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.