Byeesha Owens is on the mic as this Wednesday’s We Can End AIDS march in Washington approached its first targets, UPS and Wells Fargo. This is what an AIDS enemy looks like as we enter the fourth decade of the epidemic: those who drive policies that drive the epidemic, and those who profit from disease and discrimination.
It’s Owens’s first AIDS march, and it’s sticky and hot in Washington, and by the time we get to the White House, we’ll have been marching for two hours. She’s here with her aunt from New Jersey, who’s been HIV-positive for over twenty years. The tattoos around Owens’s collarbone glisten. With the heat, there’s more bared skin out on the march than inside the climate-controlled convention center that houses the AIDS conference, where the march stepped off.
As the march neared the UPS store, Owens hoisted the mic up and led the hundreds behind her in a chant, and they halt in front of the store, filling the street for several hundred feet in either directon. March organizers from the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance charge UPS for contributing to the AIDS epidemic by funding Congressional opponents of syringe exchange, which evidence has shown to be one of the most effective ways to prevent HIV transmission.
The march continued on to Wells Fargo, where members of Occupy DC took the mic to link Wells Fargo’s investments in private prisons to fueling mass incarceration, and in turn, the drug war that sends many of the 2.2 million Americans behind bars there in the first place. “Wells Fargo is literally invested in locking more people up,” said Laura Thomas of Drug Policy Alliance. When drug users are targeted by law enforcement, even for legally carrying clean syringes, HIV can run unchecked, including in prisons themselves, where incarcerated people have little access to healthcare, and condoms are often prohibited.
Byeesha Owens came today, she said, because HIV affects her family directly. She connected the dots: “It’s wrong that Wells Fargo and UPS don’t support us in finding a way to stop HIV. People are getting locked up for being HIV-positive and it’s wrong.” In thirty-four states, HIV transmission is criminalized, with Florida leading criminal convictions.
Police departments in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington are also under strong criticism from human rights groups and sex worker advocates for their routine practices of confiscating condoms and using them as evidence of prostitution. In a report released this month, Human Rights Watch  documented cases of police destroying condoms, verbally abusing transgender women they suspect to be sex workers, and demanding sex in exchange for dropping charges. Combined, these cities distribute 50 million condoms each year. Using them to criminalize people who want to protect their health will contribute to the spread of HIV in these communities.
It’s a cycle: the people most vulnerable to HIV—people who sell sex; or people who use drugs; gay, bisexual, and queer men; and transgender people—are also those most likely to be harassed by the police. If you’re already fearful that cops will stop-and-frisk you, carrying clean syringes or condoms might be too much to risk.
As they neared the White House, the march converged with a flock of Robin Hoods surrounding an imposing stone Bank of America branch. They were members of National Nurses United and VOCAL-NY, calling for a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions: as little as a half-percent tax on the kinds of risky transactions between banks that sparked the global economic meltdown. Funds raised would be directed to housing and health care. “As nurses, we see a desperate need for this,” said Robyn Pegues, of National Nurses Union at Manhattan VA. “Medical care, housing—it’s all related. If you don’t have a house, you can’t take care of yourself. So we think this is a good investment for the American people.”
Three more marches converged then at the White House, an estimated 5,000 people who, after a rally in Lafayette Park, form a protective flank as several dozen people stride up to the White House fence, adorning it with red ribbons, condoms, house keys, cash from their own pockets. Mounted US Parks Police rode in, dividing the activists leaving behind these symbols of the solutions to end AIDS, from the press and others who remained off the sidewalk so as not to risk arrest. Thirteen activists then sat, arm to arm, chanting back and forth with the hundreds pushed back by the cops, exchanging verses: “How many more have to die? Act up! Fight back! And occupy!”
After some time and three warnings, parks police in olive drab uniforms, guns on their hips, returned with plastic zip ties to arrest each of the thirteen activists, to cheers.
Julie Davids, one of those arrested and coordinator of the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance, spoke with me shortly after getting out of jail that night. (Those arrested were each charged with failure to obey an order and given a $100 fine.) The multiple marches, she said, reveal “the danger of over-simplifying ‘ending AIDS.’ We cannot disconnect the AIDS crisis from the capitalism crisis. Getting the globe on expensive drugs is not easy—and it’s not enough.”
“It’s evidence of the power of American capitalism to turn anything into a commodity,” said Cleve Jones, longtime gay rights and AIDS activist, who was also the founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. We were talking about one of the more shocking things I saw in Washington this week: the Chevron corporate logo , stitched in the center of a panel of the AIDS quilt on display at the conference. Chevron was a major corporate sponsor of the AIDS conference.
Jones is no longer involved with the NAMES Project, though he recalled that even in the early days of the AIDS quilt, corporate logos had appeared on individual panels, in tribute to a loved one’s love for Big Macs, for example. Later, employees of the same company wanted to pay tribute to their co-workers, and made quilt panels with their names and also the name of their workplace. “In my view, if groups of employees want to make quilts honoring their co-workers, I need to accept that, even if it makes me uncomfortable,” said Jones. “I try to be flexible, And I don’t want to be hard-nosed. But I am offended by its exploitation for marketing purposes.”
“This is a meeting very much populated by doctors and drug companies,” Jonathan Cohen, deputy director of the Open Society Public Health Program explained. “It’s a space very much driven by money, and ones ability to get issues on the agenda or influence the agenda is unquestionably proportionate to how much money one has.”
There weren’t nearly enough dollar bills left on the White House lawn to buy a seat at the table at the AIDS conference, then. But there were plenty enough to make that demand clear.