Podcast / Start Making Sense / Feb 21, 2024

“Renters Are the Sleeping Giants of LA Politics”—Plus the Hidden History of AIDS

On this episode of Start Making Sense, Peter Dreier reports on the fight for control of LA, and Kai Wright and Lizzy Ratner talk about “the plague in the shadows.”

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“Renters are the sleeping giants of LA politics,” plus the Hidden History of AIDS | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

A political battle is underway in Los Angeles, where landlords, multi-millionaires, and the police are trying to defeat the leading progressive on the city council. Their key issues are protection for renters and new taxes on mansions.

Also on this episode of Start Making Sense: A new podcast brings us stories from the early days of HIV & AIDS. It's about how the epidemic decimated poor communities of color and the people who refused to stay out of sight. WNYC's Kai Wright and The Nation's Lizzy Ratner are behind the new show, Blindspot: The Plague in the Shadows.

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Nithya Raman won a Los Angeles City Council seat a progressive political newcomer.

(Richard Vogel / AP)

A political battle is underway in Los Angeles, where landlords, multimillionaires, and the police are trying to defeat the leading progressive on the City Council. Their key issues are protection for renters and new taxes on mansions. Peter Dreier has the story for us.

Also on this episode of Start Making Sense: A new podcast brings us stories from the early days of HIV & AIDS. It’s about how the epidemic decimated poor communities of color and the people who refused to stay out of sight. WNYC’s Kai Wright and The Nations Lizzy Ratner are behind the new show, Blindspot: The Plague in the Shadows.

Subscribe to The Nation to support all of our podcasts: thenation.com/podcastsubscribe.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Trump's Very Bad Week, plus Prestige TV, from The Sympathizer to Shogun | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

Donald Trump on Monday became the first president in history to face trial on criminal charges; his polls are down, and the stock price of Trump Media fallen has 60 percent. John Nichols comments – he’s National Affairs Correspondent for The Nation.

Also: TV right now is featuring several prestige historical dramas. John Powers compares and contrasts “The Sympathizer,” centering on a spy for the Communists in Vietnam and then California in the seventies; “Manhunt,” following the search for Lincoln’s assassin; “A Gentleman in Moscow,” portraying a Russian aristocrat after the Bolshevik Revolution, and “Shogun,” about feuding 17th century Japanese warlords. John is critic at large for Fresh Air with Terry Gross

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation Magazine, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener. Later in the show: stories from the early days of HIV & AIDS, about how the epidemic decimated poor communities of color–and about the people who refused to stay out of sight.  That’s the focus of the new podcast “Blindspot: The Plague in the Shadows.”  We’ll talk about it with Kai Wright and Lizzy Ratner.
But first: the political battle in Los Angeles, where landlords, multi-millionaires, and the police are trying to defeat the leading progressive on the city council. Peter Dreier will explain – in a minute.
Los Angeles is the city where progressives have had the biggest political victories recently. Now they will be tested, as landlords and billionaires prepare to fight back. For that story, we turn to Peter Dreier. He teaches politics at Occidental College. He’s the author of several books, including Baseball Rebels: The Players, People, and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America. We talked about it here. He publishes widely, including in The LA Times, The American Prospect, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Nation, where his new article, co-authored by Mike Bonin, is titled “LA’s Corporate Class Wants to Reverse Progressive Gains.” Peter, welcome back.

Peter Dreier: Thank you, Jon. Good to be here.

JW: On the one hand, LA has sky-high housing costs and a serious shortage of affordable housing. On the other, you report at thenation.com that it’s one of the most renter-friendly cities in the country. What are the protections for renters that have gone into effect in the last couple of years?

PD: During the pandemic, there was a lot of concern over the fate of renters, and that gave the LA City Council an incentive to protect renters from unjust evictions and skyrocketing rents. So they put a hold on rent increases. They put a moratorium on evictions. They gave tenants the right not have to pay off their debts for a couple of years while, particularly if they weren’t working, which was a problem during the pandemic.

JW: The larger context here is that LA got a new progressive mayor in 2022, Karen Bass, a former community organizer, longtime representative in Congress, the city’s first woman mayor and second African American mayor. She defeated the billionaire developer Rick Caruso, who outspent her by more than 10 to 1. Voters have also passed a so-called mansion tax on all properties selling for more than $5 million. I just have to say, in my home state of Minnesota, the number of houses that sell for more than $5 million is about half a dozen or something like that. So this is a very LA-specific kind of situation. Along with the new mayor and the new taxes, the voters elected several progressive city council members, whom we will talk about in a minute. On the other side, you report in your piece at thenation.com on a fundraiser a few months ago where members of LA’s political and business elite gathered to launch a campaign targeting the progressive officials who’ve been elected in the last few elections. First of all, tell us about the setting for this gathering.

PD: They had a secret meeting to which they invited only their friends, developers, landlords, representatives of the police and firefighters’ unions at a Beverly Hills home mansion worth about $12 million. They gathered there to hear Rick Caruso, the defeated candidate for mayor, and others with a plan to basically turn back the tide of progressivism in LA by spending as much money as they could possibly raise first to defeat Nithya Raman.

JW: Nithya Raman, the leader of the progressives fighting for renters on the city council.

PD: If they succeed in that, then to go on and try to defeat the two recently elected city council members who were both progressive, Hugo Soto-Martinez and Eunisses Hernandez. So they’re feeling scared. When the invitation came with somebody who went to that meeting, leaked to myself and Mike Bonin, they told people that this was a meeting to reverse the tide of DSA Democrats.

JW: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about this DSA thing. They say that they are out to stop DSA from taking over the city council, Democratic Socialists of America. Is this just old-style red baiting and name-calling, or is DSA really a political force in LA City politics?

PD: It’s mostly red baiting. The local chapter of DSA has maybe 1,000 members, which is a big increase from what it was 10 years ago. They do know how to door knock and phone bank and get people to vote, but it’s nowhere close to the power that the unions have. They’re really afraid of the unions and the community organizing groups that do tenants’ rights work, work on education reform, and try to stop the tide of chartered schools. So it’s really the billionaires, the cops, and the firefighters who don’t like a progressive city council, and they’ve been losing for the last five or six years, and billionaires don’t like to lose.

JW: The number one target of the landlords and the multimillionaires is this new city council member, Nithya Raman. Who exactly is she? How did she get to be number one in their sites?

PD: Nithya Raman was elected to the city council in 2020. She defeated an incumbent. As a city planner, she went to Harvard and MIT. She’s a Southeast Asian, or she was born in India. She came to this country when she was six years old. She lives in Silver Lake. There, she helped to organize a volunteer group of people that helped the homeless. She was a do-gooder and a reformer, and she had no political ambitions at the time, but she’s very charismatic. She’s very articulate, and she was angry at what she saw, and she decided to run for city council. Nobody gave her a chance. She didn’t have a campaign manager, really. She didn’t do any direct mail. She didn’t raise that much money, but she had this incredible army of volunteers that helped her. DSA was part of it, but it was mostly people in the neighborhoods. So, lo and behold, she won the race. Zev Yaroslavsky, the former city council member, told The LA Times that this was a political earthquake.

JW: Yeah, you quote Hugo Soto-Martinez saying, “Renters are the sleeping giants of LA politics, and Nithya was the first candidate to really tap into that. Mobilizing renters along with workers and immigrants is how we make lasting positive change.”
It’s easy to get involved in the events of the last few months, the last couple of years. One of the best things about your new piece at thenation.com is the big picture of how LA has changed in the last what? 20 or 30 years. LA politics has been transformed since the ’80s, when the city was run by the business elite, the real estate developers, aerospace, the oil companies. Most of them were Republicans. They wanted law and order, and LA was an anti-union, business-friendly boomtown. What happened to the old ruling elite that ran LA through the ’80s?

PD: From the 1950s through the ’80s, LA had a shadow government, and they called themselves the Committee of 25. Every city had some version of that, but LA’s was extremely powerful, and they were able to almost handpick mayors, police chiefs, and district attorneys. Like you said, they wanted a pro-developer, pro-sprawl, anti-union city where they could basically run the city without much interference with democracy. They were pretty successful at doing that. Their mouthpiece was The Los Angeles Times, which was owned by the Chandler family, which was extremely reactionary Republican, even supportive of the John Birch Society. It later changed when the next generation of Times folks took it over.
Then what happened is what happened in a lot of cities, which is that the big corporations started getting bought out by global corporations or corporations from other cities. There’s not one big bank that’s headquartered in Los Angeles anymore. The aerospace industry has basically left. Even the LA Times was bought out by a company in Chicago for a while. So LA became a city of absentee-owned companies. The local branch managers of those companies weren’t as invested in LA’s future and didn’t know enough to be politically effective. So the business elite, including the Chamber of Commerce, became paper tigers in some ways.

JW: There was one other huge earthquake in LA politics since the ’80s, the rise of the labor movement.

PD: Yeah, absolutely. LA was an anti-union city for most of its history. But beginning in the ’80s, a new generation of labor activists began to organize, realized that the new wave of immigrant workers could be mobilized politically along with the other workers in the city. They formed a political force to get labor-friendly and progressive people elected to the city council, to the state legislature, even to Congress. So they’ve made a huge difference.

JW: Let’s mention a few of the highlights here.

PD: LA was one of the first cities to pass a living wage law back in the ’90s. LA had one of the biggest successes of union organizing in the country when 75,000 home healthcare workers were organized by SEIU. They get paid by the county to work at people’s homes. In the last year, you’ve seen this incredible wave of strikes by the writers, by the screen actors, by the hotel workers. You’ve seen incredible union campaigns on college campuses. LA is basically ground zero of labor activism. LA is to the country to labor now what Detroit and New York were in the ’30s and ’40s.

JW: One of the more interesting things about this rise of union politics have been that a number of unions have built close ties to the tenants’ rights groups, to the renters. That’s something new. Why is that?

PD: Most union members in LA are renters, even schoolteachers. What the unions began to figure out was that every time they get a wage increase, their rent goes up even more. So they decided to forge a coalition with community and tenant groups. One of the results of that is this amazing victory that happened in November of 2022, which you mentioned earlier, which people call the mansion tax. It is a tax on mansions that are worth over $5 million, but it is a tax on any property that’s sold. It has to be sold over $5 million. That includes apartment buildings and office buildings. It went into effect in April of 2023. It affects only about 2% of all the properties that sell on average. In an average year, there’s only about seven or 800 mansions that sell for over $5 million.
But the tax is significant. It’s a 4% tax on properties that sell for over $4 million and a 5.5% tax for properties that sell over $10 million. So that was going to generate, we think that’ll generate somewhere between $400 million to $900 million a year. That’ll go to produce affordable housing with union labor built by building trades. It will protect renters from eviction by providing them with temporary rent subsidies, and it will pay for lawyers to provide tenants with lawyers who were facing eviction, which they rarely have, which puts them at a disadvantage when they go to housing court. So the so-called mansion tax is really one of the things that triggered this ruling class effort to turn back the tide because they were taken by surprise when this passed with 58% of the vote.

JW: So now the political campaigns are underway. The primary is Super Tuesday, March 5th. Tell us about the campaign to defeat Nithya Raman.

PD: There’s a group of developers and landlords, the police and fire unions, and some business leaders that are pouring millions of dollars either in opposition to her, or in favor of her opponent: A guy named Ethan Weaver, who is a conservative lawyer, he works for the city attorney, who was a right-wing pro-landlord, city attorney, really running a dirty campaign, including after October 7th, when Hamas attacked Israel. A couple of days later, when Israel retaliated, Ethan Weaver tried to claim that, because Nithya Raman had been supported by DSA and DSA had been critical of Israel, that Nithya Raman must be an anti-Semite and anti-Israel, which is complete BS. Also, the fact that she has a name that sounds strange to many people, and she has a dark complexion, people have been led to believe that she must be an Arab. So all of this is being used against her, really dirty politics. But in this case, she still has an incredible base of support. Even though they got rid of 40% of her district and the redistricting, she still has an incredible base of support. She’s very popular.

JW: I know she’s been endorsed by the Democratic Party, The LA Times, Mayor Karen Bass, a lot of the progressive labor unions. How close do you think the vote will be?

PD: Last time she won more votes when she ran in 2020, more votes than anybody had ever gotten in city council. I think she can replicate that in 2024, even though she’s got a very different district, which is going to be outspent. People in LA are used to getting dozens and dozens of mailers. Most political consultants like to send mailers because they make money for themselves and the printers. But whether they’re effective is a big question for political scientists and political consultants, because if you get 25 or 30 mailers, people throw them in the wastepaper basket right away.
It’s not clear that, even though Ethan Weaver’s campaign is probably going to outspend hers, whether he has the ground game, meaning the people to door knock that Nithya has. She’s got an amazingly loyal group of volunteer army of supporters who are door knocking every day for her. That’s a hard thing to beat because you usually persuade people to both vote and to vote for your candidate if they see you at your door or at community meetings. She’s been doing that now for almost four years. Ethan Weaver is a newcomer, and nobody really knows his name except that he’s got all this money from the corporate donors and from the police and fire unions.

JW: One last question: why are the police and fire unions opposing her? Are they against the renters?

PD: Nithya Raman was one of a group of city council members that voted against a huge pay increase for the police and has been critical of their racial profiling. She’s also been critical of the firefighters’ resistance to gender equality among their fellow workers. So they have a very loyal following of firefighters and cops. They also door knock, but it’s a strange coalition of the richest people in LA, the firefighters, and the cops.

JW: Peter Dreier: his terrific piece on LA City politics, co-authored by Mike Bonin, is titled “LA’s Corporate Class Wants to Reverse Progressive Gains.” You can read it at thenation.com. Thank you, Peter.

PD: My pleasure.

Jon Wiener: Now it’s time to talk about a new podcast, Blindspot: The Plague in the Shadows. Stories from the early days of HIV and AIDS, about how the epidemic decimated poor communities of color; and it’s also about the people who refused to stay out of sight. For that, we turn to Kai Wright and Lizzy Ratner. Kai is host and managing editor of the weekly NPR show Notes from America with Kai Wright. He’s also, among other things, a former editor at The Nation and a frequent guest on this podcast a couple of years ago. Kai, it’s great to have you back on the show.

Kai Wright: Glad to be here, Jon.

JW: And Lizzy Ratner is the lead reporter on Blindspot, also deputy print editor at The Nation Magazine, where she edits articles on social and economic justice. Hi, Lizzy.

Lizzy Ratner: Hello, Jon. It is so wonderful to be here.

JW: We should say that their podcast, Blindspot, is a co-production of The History Channel and WNYC Studios in collaboration with The Nation Magazine. The podcast takes us back to New York City in the early ’80s when AIDS hit the city like a pandemic. People were scared, they didn’t know what the disease was or how you could get it. Kai, let’s start with the title, Blindspot. Explain that.

KW: It’s part of a series. The Blindspot series looks back at episodes in our history where there was something missing that we did not see, and if we had seen it, things would’ve been different. And so previous seasons dealt with 9/11 and the Tulsa Massacre on 1921, and this year, this season, we decided to turn back to the early days of the AIDS epidemic and say, “What didn’t we notice or what did we choose not to notice?” I think that’s an important distinction in this season of Blindspot is these were very active choices, as a society, that we made, not to pay attention to things that both caused a disease and that allowed it to spread and continue for 40 years and on to this day.

JW: Your podcast is mostly not about the experts. Yes, you have Dr. Fauci, but you feature the voices of people we usually don’t hear from on the radio or see on TV. It’s those voices that make Blindspot so good. Lizzy, tell us about Valerie, who was living in a tight-knit working class Puerto Rican community on the Lower East Side. How many people did she tell you died of AIDS on her block?

LR: Yeah. Valerie is this absolutely remarkable, just fantastic human being who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side and is now an organizer for a really wonderful group called Housing Works. And when she was starting in her late teens, which was in the early 1980s. She started to see people on her block on the Lower East Side just disappear. And I should say that the Lower East Side had been probably the city’s, New York City’s, largest open-air drug market, specifically heroin. And so she started seeing people who were heroin users just become thin and waste away and disappear, and she’d later find out that this was AIDS. And when I asked her, to your question, how many people on her block actually disappeared, she was just like, “I think 75. I counted once,” she said, “75.”

JW: Unbelievable.

LR: And that blew me away. I mean, I was – I mean, 10 would’ve shocked me. Honestly, 10 would’ve shocked me. And she said 75, which is really–

KW: Proceeded to list the names.

LR: Yeah.

KW: ‘This person and this person and this person.’ It’s really one of many powerful moments in hearing from folks, just the fact that she literally could list those names to you, Lizzy. That’s also riveting. From the early ’80s.

JW: Valerie told an amazing story about going to the doctor and asking to be tested for AIDS. She’d had too many infections and she knew by this time what that probably meant, but the doctor didn’t want to and she recalls saying, “Just test me. Please, just give me the damn test.” Why that reluctance on the part of the doctor?

LR: This was common at the time, and the reason is that she was a woman and women were largely overlooked during the early days of the HIV and AIDS crisis. In part because there were so many gay men, so many men, so many gay men who were getting sick, but also because homophobia pigeonholed HIV as a, quote, unquote, “Gay disease.” The whole idea of the illness was predicated on this notion, and so from the medical establishment to the government onto the general public, there was this idea that, yeah, women weren’t a part of the epidemic. They couldn’t get it, you couldn’t get it through vaginal sex, you couldn’t get it.

KW: As Lizzy points out, and this is some incredible reporting that you did, Lizzy, but as she points out, it’s not just that she was a woman, it’s what kind of woman she was. She was a woman of color living in a poor neighborhood of a group of people that we had decided, as a society, ‘We don’t care what happens to you,’ and so they weren’t looking. And so, yes, there was the feedback loop that had been created around the idea that this was only about not just gay men, but a very particular kind of gay man, and that crowded out other things, but it also was because we did not want to look at other populations of people who were getting it.
And I think one of the most inspiring things that we talk about in this series is the way in which that very particular group of people insisted upon their existence. And Lizzy tells the story beautifully of how, as a consequence, these women, organizing in part from prison, managed to change the very definition of what AIDS is. And I think it’s one of the most remarkable parts of the epidemic story.

JW: Yeah, the most amazing thing about Valerie is that, after she got that test and after the results were positive, she didn’t consider it to be a death sentence. This was 1989. What did she say she did with the virus?

LR: She talked to it, she sat it down and she talked. Valerie said, “Come here, virus. We’re going to sit down, we’re going to have a talk. We’re going to learn to coexist. You need me, I need to get along with you. You’re not going to kill me, because if you kill me, you die too, so we’re going to coexist.” And so she decided to fight. And she had a lot of help fighting, I should say. She hooked up with this group, Housing Works, I mentioned, and she became an activist. She became an activist for women, she became an activist for drug users, she became an activist for poor Black and brown people, and she’s still fighting today.

JW: AIDS hit around the time Reagan declared it was “morning in America.” Kai, let’s talk a little about the political context in which AIDS emerged.

KW: I think it’s really notable, I mean, that this epidemic emerges, this virus emerges in the United States at a time when – whatever we think of Ronald Reagan, he had really tapped into a desire to turn the page from all of the struggle and the fighting of the ’60s and the ’70s around race, around gender, around poverty. It was a moment where there was an enormous amount of consensus in the United States, even for people – I mean, if you look back at the polling, it’s even for people that are known to have hated Ronald Reagan. I mean, the Black community, it’s true. Latino community, it’s true. Progressives, it’s true. There was a desire for optimism and that optimism was blinding because it was rooted not in a success of having conquered the things that we had been fighting about and working on, it was rooted in exhaustion with them. And so the problem remained, we just chose not to talk about poverty or drug use or inequality or any of those things anymore.
And it really is throughout society. I mean, we can blame Reagan and we should, but even in the gay community. This was m”orning in America” in many different gay communities. Amongst Black gay men, amongst the gay community broadly. This was a moment in the late ’70s and early ’80s where we were saying, ‘You know what? To hell with this, we’re going to build our own stuff. We’re not going to look back anymore, we’re going to have a good time. We are going to be prosperous and successful and happy just like everybody else,’ and along comes this virus that is like, ‘Well, I got another story for you and nobody wants it. Nobody wants to hear it.’ And that took a long time to shake.

JW: The geography of AIDS is part of the story here. Gay life in America in the early ’80s, of course, was centered in the West Village in Manhattan and the Castro in San Francisco. I learned from your podcast about Washington DC, Black America’s capital city and the capital of gay Black America. And that meant AIDS in DC has a different story than it had in Manhattan or San Francisco.

KW: Well, I mean, I’d say AIDS in Black communities had a different story than it had, and that was true everywhere, than it had in white gay communities. And what’s notable about DC is that it was a location where there had been this burgeoning Black gay movement really starting as a cultural movement in arts and culture and poetry. People like Essex Hemphill, and we would come to know Marlon Riggs and Joseph Bean, all of whom are dead. And they had started to build an activism around Black-specific gay civil rights issues, because the gay community was no different than the rest of America in its segregation and its racism that defined it. So these Black queer people were building a movement similarly at a time when this epidemic emerged and they, amongst them, struggled to make contact with it at first.
A lot of those people said, ‘No, this isn’t – That’s a–’ they believed the message they were getting, that this is an epidemic that is about a certain kind of white gay man in New York and San Francisco and LA, ‘And that ain’t me, so I don’t have to worry about it.’ And that doesn’t have to interrupt the fact that like, “Coretta Scott King is returning our calls and we’re making progress.” And it would take a few more years into the late ’80s before that part of the community really made contact with it, which became pivotal, because by that point, 40% of the epidemic was Black or Latino. Overwhelmingly poor women like Valerie, and Black gay men, and so it was – it was their activism that began in the late ’80s that then defines much of the rest of today, of the history of this epidemic.

JW: Also, I loved the story of the incarcerated women at the maximum-security prison in upstate New York, Bedford Hills. The only time I ever heard of it was because Kathy Boudin was at Bedford Hills.  But there’s a lot of other interesting stories and people there–for instance, Katrina Haslip.

LR: Yeah, Katrina was an absolutely brilliant charismatic woman who was incarcerated at Bedford Hills in 1985, and it’s important to point out she was actually incarcerated with Kathy Boudin and with Judy Clark. And it is because of the friendship she struck up with them, not because, but it is in part through the friendship she struck up with them that she and they became these activists within the prison for AIDS education and counseling and consciousness raising and peer support. So in the mid ’80s, when all three of them are in the prison, all of a sudden, AIDS is appearing among women in the prison in significant numbers. I mean, HIV in the prison at that point, or AIDS in the prison by 1987, was higher for women in prisons than for men in prisons. And there’s fear, there’s terror, there is anger, and Katrina along with Kathy and Judy and remarkable other women founded this organization called ACE or AIDS Counseling and Education, which would become possibly the first, certainly one of the first, AIDS organizations for women in the entire country.
It was in a prison, they pioneered this. They understood that women needed to get together, not just women, but people, and claim control of this illness and claim the narrative and teach each other and advocate for each other. And ACE continued for many years and continued after Katrina left in 1990, and when she left, she decided very deliberately that she was going to take what she had learned and take the voice that she had built in prison out into the world and use that voice to advocate for women who are incarcerated and, more specifically, for Black women and brown women with HIV. And she fought valiantly in one of the most important fights for women with HIV in this country’s history, which was the fight to change the definition of AIDS.

JW: In Blindspot, you take us to places we usually don’t see or hear about. One of the most intense and heartbreaking is the pediatric AIDS Ward at Harlem Hospital.

LR: The story is this. Starting in the early 1980s, children began showing up on hospital wards, mostly the wards of public hospitals throughout New York City. Not in huge numbers, but numbers that were significant enough. And they have a bunch of really unusual symptoms that mirror the symptoms that are appearing among gay men. Ultimately, it’s figured out or it’s discovered that these children have AIDS. They got caught in this moment of collapse in New York City when you had the aftermath of the fiscal crisis, the beginning of the austerity era, and a significant drug crisis coupled, finally, with a foster care system that starts removing children from parents or mothers who have any signs of drugs in their system. So what does this all add up to? You get a bunch of children who are coming to these hospital wards. Harlem Hospital, for example.
They’re incredibly sick, there is no treatment for AIDS at this point. Their mothers are often incredibly sick, they’re dying, some of them have died, or the children have been removed from their mothers, because their mothers were drug users and the foster care system said, “We need to take these children from their mothers.” And so you have this situation where these children are on hospital wards really sick, sometimes dying, and there is no family for them at all. And because they’re so sick, the foster care system has a hard time placing them with other families, and so the children become wards of the state who live out their lives on these hospital wards. And it’s not one child, it is not dozens of children. Over the course of years, it ends up being several hundred children. Harlem Hospital was probably the place that had the largest number of these children, but there were other hospitals in the city that did.
There are a number of reasons that Harlem Hospital became the site of it, but one was that Harlem was the epicenter, the site of probably some of the highest rates of mother-to-child transmission of HIV not only in New York City, but the whole country. And so it’s this incredibly grim and, frankly, Dickensian situation. It’s horrifying. This underfunded hospital where they don’t even have enough money to buy Robitussin is charged suddenly with being the home for these children. And what we talk about in our episode is the way that this community of doctors and nurses and social workers and, ultimately, volunteers comes together to try to provide some sort of family and home for these children. And the stories are heartbreaking and yet some of them are actually funny. Some of them are touching, some of them are inspiring. Two of the nurses we feature, Monica Freer – I’m sorry, Maxine Freer and Monica DiGrado. They’re best friends, and so sometimes I mix up their names. They really were insistent that, when we made this episode, we not only talk about the horror and the pain and the fact that they would go home on Friday nights and break down and cry, but the fact that there was love, that there was community, that there was laughter, that there were wild times. And I think that is, to me, what makes the story particularly compelling.

KW: I have to add that, I mean, for me, on that note, in every single episode and in all of this history, and in all of my time covering the epidemic, the thing that recurs is these examples of individual human beings who stepped up, leading with love when institutions were failing. And I think, in remembering our very important social movements, including AIDS, but many others, we privileged thinking about the civil disobedience and the shaking of fists at power; and all of that is hugely, obviously, deeply important–and often male. And we tend to write out the mutual aid and the caretaking, and all the things that, really, are some of the most radical acts.  That is one of the main things I hope people will take from this podcast: that part of the history of AIDS. And the pediatric ward of Harlem Hospital is Exhibit A.

JW: Blindspot is the new podcast about the early days of HIV and AIDS, the story of how the epidemic decimated poor communities of color, and it’s also about the people who refused to stay out of sight. Hosted by Kai Wright with Lizzy Ratner, a co-production of the History Channel and WNYC Studios in collaboration with The Nation Magazine. Six episodes. Subscribe to Blindspot at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Kai Wright and Lizzy Ratner, thank you for this season’s Blindspot podcast. It’s intense, it’s amazing, and thanks for talking with us today.

KW: Thanks for having us, Jon.

LR: Thank you so much, Jon.

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

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