Occupy Wall Street activists and housing groups teamed up with AIDS patient advocate group ACT UP on Wednesday in New York City, marching from City Hall to the Department of Social Services in protest against homelessness, diminished health services for the city's most vulnerable, and economic injustice.
The event coincided with the 25th anniversary of ACT UP!, the protest and advocacy movement that rose up in the early days of the AIDS epidemic and radicalized a generation of activists.
"I'm here to say the job isn't over," Jim Eigo, an early member of ACT UP!, told The Village Voice. "We changed some of the immediate conditions of the plague, but we didn't succeed in changing the underlying issues."
Another longtime ACT UP member, Julie Davids, spoke with The Associated Press, saying it made sense for the organization to march with Occupy supporters. "ACT UP has always looked at the AIDS crisis through an economic justice lens and has always recognized that obstacles were rooted in greed and the profit motive," she said.
Some protesters chained their hands together and spread out across a busy thoroughfare to call for the taxation of Wall Street financial institutions to fund HIV/AIDS treatment, authorities and witnesses said. Reports indicate that at least nineteen protesters were arrested.
According to reporting by The Nation's Allison Kilkenny, activists say cuts to housing and healthcare could be easily avoided with a financial transaction tax, or a "Robin Hood" tax—something like $50 on every $100,000 worth of transactions on Wall Street. "This tax wouldn't affect ordinary stockholders or bank transactions," explains Kilkenny, "But would instead be affixed to speculative actions, much maligned ever since those kinds of shady Wall Street gambling antics tanked the world's economies."
* * *
The Village Voice: Demonstrators Protest AIDS Inaction, Student Debt and Tuition Hikes
Yesterday morning saw a substantial demonstration by ACT UP!, other AIDS activists, and Occupiers, marching from City Hall into the Financial District to call for a financial speculation tax to fund treatment and services for people with HIV.
Eigo conceded that things have changed since the days of his activism. "Back then, we plopped our bodies down in the street, and made ourselves impossible to ignore. It was so physical. With AIDS, you can't get away from the physical because it's in the body. But now, public space has shrunk incredibly. Everything, even activism, seems to happen online. That's why a lot of us are so excited by Occupy Wall Street: It's revivfying the public space. You need that physicality. We couldn't have crashed through the policy barriers that we did, couldn't have moved a very staid bureaucracy, if they didn't know we could muster 1,000 people at the drop of a hat."
"ACT UP! got real changes in federal drug approval policy and other progress not just from street demos, but from strategic thinking and what you could call homework," Dobbs said. "These days act up is mostly following rather than leading, and it needs to be revived as an independent truth-telling force which it once was."
"We just want one tiny portion of each penny," said Sharonann Lynch, an HIV policy adviser to Doctors Without Borders, an international medical humanitarian organization.
"ACT UP has always looked at the AIDS crisis through an economic justice lens and has always recognized that obstacles were rooted in greed and the profit motive." --Julie Davis, ACT UP member
New York Stock Exchange workers jeered from the sidewalk as protesters wearing Robin Hood costumes were dragged across the pavement to clear Broadway for the stalled morning rush-hour traffic. The nine who had stood across Broadway, chained to each other, were then handcuffed and loaded into police vans.
Police used metal cutters to remove the chains.
About an hour later, more than 200 activists gathered near City Hall for the march on Wall Street. They were flanked by police in riot gear and on scooters.
ACT UP was founded in March 1987 with hundreds of activists staging a protest in the same area against the high cost and low availability of HIV medications.
Eric Sawyer, a founding member of the group that now includes chapters worldwide, said he and others returned for good reason.
When it comes to AIDS treatment and other services, he said, "big business is not funding anything, but they got the bailout."
Another longtime ACT UP member, Julie Davids, said it made sense for the organization to march with Occupy supporters.
"ACT UP has always looked at the AIDS crisis through an economic justice lens and has always recognized that obstacles were rooted in greed and the profit motive," she said.
At another point in the march, protesters dragged couches and chairs into the middle of Broadway, chanting "Housing saves lives!" to draw attention to what they said was the lack of adequate housing assistance available to people with HIV. One protesting woman faced police while sitting on a toilet that was part of the makeshift "home" and its furnishings.
* * *
Andrew Vellis, who has been an ACT UP protester since the group's founding twenty-five years ago, was pleased to see Occupy activists join the march. Vellis referred to Occupy as "great people" and "wonderful activists."
"Considering how the Wall Street industry has benefited from monies from the United States, for us not to have money now to pay for people with HIV/AIDS is obscene." --Andrew Vellis, ACT UP member
"They're wilily and creative and basically non-violent, which is a basic tenant, and always has been, of ACT UP. Their focus is on the larger issues of health care, in general, whereas what brought us into this was the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But we're finding working together with them is just great," he said.
Vellis, like most ACT UP demonstrators, is a big fan of the Robin Hood tax.
"We're here today…for the financial tax that we want to see happen because it will make the difference between there being funds for people to get onto treatment," he said, referring to the Robin Hood tax as "painless."
"Considering how the Wall Street industry has benefited from monies from the United States, for us not to have money now to pay for people with HIV/AIDS is obscene."
Vellis said that the Robin Hood tax was only one of many reasons protesters took to the streets Wednesday. There are also the problems of HIV still being a huge stigma and youth homeless with thousands of kids living on the streets.
"But for starters, we need money, and we need money to get people into treatment," he said.
Nine protesters were arrested after chaining themselves together across Broadway at Wall Street, and police used chain cutters to separate the demonstrators before they were piled into a police van.
* * *
Video: ACT UP NY protesters block Broadway at Wall St. on the morning of ACT UP's 25th Anniversary march on Wall St. They are dressed as Robin Hood to demand that a tiny Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) be placed on Wall St for AIDS funding and healthcare. The .05% tax would generate billions to stop the spread of AIDS.
# # #