Pictured Anderson getting arrested. Photo by Bob Roehr
Hundreds of AIDS activists streamed through the streets surrounding the U.S. Capitol May 20 in a demonstration the size and spirit of which hasn't been seen for years. They demanded increased funding for ADAP [AIDS Drug Assistace Program] and other programs, as well as the removal of moralistic restrictions put on those programs.
The most noteworthy aspects of the demonstration were its increased bipartisan tone—unhappiness with both political parties—and the arrest of 98 people when they lay down in an area of the Capitol normally used to unload tour busses. Processing those arrests continued well into the night, where each paid a $50 fine.
AIDSWatch filled the days leading up to the demonstration. The National Association of People With AIDS (NAPWA) coordinates the annual grassroots congressional lobbying effort conducted by national and local organizations.
NAPWA spokesman Paul Feldman said their organizing was more strategic this year, focusing upon appropriations committee members in both chambers as well as committees of jurisdiction. 'We got into more than half of all of the targets, which is really good. We had coverage in about 40 states.'
'We had people from states we never had before,' said Terje Anderson, NAPWA's executive director. 'But the frustrating thing is they went up on the Hill and they heard one message from policymakers—there is no money because of all of the other commitments that have been made. The chance of our getting sizable increases that are needed in many of these programs are virtually nil.'
'I think we've done a good job about educating them to the value of these programs, but we have to make them see that if they don't fund them, things will happen that are horrible. People will die. People will become infected needlessly. The programs that do work won't be able to function the way we know we want them to.
'We need to remind them that these are real lives of real people in their district and in their state, and they have the power to do something about it,' Anderson said.
The highlight for the Illinois contingent was that Republican Rep. Henry Hyde 'agreed to sign the Delahunt-Leech dear colleague letter' seeking a supplemental appropriation for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, said David Munar with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. Other friendly congressmen agreed to help raise public visibility of the issue.
'But otherwise it was a lot of bad news. Everybody is pessimistic about the appropriations process finishing this year at all. Democrats and Republicans were pretty unified in that message,' Munar said.
'It is tough this year, so it is really all about the election,' Munar added. 'The work on AIDSVote is exactly what we need to be doing, we need to raise AIDS as a serious issue of debate during the elections, and the inadequacy of the response to the crisis. If we don't do that, if we don't make that a serious issue, we are not going to do well in the appropriation process.'
Activist and POZ magazine founder Sean Strub said in an interview, 'What I pay most attention to are prevention programs and the dismantling of the most effective prevention programs that have been in place. High school students around the country are not being taught about condoms, they are being taught that condoms don't work. That is going to start to translate into more infections.
'You have an administration that just across the board is more interested in saving souls than in saving lives.'
Busloads of demonstrators from New York and Philadelphia joined those already in Washington at Folger Park near the Capitol.
Philadelphia activist Martin Wiley told the crowd, 'I'm voting for people who are going to make change. And until you prove to me that you are going to make change, you ain't got my vote. So, until I know that you are going to make change, I'm going to holler at you too John Kerry.
'We came down here not just to yell at Bush, we need to remember that. We need to remember that we are here to yell at all parties. I'm talking to you Ralph Nader, what are you doing?'
'We have a simple message to both parties: We want them to take action now. We cannot wait because lives are on the line,' NAPWA's Anderson told the crowd. 'We are here in Washington today because national priorities are screwed up' —Congress can pass tax cuts for the wealthy and fund $200 billion for the war in Iraq.
'If they can't provide healthcare for poor people, if they can't provide housing for poor people, if they can't provide drugs for sick people, their priorities are wrong. And we need to change their priorities for them. We need to be there in their face until they give every dollar that's needed and change every backward policy.
'We have an administration that has decided that it is going to pour millions of new dollars into telling young people that they have to remain abstinent until they get married. And that very same administration wants to pass a constitutional amendment that tells tens of millions of young gay and lesbian people that they can never be married, that they are going to have to remain abstinent for the rest of their lives. That is screwed up.'
Anderson struck a bipartisan tone. 'It is not about Democrats and Republicans for us, it's about showing us what they do. If they do the right thing we'll support them, and if they keep doing the wrong thing, we'll vote them out of office.'
The demonstrators moved out of the park and on to the Republican National Committee chanting slogans that included, 'Bush is a jerk, condoms work.' Then it was on to the Democratic National Committee and the chant, 'Move Kerry, get out of the way, get out of the way Kerry, get out of the way.'
The Capitol was the last stop, where the arrests were made.