New York City; Saturday, June 23, 2001–The Stop Global AIDS March today brought together thousands of AIDS, debt relief, anti-racist and anti-globalization activists from around the world for a demonstration on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on AIDS. The march began at 11 am, just after a summer drizzle, with a rally in Washington Square Park and ended a few hours later with a speak-out in Bryant Park that was cut short due to a violent thunderstorm. But in between, under clear skies, marchers rallied around what has become known as the three Ds of the global AIDS movement: Dollars, Debt and Drugs.
DONATE THE DOLLARS: UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has called upon Western governments to contribute $7-10 billion dollars to a global AIDS fund–a sum activists in the Global South call a conservative figure–but so far only a tiny fraction of that amount has been committed. During the speak-out, a representative from the African Services Committee called the $200 million Bush has pledged from the United States a shameful sum.” As protesters chanted in response (“Bush Senior. Bush Junior. Which One Dealt With AIDS? Neither!”), she noted that this amount pales in comparison to the US annual military budget. “Two hundred million dollars buys seven Army helicopters!” she shouted. “What’s more important– saving lives or taking them?”
DROP THE DEBT: Led by debt relief activists who joined up with AIDS activists at the World Bank/IMF demonstration last April in Washington, DC, protesters called for immediate cancellation of 100 percent of debt owed by developing countries. A speaker from the Jubilee USA Network called World Bank/IMF loan policies a “death sentence for African health care systems.” Every year sub-Saharan Africa pays $13.5 billion to Western countries for debt servicing, or roughly $200 million dollars per week. “Where’s the money going to come from to treat AIDS in Africa?” she asked. “From debt relief.”
TREAT THE PEOPLE. SAVE THE LIVES: In the face of racist statements made by US government officials regarding African people’s inability to “tell time,” thus presumably making them unfit for anti-retroviral treatment, people with AIDS from South Africa and Thailand testified to the success of both prevention and treatment programs in their homelands. Mercy Makhalemele, who is HIV positive and the director of South Africa’s Sisters in Action, a leading feminist AIDS advocacy organization, noted that 95 percent of all people with AIDS don’t have access to essential medications. Members of ACT UP New York and Philadelphia railed against Big Pharma, calling pricing and patent protection policies a “program of corporate genocide” Long-time ACT UP New York organizer Eric Sawyer led one the march’s most spirited chants: “Pills Cost Pennies. Greed Costs Lives.”
The Stop Global AIDS March was the second major demonstration against global AIDS in the United States (the first was held in March in New York during the lawsuit brought by Big Pharma against the South African government). It’s unclear at the moment how powerful this growing movement will become, but signs from this demonstration are promising. Participants came from a wide range of backgrounds; about half of the marchers were people of color, and the event was truly a collaborative endeavor between ACT UP, African Services Committee, Africa Action, Health GAP, American Jewish World Service and Jubilee USA Network. Among the protesters was a large group of students from the Student Global AIDS Campaign, an alliance of anti-globalization activists from more than fifty college campuses who are committed to organizing students involved in the anti-sweatshop movement. They pressed the point that young people account for over one-sixth of the world HIV population and 50 percent of all new HIV infections. Solidarity Against the HIV Infection in India (SAATHII) brought a small but vocal contingent of activists who called attention to the growing epidemic in Asian countries. These groups were joined by veteran ACT UP members from New York, a smattering of people from religious communities (including Ruth Messinger, President of American Jewish World Service, who is also the former Manhattan borough president) and the event’s most energetic contingent–a 500-plus member group from ACT UP Philadelphia, comprised almost entirely of people of color.
AIDS activists fear that conservative government leaders and corporate interests will hijack the UN special meeting, which begins Monday, failing to place treatment on the global AIDS agenda. Throughout the meeting, and at future G8 and UN conferences, the global AIDS alliance will continue to focus attention on treatment, economic inequality and racism. Undoubtedly, there’s much work to be done, but as the Stop Global AIDS March demonstrated, the seeds for a truly international, cross-coalition movement are in place.