This Is Exactly How HIV Activists Disrupted Congress to Save Health Care

Contributing Editor
(Left to right) Jaron Benjamin, Paul Davis and Jennifer Flynn stand with protesters after mass arrests in Washington, D.C. on July 10, 2017
Emily Marie Ahtúnan

Late last month, thousands of Americans with HIV/AIDS -- many of them among the millions of Americans who rely on Medicaid or Affordable Care Act (ACA) plans for their health coverage -- saw the news and breathed yet one more major sigh of relief: GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell announced that, lacking the votes needed to win, the Senate would not go forward on its final effort this year to kill the ACA (aka Obamacare) and take a devastating bite out of Medicaid.

As had been the case after a similar moment in July, many hailed GOP senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and John McCain as heroes for withholding their votes, thus dooming GOP efforts to destroy the health programs. But many of the millions nationwide who'd been watching the news in the nail-biting days, weeks and months leading up to that final vote knew who the real heroes were: the masses of people with chronic conditions and their allies who'd flooded the District of Columbia week after week to literally take over the offices of their GOP senators, undergoing arrest as their limp bodies were dragged away by Capitol Police while they shouted, screamed, begged and cajoled their lawmakers not to take away the health coverage keeping them alive.

In July alone, over the course of four daylong actions, 700 people from 39 states flooded into D.C., with 400 of them arrested. On one day alone, 49 Senate offices were occupied. It was among the larger, more sustained displays of civil disobedience the nation had seen in recent years. Footage of the arrests appeared everywhere from CNN to USA Today to Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show. And they were widely credited with keeping a high level of pressure on moderate Republicans to -- in the words that rang out in the halls of the Capitol throughout July -- "Kill the bill, don't kill us!"

Then, just when you thought activists didn't have a drop of fight left in them, they were back in D.C. in late September, massing outside the Senate hearing on the Graham-Cassidy bill, the last attempt to gut Obamacare programs. "Shame! Shame!" they roared as senators went into the hearing.

Remarkably, those multiple waves of D.C. pilgrimages and arrests were largely organized by three veteran AIDS activists: Jaron Benjamin and Paul Davis of Housing Works and Jennifer Flynn of The Center for Popular Democracy. (They received funding for staples such as bus charters, plane tickets, tightly packed hotel rooms and lots of pizza deliveries from their respective organizations, plus individual donors.

I spoke with Flynn and Benjamin about the sleep-deprived, adrenaline-charged madness of pulling together day after day of mass arrests, of their most exultant and despairing moments -- and, most importantly, of why they need you to keep your eyes on the real prize: universal health care.

Tim Murphy: You pulled off something massive. How on earth did just three people do that? How did it start?

Jennifer Flynn: It actually started in January, when we started traveling the country and doing these bird-dogging trainings in different cities, sharing with people our experience of how you hound politicians about health care at every event you possibly can, pinning them down with yes-or-no questions and videoing it. Jaron called it Bird-Dogging Nation. So, we created a network that way. Paul and I did that with presidential candidate Al Gore in 1999, and it led to the U.S. dropping its lawsuits against South Africa for violating American patents to make affordable AIDS drugs.

Murphy: So, you were creating a lot of stink in cities around the country for months before you took it to D.C. this summer.

Flynn: At a town hall in Arkansas, Kati McFarland got into a back-and-forth with Senator Tom Cotton that went pretty viral. The same thing with Marco Rubio in Florida.

Murphy: When did you feel it started to reach critical mass?

Flynn: I'd say the first trip to D.C. right after July 4. We had about $25,000 to pull off each trip, which I'd say proves that if our side actually had enough money to do the work, we'd win more. We were able to fundraise quickly from foundations, individuals and unions because it was this critical national moment. On average, it cost $500 to get each person to D.C., house them, feed them and pay their legal fines.

Jaron Benjamin: I think the first time we really moved the needle was July 10. We got out of jail to find that we owned the whole front page of CNN's website. The 10th was twice as big as the one before, with more than 80 people arrested. By the action on the 17th, it was clear to me that the whole thing was bigger than we could handle with our staff capacity.

Flynn: We developed this system where [Brooklyn activist] Molly Sandley and I would stay up all night for three days before the action, communicating about how many people were coming in and booking hotel rooms and buses. We never wanted to overbook. Then, we'd go to bed and Jaron and Paul would stay up the next two nights of the action.

Benjamin: The day before the actual vote in July, I kept falling asleep on my feet.

Flynn: I started viewing it as training for when shit gets really bad and America turns into Venezuela. And the funny thing is that, even when it was done, I felt like we could have kept going. It made me realize that I'd been thinking too small my whole organizing career.

Murphy: What was a challenge you didn't foresee?

Flynn: Actually, a benefit we didn't foresee was that you never get such incredible clarity in a campaign. It was crystal clear that we were on the verge of losing health care for tens of millions of people and there was no billionaire coming in to save us. Nobody could say to us, "We're on the inside track and you're gonna fuck this up for us." There was nobody on the inside.

Benjamin: There was nobody to say, "Here's what we want you to do instead."

Murphy: But what was the toughest part?

Flynn: It was that, even up to the last minute, despite all these passionate people with great stories about being directly impacted, we thought we were going to lose. I had to make myself be very stone faced because I was thinking, "All these people are going to be dead in three years, especially if their states don't have Medicaid expansion."

Benjamin: I totally agree with that. We thought we were just delaying the inevitable. And I also really missed my daughter, who just turned two. There was a point in March when we went on a short vacation and she was very angry with me for not having been around.

Murphy: Where were you when it was finally voted down around 3 a.m. back in July?

Benjamin: I was on my bike from Brooklyn to be the bus captain for that day's haul of activists into D.C. I glanced at my phone and there are all these texts saying, "Unbelievable!" I sent out a text telling the New Yorkers booked for our bus to go back to bed, but when I got to the bus pickup site, there were five or six there who hadn't heard.

Flynn: I was in a hotel room in D.C. with the TV on. I was so tired that I didn't believe it; I thought I'd misheard. And then people were texting me like, "No, it's done." And I was like, "Wait. Did we just win?" Then, I went down to the celebration on Capitol Hill.

Murphy: What's the long-term plan to work toward universal health care?

Benjamin: It's continuing to train our bird-doggers to call for getting more people covered for less expenses out of their own pockets, with quality at least as good as what congress members get.

Flynn: We have every intention of using people's passion around health care to flip the House of Representatives in 2018. Tea Party activists made every GOP candidate pledge they were going to repeal Obamacare. We're going to make every candidate pledge to get behind universal coverage.

Murphy: How can people nationwide sign on for this?

Flynn: Get 15 of your friends and a room, and we'll fly out and train you.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.