ACT UP Pushes Dedicated Tax to Fight AIDS

It was old home week on Wall Street as the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) joined by Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and other groups staged a massive protest April 25, just as it had a quarter century ago there for its first major demonstration.

But while veterans of that early action and of ACT UP including founder Larry Kramer were indeed having a reunion and remembering fallen comrades, the troops were infused with new blood, many of them leaders and clients of the social service agencies serving people with AIDS. And their stated purpose was a demand that the United States institute a small tax on financial transactions dedicated to ending AIDS here and abroad and to universal health care for Americans.

“It’s nice to feel the energy again and see the kids on the street,” said Kramer. “I feel 100 years old, but I feel great.”

He will turn 77 in June.

The action dawned at 11 a.m. outside City Hall not, as in 1987, at 8 a.m. to give time for busloads of protestors to arrive from Philadelphia, Boston, Rhode Island, and Maryland. The crowd swelled to more than a thousand as it marched downtown to the Water Street offices of the City’s Human Resources Administration, which along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is resisting extension of the housing benefits available through the HIV/ AIDS Services Administration (HASA) to asymptomatic people with HIV.

The demonstration ended up where ACT UP’s history as a formidable public force began, outside Trinity Church at the foot of Wall Street. The financial industry and the US government, for that matter are deeply, resistant to a Financial Speculation Tax (FST) of 0.05 percent that would not only slow down casino capitalism and help prevent the next economic meltdown, but provide funding for human needs, particularly ending the AIDS pandemic.

Earlier in the morning, nine activists chained themselves to each other to block Wall Street and were arrested. Ten more from Housing Works were arrested outside City Hall trying to set up a house, but there was no large civil disobedience action. Marchers were herded onto sidewalks for the trip downtown and rallied on part of the sidewalk on Broadway outside Trinity.

Mark Milano, 56, is a longtime veteran of ACT UP and Health GAP (Global Access Project) and has been living with HIV for 30 years.

“Today I’ve got extreme peripheral neuropathy making every step extremely painful, but I will march as long as I can,” he said.

To those who say this dedicated tax won’t happen, Milano responded that the same thing was said about ACT UP’s demands for reforming the Food and Drug Administration and putting activists on “every NIH panel,” the National Institute of Health units that review therapeutic and clinical research. He said, “This will be an enormous fight.”

Veteran AIDS activist Eric Sawyer spoke to the crowd, saying, “Let’s do a new chant: ‘Tax Wall Street! End AIDS!’” He cited grim world statistics, including 15 million people with AIDS in need of drugs. “Does that sound like the AIDS crisis is over?”

Wanda Hernandez, board chair of VOCAL NY, stressed that AIDS is a disease hitting poor women of color.

“HIV is driven by social injustice,” she said, chiding Bloomberg “for trying to take away our rights and safety net.” The mayor is calling for cuts of $7.5 million to services for homeless and runaway youth alone.

Kate Barnhart, 36 and an AIDS activist since she was 15, is director of New Alternatives for Homeless LGBT Youth. She said, “This feels like a reunion we shouldn’t have to have. It feels like after 25 years, we should have ended the AIDS crisis and not be fighting for the resources that people need to stay alive.”

Barnhart said 20 percent of the young people 16-24 she serves have HIV. Significantly, she said they are becoming infected not from anonymous sex, where they are more likely to use protection, but from long-term relationships in which they let their guards down.

Gordon Beeferman, 35, a composer and pianist, said it was his first ACT UP demonstration though he has participated in OWS actions.

“I owe a lot to ACT UP activists,” he said, including being able to avoid HIV.

Benjamin Shepard said he teaches his students at the New York City College of Technology, many of whom accompanied him to the action, “the lessons of ACT UP — using actions to break down stigma and to accomplish goals.” He said many of his students are Haitian and “half know someone who has died of AIDS.”

“It’s always people over profits,” Shepard said. “We have to stop privatizing gains and socializing losses.” He thinks the “Robin Hood” tax goal is achievable, citing past ACT UP accomplishments, such as cutting the price of AIDS drugs.

Shep Wahnon, 60 and living with AIDS, was “here 25 years ago” and has been to all the “reunion” ACT UP actions. “A lot of people including gay people have forgotten about AIDS and think ACT UP has folded,” he said. “The FST is really important and could change the course of the AIDS epidemic.”

Wahnon was there not just as an activist, “but in memory of my friends and my brother who died of AIDS” as well a late boyfriend, Ron Buono.

Leslie Cagan, a leader of the US anti-war movement and who was there as a “queer individual,” said, “What we do in New York is important and sends a message to the rest of the country and the world that we need to address the AIDS epidemic.”

She added, “Too many people don’t understand that they can fight for their rights or what their rights could be. That’s why we need ACT UP and OWS to remind them.”

Andy Velez, one of the organizers of the action, said he was there 25 years ago not knowing anyone and scared of being arrested. He was responding to the “land of the dead” that the Village, where he lived, had become, and he became one of the ACT UP stalwarts.

Veteran gay and AIDS activist Bill Dobbs said, “This was a great street demo, but there’s more to AIDS activism. It’s thinking and strategizing about AIDS that’s needed. ACT UP fought fiercely and got a lot of changes. But it has not led for years. These days it follows.”

David Falcone, 52 and living with AIDS, said, “I hope Wall Street listens. Wall Street has a bad reputation. They can do so much with this tax.”

In his remarks to the crowd, Larry Kramer returned to the theme he used to galvanize ACT UP 25 years ago.

“Anger is healthy,” he said. “It’s the healthiest tool we have. Be angry!”