Dozens protested outside CBS’ towering headquarters in Midtown on January 10, demanding that the media giant’s local affiliate apologize, meet with advocates, and hold a teach-in after publishing a deeply insensitive article and several tweets that stoked fear and spread misinformation about HIV/ AIDS.
The advocates, holding signs reading “how the f*ck did we go back to 1987?” and chanting “HIV stigma has got to go,” also placed blame on the Port Authority Police as well as the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association’s role in spreading false statements about HIV and using the case to push a police-driven narrative about bail reform.
The community’s swift response follows an explosive turn of events that first emerged on the evening of January 8 and spilled into the day on January 9 in the aftermath of CBS New York’s article and subsequent tweets that described an incident in which a man allegedly spit on a police officer as an “HIV ATTACK.” The controversy blew up even further when a spokesperson for the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association told Gay City News that it was a “problem” that the suspect allegedly committed the attack while knowing he was HIV-positive.
“As a person living with HIV/ AIDS, I thought these days were done,” Jason Walker, a member of ACT UP New York, said as he addressed the crowd in front of the entrance to the CBS building at 51 West 52nd Street. “I thought we were done seeing headlines and articles that weaponize me and say that I am a problem, that say that I am a threat to my society.”
After the widespread outrage emerged, CBS New York confirmed to Gay City News on the evening of January 9 that the reporter responsible for the article and tweets had been fired, but nobody at the media outlet apologized and many have expressed their desire to see those at CBS undergo training to prevent such controversies in the future. Advocates at the December 10 demonstration also voiced frustration that the article had yet to be taken down, even as it was amended to remove references to HIV.
In yet another new development, protestors expressed concern that Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz could upgrade the charges against the accused man, whose name was provided by the Port Authority Police to Gay City News but is being withheld from publication to protect the man’s privacy after union officials and CBS New York shockingly disclosed his HIV status. Advocates speculated that the charges could be upgraded to assault with a deadly weapon, which would undoubtedly spark more anger because it would again drive the false assumption that an HIV-positive person’s saliva could be used as a deadly weapon. HIV cannot be transmitted via saliva.
When reached after the protest, a spokesperson for Katz would not confirm or deny that charges could be upgraded in the future but told Gay City News “as of right now the case stands with the current charges.”
The man was first arrested for stealing yogurt at LaGuardia Airport and, according to authorities, later spit on the cop when he was being held in custody. He was ordered by a judge to be released after he was charged with criminal possession of stolen property, petty larceny, criminal mischief, and assault.
Brooklyn City Councilmember Stephen Levin joined advocates at the demonstration and committed to raising the issue with Katz as well as his City Council colleagues from Queens.
“It’s 2020 and yet we have major organizations like CBS News … not only stigmatizing HIV, but spreading misinformation,” Levin said. “We have made so many strides thanks to everyone here for 40 years. We will not go back.”
Out gay State Senator Brad Hoylman of Manhattan was unable to attend the protest, but stood in solidarity with advocates in a Twitter post, writing, “The facts are clear. HIV can’t be spread through saliva, and anyone suggesting otherwise is perpetuating stigma in the face of fact. There’s no place for this fearmongering and bigotry in New York.”
The vibrant group of demonstrators included representatives from ACT UP New York, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, VOCAL-NY, Housing Works, and Harlem United. Advocates handed out guidelines on HIV reporting to CBS officials standing outside of the building and to pedestrians walking on the sidewalk near the building.
But the rhetoric wasn’t all aimed at CBS. Jason Rosenberg of ACT UP New York was, like others, critical of the media giant, but also responded to the police union’s opposition to bail reform by pointing out that Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, a transgender woman of color, died in her cell on Rikers Island after she was unable to afford bail. He highlighted the racial disparities that criminalize people of color, including those in the LGBTQ community.
Brandon Cuicchi, also of ACT UP New York, told Gay City News that advocates would likely be paying a visit to the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association to address their role in the controversy.
“They need to not be sabotaging bail reform by using outdated, unscientific information about HIV and pushing HIV stigma in the process,” Cuicchi said.
He also foreshadowed advocates’ next move in taking on CBS, saying that the firing of a unnamed reporter involved with the problematic story represents “a first step” but is not nearly enough.
“We want a meeting with CBS to make sure they have accurate and scientific information about HIV, that they’re not pushing HIV stigma or criminalization, and that they’re not sabotaging bail reform,” Cuicchi said. “We’re going to follow this case and be in contact with the Queens DA to see how they’re going to charge this case. If they upgrade the charge to assault with a deadly weapon, we will pay a visit to them.