Lighting the End of the Tunnel

New York activists march toward Washington in new drive to focus attention on AIDS

Twenty-five AIDS activists set off on a 22-day march from New York to Washington early last Saturday morning to kick off the Campaign to End AIDS with roughly 1,000 supporters who giddily accompanied them through the Lincoln Tunnel and on to Jersey City.

“Some people think that it’s hyperbole when we talk about ending the AIDS epidemic,” said Charles King, president of Housing Works, one of the lead organizers, at an 8 a.m. rally in Times Square. “But it’s not rocket science, it’s common sense. If they can do needle exchange in Tehran, we can do it in this country. If they can pass out condoms in China, we can do it in our schools.”

He then led the marchers across town to the Lincoln Tunnel for the rare experience of walking through it.

As the name of the campaign implies, it is not a modest agenda—first, to reauthorize the federal Ryan White Care Act that funds domestic AIDS treatment and care to the tune of $2.5 billion; second, to restore $10 billion in cuts to Medicaid that most adults and almost all children living with HIV depend upon; third, to fully fund the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria with $1.5 billion in U.S. funds while canceling Third World debt; and fourth, to restore explicit HIV prevention programs worldwide based on science, not “religious ideology.”

Gina Quattrochi, executive director of Bailey House, a Greenwich Village residence for people with AIDS, said, “It feels like we’re returning to some activism. I go back 22 years, but we’ve become too complacent. Many are afraid to bite the hand that feeds us.” She criticized Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg for “only talking about AIDS a half dozen times” during nearly four years in office. She thinks her outspokenness may have caused some of the cuts in city funding to Bailey House, “but I can’t link it directly.”

Veteran AIDS activist Brent Nicholson Earle, who ran around the perimeter of the nation in 1985 in his American Run for the End of AIDS in 1985 to raise funds and awareness, was thrilled to be marching again, but asked, “Where are the soldiers? We’re still at war.” He has known he is HIV-positive for 17 years.

Valerie Jimenez, 40 and also living with HIV, is headed all the way to Washington for four days of actions beginning November 5 including rallies, lobbying, and networking. She coordinated Paving the Way, the New York City contingent.

“I have a granddaughter who is three,” she said, “and I want her to be around for the time when she never has to worry about it.” Jimenez calls herself “a positive woman in all respects” and is determined to make this happen. “We’ve got people coming in from all 50 states. The government is asleep!”

Eric Sawyer, a founding member of ACT UP in 1987, said, “The biggest global threat is the terrorist disease HIV/AIDS. It kills several million each year and is devastating economies in Africa.”

Soraya Elcock, deputy director of prevention services at Harlem United, said she was marching because she is tired of “living room liberals,” noting HIV “walked into my family in 1991.”

Joey Pressley, executive director of the New York AIDS Coalition, said he wants to send a message to the federal government, but did see some light at the end of the tunnel, citing eight million dollars in state restorations for HIV/AIDS services after years of cuts. “I thank God for the treatments available as a man living with HIV,” he said, “but the by-product is complacency.”

Vivian Wilson, an HIV supervising case manager from Queens, emphasized the abysmal health care that women with HIV are getting at city jails and state prisons. Tyrone Perry, a 48-year old residence manager from the Bronx, got involved when his “baby brother” died of AIDS in 1996.

Michael Kink, legislative counsel for Housing Works and a coordinator of the campaign, was encouraged by the fact that contingents from places like Westport, Pennsylvania, and Salt Lake City are participating. “Now is the time to fight,” Kink said. “Anybody who cares about health care has got to call Congress now” to demand restorations in Medicaid on which most people with AIDS depend.

The only elected official on the scene was David Roberts, mayor of Hoboken, who read a proclamation in support of the campaign. He said he didn’t know much about AIDS in his city, but said, “We stand together with the entire world trying to bring attention to this crisis.” At least he showed up.

For more information go to c2ea.org. A protest against what activists term President George W. Bush’s “Campaign to INCREASE AIDS” is being staged in Washington on Monday, November 7 at 11 a.m. at 15th and I Streets. Call ACT-UP’s John Riley at 917-653-7267 for details.

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