Thousands Take Over the Streets in D.C. in the "We Can End AIDS" Mobilization
This afternoon at 12 p.m., Housing Works' staff and clients joined thousands of other AIDS activists from around the world to march through the streets of Washington, D.C. in the We Can End AIDS mobilization, the largest AIDS protest in the country in the last ten years. People flocked from all over the country to be a part of this pinnacle mobilization, including Domingo Jimenez, 43, who flew here on his own from Texas to attend the march, a political act he has been planning for over a year. "I'm here to march because we have the resources and the power to end AIDS, but we are still fighting death everyday. I am here because I want our government held responsible."
The We Can End AIDS mobilization grew out of a collective recognition from national and international organizations, AIDS-service organizations, and AIDS activists that the global response to AIDS has been unacceptable, and that civil disobedience and activism must be reignited to move AIDS efforts across the globe. Indeed, people living with HIV/AIDS, drug users, women, people of color, sex workers continue to be treated as dispensible populations, only being recognized during election cycles and then brazenly forgotten as millions of people continue to die from a very treatable and manageable disease.
Domingo was part of the "Sound Policies" branch of the mobilization, which was led by Housing Works and had 500 of us marching down Pennsylvania Avenue and chanting, "Housing is health care, end AIDS now," and "clean needles save lives!" As we made our way to the White House, we stopped in front of Mayor Gray's office and sat down in the street, chanting "End AIDS fire Gray," criticizing the lame duck Mayor for consistently misrepresenting the escalating rates of HIV and AIDS in D.C. and the rates of infection among the District's most vulnerable -- people of color and those living in poverty.
Tourists and local residents were jolted out of their daily routines and stopped to watch as we stalled traffic and were flanked by police cruisers. Within two blocks we were joined by the End Pharmacuetical Greed branch, and as our bodies and voices joined together, the urgency, energy, and passion for the call to end AIDS was unmistakable. Shouts for an end to expensive drugs mingled with our own as we joined forces and filled the streets. The Robin Hood branch joined us shortly thereafter, and with our collective voices, we marched toward Lafayette Square, armed with the passion and the knowledge that we need the powers that be to stop proscrastinating on AIDS and holding millions of lives hostage.
Housing Works' Vice President of National Advocacy and Organizing Christine Campbell welcomed all the branches to Lafayette Square, speaking on top of the We Can End AIDS stage. The crowd was a microcosm of people from all walks of life who were united for one purpose: to end AIDS now. Here I spoke to Rachael Therrien, 54, a Housing Works' client since 2008, and who was especially pleased that ending the war on women was a priority for the We Can End AIDS mobilization. "I am marching today because I think Charles King is one of the greatest leaders this country has, and am proud that he has consistently reminded each President in office that we will not be silenced and we will not stop until we end AIDS. This epidemic has been going on since the 80s, and I am still waiting for AIDS to be a priority for this country."
Activists Amanda Lugg and Linda Mafu also spoke on The We Can End AIDS stage, with Lugg calling for activists to reach into their pockets and find something that is needed to end AIDS. People pulled out condoms, keys to houses, sterile syringes, apartment leases, prescription pills, and dollar bills, tying them to AIDS ribbons and throwing them into communal satchels. I watched as a man in a wheelchair pulled out a one dollar bill and tied it to an AIDS ribbon, I watched as two children with their lesbian mothers helped tie keys to AIDS ribbons, and I watched as people who have been consistently ignored, shunned, and silenced gave what little money they had -- nickels, quarters, dimes, a dollar here and a dollar there -- to be heard in a place and a political time in which we talk but no one listens.
The satchels were carried by a number of We Can End AIDS branch organizers, including Housing Works' Founder and CEO Charles King, who led the mobilization activists toward the White House, where they began tying the AIDS ribbons onto the White House gates, showing the President and other leaders that we have the political will to end AIDS, and challenging them to prove that they have the political will to do the same. Police officers immediately began moving protestors off the sidewalk and corralled them across the street, but Charles King and activists from ACT-UP Philadelphia, Heath Gap, and the Prevention Justice Alliance, among others, purposefully disobeyed orders to disperse and instead sat down in front of the President's residence and chanted with their activists brethen across the streets, including my personal favorite, "Obama come out, we got some shit to talk about!" Slowly, the thirteen activists, including Charles King, were handcuffed and arrested by police, with each proudly continuing their cries for "End AIDS now," as they were loaded into police vans and carted off.
People cheered the bravery of the thirteen arrested, and many continued to hang around the Square, sharing why they were in D.C. to march in this massive mobilization. I met John J. Derrie, who came from Staten Island and marched with the Robin Hood branch of the mobilization. "Today was a success -- there's no doubt about it. We showed Washington that while they are speaking at the International AIDS Conference across town, that there are still people who will not be patient, who will not be silent, and who will hold the government accountable. Being here at this march has meant so much for me. I lost my brother to AIDS in 1995 and I know that there is money to end AIDS. He knew that too. And there's nowhere else I would rather be than here."