September 26, 2008
STANDING IN OXFORD
Crowder calls for a National AIDS Strategy
Will they or won't they debate? That was the talk of the town in Oxford, Mississippi this week. But despite this mini-drama, the Stand Against AIDS stayed on message in the quaint Southern town it has called home for the last four days, demanding that Obama and McCain commit to developing a National AIDS Strategy within 100 days of taking office if elected. (As of press time, the state of the debate was still in flux.)
"We still need the next president to tell us how he's going to address the AIDS epidemic, even as the current one is bailing out multimillionaire CEOs," said Stand Against AIDS Chicago caravan leader Richard Wallace.
When McCain announced Wednesday that he wanted to postpone tonight’s debate, C2EA activists, who had dedicated weeks and months of their lives to the Stand Against AIDS, didn’t flinch. All day long on Thursday, dozens of Stand participants marched around and around Oxford’s Courthouse Square raising awareness about the need for a National AIDS Strategy. Around 5pm, a dozen marchers, walked around the square, where a town hall was going on, brandishing signs reading "AIDS Won’t Wait...Bring on the Debate!"
For a video of the rally and interviews of participants, see below. For lots more great video clips, go to campaigntoendaids.blip.tv.
The Campaign to End AIDS has reached out over the last several months to both the Obama and McCain campaign about committing to a National AIDS Strategy. "Obama's health staffer has agreed that the next president should have a National AIDS Strategy and McCain's health advisor hasn't responded," Housing Works director of national advocacy and organizing Christine Campbell said.
A national effort
The Stand Against AIDS is a national, multiweek advocacy event sponsored by the Campaign to End AIDS (C2EA). C2EA activists, most living with HIV/AIDS, have spent the last couple weeks traveling in caravans from around the country to raise awareness about the need for a National AIDS Strategy and make their demand that the next president get serious about implementing it today in Oxford.
About 90 people came in nine caravans from New York, Illinois, Mississippi, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, North Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, Colorado, Hawaii, Texas, Virginia, Florida to call for a National AIDS Strategy.
Everyone had different reasons for coming. Some were HIV-positive. Some were front-line health care workers. Some were long-term survivors, living with the virus for 27 years. Lisa Jordan was just diagnosed with HIV on August 15, but Ron Crowder of Street Works in Nashville told her to go to Oxford to be an "advocate." "I didn't even know what being an advocate meant," Jordan said. Jordan didn't decide to come until the day before the caravan left from Nashville because she had a dental appointment. But after the camaraderie of the caravans, she said, "I feel like C2EA is family."
Crowder, one of the original founders of C2EA, was thrilled Jordan was getting so much out of the experience. "I realized it was a teachable moment," he said. "Now is the time. Not only did it open her eyes but she has been able to meet people from all around the country just like her."
Oxford, Mississippi was chosen for the Stand, not just because of the first presidential debate. Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation, and has 10,000 people living with AIDS—half of whom aren't in care.
"If we can end AIDS in Mississippi, we can end AIDS anywhere," said Campaign to End AIDS' National Organizer Larry Bryant.
Activists 1 Cops 0
The first Stand event brought home the gravity of the AIDS crisis in the U.S.: On Monday, 40 advocates laid out 38 pairs of shoes in the town square in honor of the 38 people who die of AIDS every day in the United States.
38 shoes. 38 people who die from AIDS every day
At a robust rally on Tuesday, representatives from every participating Stand state outlined the need for a National AIDS Strategy.
"Last week one of my best friends died because he couldn't receive medication. He had insurance so he couldn't qualify for Ryan White, but the insurance didn't provide the medication he needed," said Kai Campbell, at the rally. Campbell of Charlotte, North Carolina, is also HIV-positive, but receives his medication through the AIDS Drug Assistance Program. "I need the government. I'm asking and begging the government to be rational."
The rally garnered press attention in the Daily Mississippian, WAPT 16, and the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, and won support from Oxford residents. "I'm a gay man who was born in 1982, and I think about all of the people I could have looked up to who have died of AIDS," said Kenneth Jones, who stopped by Monday and Tuesday about seeing the C2ea press conference in the Square. "I think about how little was done. The attitude was, and still is, 'Who cares about those people?'
The cops didn't always show the same Southern hospitality. While most police were supportive, on Wednesday a group of C2EA activists walked Oxford’s famous Courthouse Square, chanting "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, marchin' til the end of AIDS!" The chief of police stopped protesters and told them they couldn't chant. But a quick call to the Americans for Civil Liberties Union (a sponsor of the Stand) revealed that it is the constitutional right to chant, sing or pray. Housing Works President and CEO Charles King then told the police chief, "The Constitution doesn’t end at this corner!," prompting the local head of law enforcement to…walk away.
What’s your affinity?
At Wednesday affinity sessions different groups of people came together to express what they thought needed to be included in a National AIDS Strategy. Groups included women, African-Americans, post-incarceration, MSM, discordant relationships, and youth. There was also a bird-dogging session led by Health GAP organizer Kaytee Riek.
When the groups were announced, some Stand activists were disappointed. "What about seniors?" Laverne of New York City AIDS Housing Network yelled out. "And what about heterosexual men?" another participant wondered. In the grassroots spirit of the week, those groups were quickly added and had the best attendance. In the "Over 50" group, concerns were addressed such as switching to Medicare. In the heterosexual group, there was a lengthy discussion of "What is a heterosexual?"
In the Women's forum, led by Dazon Dixon Diallo of SisterLove, issues of economic dependency were addressed, and the need for more health care and supportive services for women. Another concern were inequalities such as the cost of male condoms versus female condoms and money for microbicide development. In the post-incarceration summit, transitional services in all prisons and connection with community-based organizations were cited as a need. In the youth forum, the state-by-state disparities in disclosure laws at schools was the hot topic.
The groups reported what they need in a national AIDS strategy, some of which were drawn from their "message in a bottle" responses—every city that the Stand caravans stopped in placed a message in a bottle to be delivered to the Campaign to End AIDS affinity summit. Housing, research for women, post-incarceration reentry, prevention for those over 50, and stigma were just some of the issues that stretched onto 11 sheets of paper. But despite regiional and demographic differences the main issues echoed with each group. "Stigma and lack of access kept coming up again and again," said Housing Works Eddie Fukui.
Dixon Diallo, who also led a pre-affinity group for Southern women, said it is important that the National AIDS Strategy incorporates grassroots input. "I understand the developers of the plan are taking a macro approach," she said. "We've got to get that by finding the micro. And if you don't identify the groups that would most benefit, the National AIDS Strategy will be working in a vacuum."
Today the Stand Against AIDS will stage a mock funeral before the debate, highlighting all of the people who die of AIDS. The Update will report back next week.