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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 27 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 30
Time to end the AIDS epidemic
Section One
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Time to end the AIDS epidemic

by Paul Kawata - Special to the SGN

The last time I was arrested was in May of 1987. The International AIDS Conference was happening in D.C., and ACT UP challenged all the conference officials (of which I was one) to get arrested. This was not my first arrest - that happened in 1985 in front of the South African embassy, to protest apartheid and demand the release of Nelson Mandela.

We got arrested at the White House to protest the fact that President Reagan had not even said the word 'AIDS,' let alone provided any leadership to stop the epidemic. To get arrested you had to lie on the ground in front of the White House gates. I was wearing a new cashmere jacket and didn't want to get it dirty. I asked if they would arrest me without lying down, but rules are rules. Luckily there was a friend nearby to take my jacket. As we were arrested, the police tied our hands behind our backs - not with handcuffs, but with plastic ties.

Getting arrested next to me was Dan Bradley. He was a hero in our movement - one many people don't even remember. Dan was past president of the Legal Services Corporation, the independent, federally sponsored agency that provides civil legal representation for the poor. He was an out Gay man at a time when the vast majority of people were still in the closet. Dan was adept at building coalitions and I admired the way he moved through the corridors of power on Capitol Hill and within the administration.

After we were arrested, we were held in buses until the demonstration was over. To pass the time we sang and chanted. I think we sang 'We Shall Overcome' at least 100 times. Through all the laughter and singing, beepers would go off continually. In those days you had to take your AZT at very specific times. We were told that if you missed one dose, it might mean the difference between getting sick and staying well. As the beepers sounded, we realized we had a problem: our hands were tied behind our backs and there was no water. I remember screaming for help, but the police were too busy arresting others to hear our cries.

So like everything in the epidemic, we fixed it ourselves. Working in teams, each person would reach into the pocket or jacket of their neighbor to take out their pills. Since there was no water, we broke open the capsules and poured out the drug like lines of cocaine onto a bus seat. We then licked the bus seat, trying desperately to in take as much medicine as possible. I prefer to remember the laughter and the singing - sometimes it's just too painful to remember the rest.

Next week the International AIDS Conference is coming back to D.C. I'm marching on Tuesday, July 24, at the We Can End AIDS March and Mobilization (http://www.wecanendaids.org). I am not a leader of this march and was not involved in organizing it, but I'm joining it because it's important to stand up and be counted. I will march in the same spirit as 25 years ago, only now I'm marching to end the epidemic. President Obama has not only said 'AIDS,' his administration has also developed a national HIV/AIDS strategy, fought for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and committed to the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act. Do we have everything we need? No. I'm not sure any President could meet all of our needs. But we must acknowledge the progress we've made.

I am very concerned about the narrative surrounding the IAC. Three thousand members of the press have registered to attend. What message will they send to the world? There is some very important science to be released. I hope it doesn't get lost in a sea of competing messages. There are some very real problems that need to be discussed: the ongoing criminalization of HIV transmission; funding for the Global Fund; ADAP waiting lists; the repeal of restrictions on programs that target sex workers; and the particular challenges HIV/AIDS poses to women (especially women of color), Transgendered communities, communities of color, Gay communities, and injection drug users, among others.

Hopefully we will also acknowledge our successes and the support we've received from many political leaders. For me, it would be wrong to lay all of these problems at the feet of the President. This time I'm not getting arrested in front of the White House. I've been invited inside to talk about real solutions to a long list of problems that still need to be resolved.

Dan Bradley died at age 47 in January of 1988, less than a year after we were arrested together. I will always remember the dignity and poise he displayed. By then he was so sick and frail, I was surprised to see him at the demonstration at all. We walk in the footsteps of so many great leaders. This is our moment to turn the tide. We may fight in different ways, but we must all continue the fight.

Paul Kawata is executive director of the National Minority AIDS Council (www.nmac.org).

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