Written by Matthew Chase
Protests at AIDS 2012 continued through the week, following the first organized demonstration on Sunday. Activists are increasingly targeting U.S. political leaders, both inside and outside of the convention center.
Promoting topics ranging from “tax the rich” to “D.C. statehood now,” protesters at the Tuesday “We Can End AIDS” demonstration converged at the White House, where 13 activists were arrested. The following day, a group of protesters promoting sex worker rights interrupted a special session on the role of the U.S. Congress in confronting AIDS that included five current or former members of Congress, three of whom were Republicans.
Unlike Sunday’s demonstration, which never clearly defined a single target, the subsequent marches and protests have more clearly defined their target: President Barack Obama and the U.S. government. Speakers repeatedly challenged Obama to start “walking the talk” and to fully fund the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and to continue support for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
Interestingly, there was little focus on PEPFAR, which dominated speeches made at the Sunday protest. Protesters also opposed Obama’s trade policies, specifically the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which they asserted will increase the cost of life-saving drugs. TPP opponents also chanted slogans at the start of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Monday morning address.
The Tuesday protests directed at Obama concluded with an act of civil disobedience; 13 volunteers tied “symbols” of the resources needed to end AIDS – including pill bottles, syringes, and dollar bills– onto the White House fence with red ribbons. These demonstrators were eventually arrested, and police mounted on horses pushed spectators away from the White House.
The protesters’ numerous causes often detracted from the main objective outlined by the organizers: securing U.S. leadership in funding HIV/AIDS programs. With so many groups represented, it was challenging to decipher what major policy objective the protesters were seeking. A Washington Post report of Tuesday’s protest referred to the demonstration as a “complex mix of groups and agendas, some connected to the AIDS conference and some not.”
For the protesters, however, the organization of the march into five sections was intentional and underscored the fact that “there are so many constituency networks within the AIDS movement,” according to Paul Zeitz, the vice president for policy at ACT V: The End of AIDS and an attendee of the Tuesday march. Similar to Sunday’s march, however, the Tuesday demonstration did not draw the large crowds it had expected; some reports had predicted 15,000 to 30,000 participants, but media accounts estimate that, at most, only a few thousand attended.
Though the International AIDS Society did not officially recognize the demonstrations, many of the protesters’ arguments have made their way into the conference’s sessions. Thursday’s plenary included two speakers – both of whom received standing ovations – who advocated for increased rights for sex workers and injection drug users; one speaker argued that “it would be better if this conference were located where affected groups could participate.” Activists at previous conferences – most notably, the protesters at the IAS conference in Durban, South Africa in 2000, who promoted the goal of expanding treatment – have had visible political impact. It remains to be seen if this year’s multi-faceted protest movement will be able to have a similar impact on U.S. policy.