After I attended a youth caucus meeting where language for a joint youth message was finalized, there was a demonstrations outside of the UN, where AIDS activists from around the world came together in concert as impassioned chants and speeches rallied out towards the towering UN building.
“BUSH is BANANAS!” shouted one chant-leader, mimicking a recent pop song, and a member of Act-Up, one of the most influential and famous grassroots political organizations in recent history.
“B-A-N-A-N-A-S!” screamed back thousands of supporters. “’CAUSE HE DON’T GIVE US MONEY FOR THE… A-I-D-S-H-I-V!
Rosie Perez, a bombshell actress and native New Yorker of “White Men Can’t Jump” fame, MC’d the event, and brought raucous cheers of joy when she donned the “HIV Positive” shirt made famous by Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a South African grassroots movement which successfully pressured its government to provide universal access to treatment. South Africa has the world’s largest number of people living with HIV. The shirt has become symbolic of fighting the pervasive stigma and discrimination which continues to cripple efforts to push back the epidemic throughout large swathes of the world, including the United States.
Sipho Mthathi of TAC, spoke as a representative of Africa in a series of keynotes representing each region of the world. “Long live the spirit of the 65 million people who have died since the beginning of the epidemic, long live!” She also led the crowd in the Zulu chant: “Amandla,” which was adopted by the grassroots AIDS movement from its original use in the anti-apartheid struggle. I found this especially heart-wrenching because as an AIDS activist with the Student Global AIDS Campaign at the University of Maryland, I used to lead our group with the chant at the end of meetings and events. As the case lies, however, I don’t think that my version could possibly carry the power and soulfulness that Sipho evokes.
Of all the AIDS rallies I’ve attended over the years, this was perhaps the most poignant. The crowd, a positively diverse collection in terms of sexuality, race, gender, profession, socio-economic status, age, HIV-status and otherwise, held a unity and shared sense of urgency that I envisioned crossing First Avenue, snaking through the corridors of the UN conference rooms, and into the hearts and minds of the collection of bureaucrats inside.
Why does it feel like those that are actually on the ground, fighting to save their generation and peers’ lives, are always the ones on the outside, shouting until hoarse down the hollow ears of political power?
Because that’s what’s been happening for the past 25 years, and that’s what will continue to keep happening for the next 25 years, until humanity strikes down this vicious epidemic, or allows the epidemic to strike us down, through our own myopic wrangling, our ideological preposterousness, and our inability to represent those in need.
Message to World: IT’S TIME TO