrepresentation of white men with male partners among those convicted," according to a study conducted by Trevor Hoppe, a University of California at Irvine sociologist.

African Americans account for "nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated" and "are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites," according to the NAACP.

HIV-exposure cases often feature overly aggressive prosecution -- such as harsher charges, penalties and sentences -- that have become the hallmark of racial disparities across the prison industrial complex. For example, a black, HIV-positive gay man in Michigan faced bio-terrorism charges after he was accused of biting another man during a fight. Biting and spitting pose extremely low risks for HIV transmission.

Criminalization laws also further destabilize families and communities that have been impacted by mass incarceration. "Many women lose their children if they are prosecuted. Many others may have to register as a sex-offender," said Shabazz-El. "Where will you be able to get employment when you have this on your driver's license or record? You can't go near a day care center. Can you even visit your children's school?"

Some of the HIV-specific statutes penalize sexual relations even after revealing serostatus to a partner and regardless of whether or not a condom was used.

"These laws exacerbate stigma against HIV-positive people," said Hoppe. "They are not decreasing new infections. They are not incentivizing disclosure. It could be just the opposite, and many people fear that it encourages not disclosing."

"The law requires you to disclose, but it doesn't guarantee you a safe environment once you have disclosed," added Bryan Jones. "My car was set afire only hours after I disclosed to someone. Luckily, I was not inside or harmed. I am in constant fear that someone will say that I infected them on purpose. People don't realize the day-to-day battles that positive people experience."

Trauma and Violence

Disclosure is never easy. It is even more difficult for women -- who are disproportionately facing economic and housing insecurities -- and exacerbated by gender-based and intimate-partner violence. And the possibility of criminal charges. Those stories will be shared at the #M4BL convening.

HIV prevention and anti-criminalization advocates are hopeful that #M4BL attendees will be receptive to their message, especially because there is more awareness around high levels of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in black communities living in poverty that experience elevated levels of violence. Trauma has been identified as a key driver of the epidemic among women.

The Positive Women's Network - USA released a landmark study in 2013 on gender-based stigma and violence. Among the HIV-positive women surveyed, 72% experienced intimate-partner violence, as opposed to a quarter of all women. Cicely Bolden was stabbed to death in her Dallas home in September 2012. Police say the 28-year-old Bolden was killed by her boyfriend after she revealed her serostatus.

"So many African American women have experienced trauma that was never addressed prior to becoming HIV positive," said Marsha Jones. "Then you have physical abuse, mental health, substance abuse -- all from that original trauma, poverty and more. Then you get an HIV diagnosis. That's why so many women living with HIV are experiencing what amounts to PTSD. We need to organize around this."

Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News and NBC, Scientific American_,_ The Atlantic_,_ The Nation_,_ Ebony_,_ Poz and many others. He will become a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology later this summer.