ACT UP: Fight Back, Tax Wall Street

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Thursday April 26, 2012

More than a thousand activists and representatives of HIV/AIDS service organizations gathered at New York City Hall in lower Manhattan on Wednesday for a protest that marked ACT UP's 25th anniversary.

They teamed up with some members of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Unlike their protests, however, they marched on Wall Street with a clear demand: levy a so-called "Robin Hood" tax of .05 percent or less on speculative trades to end the global AIDS epidemic and provide universal health care in the United States.

"Twenty-five years ago we were in front of Trinity Church. People were sick and dying, and they couldn't even get the one medication that was available, AZT, which wasn't even a good one," said ACT UP's Andrew Vlez. "Here we are 25 years later, still fighting the same battles."

Vlez said that while studies now show that early treatment for HIV can reduce the rate of transmission by about 96 percent, most programs mandate a high viral load before treatment is funded. The waiting lists for those who seek medication through the federal AIDS Drug Assistance Program top 4,000 people in some states.

"We have a real chance for the first time in decades to end this epidemic," said Vlez. "We can't do it unless people are able to get the medications, unless there is testing that doesn't scare people because of stigma. We can end this: the Robin Hood tax is a miniscule amount on speculative transactions, something like $50 on every $100,000 of transactions, but the difference it would make is enormous. It would fill the gap that Wall Street looting has caused in our economy."

Jose Davila, executive director of Bronx AIDS Services, attended the protest with 20 members of his organization.

"This is a group of people that aren't being taxed at all. And the small percentage that we are asking on speculative trading will go a long way in helping prevent the disease in the future," he said. "The money is getting less and less every day, but the needs are continuing to increase, so this is a good way to address what we need."

In addition to ACT UP members and Occupiers; Bailey House, Housing Works, Treatment Action Group, and Vocal-NY were among the groups that sent representatives to lower Manhattan.

Members of National Nurses United also joined the protest.

"It's a good combination; I hope we stick together," added Larry Kramer. "ACT UP could teach Occupy a lot of things. They seem to be lacking some kind of goal, some 'give me that or else'. It's only half a cup, which is too bad. Anyway, it's good to feel the energy again. It's been a long time since I've seen so many people get together in anger. It's the healthiest tool we have."

Wayne Starks, a board member for Vocal-NY (formerly the New York Housing Network,) brought attention to recent cuts in housing funding. He said that millionaires are not paying their fair share of the taxes.

"This is ACT UP's 25th anniversary; all the things that they put in place for people living with AIDS, the city and the state have been taking away," said Starks. "We're out here to let them know they cannot do that. People think that the epidemic is over, but it's not. We need more funding, prevention, and education. We're out here to let people know AIDS is not dead, it's alive and kicking."

"If Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg and the [New York City's Human Resources Administration] Commissioner [Robert] Doar continue to cut service for people with AIDS, you're going to see more homeless people on the streets of New York," added Housing Works organizer Derrick Chandler. "We need to make sure the city reverses the recent changes to HOSTA funding that makes it harder for people with AIDS to get access to affordable housing."

ACT UP formed 25 years ago to demand that New York City and the nation put resources into helping people with AIDS access basic care and services.

Chandler said he feels that Housing Works continues to carry this torch today: fighting for the right to housing for people with HIV, the right to treatment and care and the right to prevention methods like access to syringes and condoms.

"ACT UP fought for many of the services for people with HIV that exist in New York City, and now we're fighting to prevent services from being cut due to bad policies," he said. "Poor people with HIV didn't cause the economic crisis, and they shouldn't be forced to have their services cut because of the actions of bankers and hedge fund managers."

As the marchers assembled, they used the Occupy human microphone system to broadcast the speakers' comments.

"We need to send a message that AIDS isn't over," said Eric Sawyer, a founding member of ACT UP. "Two million people died last year. Fifteen million people need AIDS drugs now; we need $24 billion. We need to tax Wall Street."

A Housing Works speaker called upon Bloomberg and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to think beyond short-term fixes, and change legislation so that people with HIV/AIDS don't have to wait until their viral load is high before qualifying for treatment. "We hope that in another 25 years we won't have to assemble like this," said the speaker. "If these policies don't change, you better believe we will be here."

Vocal-NY Board Chair Wanda Hernandez, who has lived with the virus since 1991, made the connection between HIV and women.

"From the Bronx to Botswana, women with HIV are more likely to live in poverty, and that is no coincidence," she said, noting women account for a quarter of new HIV diagnoses in New York City and represent more than one-third of those living in poverty. Globally, roughly half of people with HIV/AIDS are women. "HIV is driven by social injustice."

Hernandez said that when women lack power in their relationships, their home, their jobs, government and economy; they are more likely to get HIV, and have a more difficult time dealing with its stigma.

"We have the tools to prevent new infections and get people healthy, but we need politicians with the courage to end the epidemic," she said, specifically referring to Bloomberg and President Barack Obama.

The NYPD sent a large contingent of officers, some of whom wore riot gear, to the protest. They arrested 19 people for civil disobedience.

Gideon Oliver, a legal observer from the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, was on hand for some of the early arrests. Officers arrested nine protestors who chained themselves together near the New York Stock Exchange. The NYPD took another 10 into custody near City Hall after they blocked Broadway with furniture.

After the speakers spoke, marchers stepped off onto Broadway. They turned left at John Street before stopping in front of the Human Resources Administration on Water Street to call for housing for people with HIV/AIDS. Learning that the NYPD had blocked off the planned route on Pine Street, marchers made a left onto Maiden Lane. They walked past the Federal Reserve Bank before gathering in front of Trinity Church on Broadway.

"Twenty-five years ago AIDS activism began with an action right where we are standing; the first demo that ACT UP did was here, to demand government and drug companies to do research to find effective treatment to keep people with AIDS alive," said Sawyer outside Trinity Church. "But the fight is not over. We need 50 million people on treatment. We need local AIDS programs to provide prevention, treatment, and housing. We need to tax Wall Street and end AIDS."

Log onto for more information.

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.