According to its website the AIDS Action Council is, “the national voice on AIDS,” and, indeed, it has some claim to that title, since it is funded by the country’s leading AIDS service organizations. At a time of crisis—with the AIDS community under fierce attack by the Bush administration and the Christian Right—strong and effective national leadership is more necessary than ever.
That’s why last December I was so upset that AIDS Action’s executive director, Marsha Martin, joined a host committee for an event “celebrating the presidential inauguration and Republican electoral success.”
How things have changed: During the 1988 presidential race, AIDS Action led the effort to energize the community, organizing a speaking tour and press conferences during the Iowa precinct caucuses. Yet during last year’s election, AIDS Action refused to endorse the goals of AIDSVote, the effort POZ and more than 238 AIDS organizations undertook to facilitate voter registration and turnout by people with HIV. Though AIDS Action claimed it was a partisan effort (it was actually scrupulously nonpartisan as required by law), the truth may be that it feared upsetting Bush administration allies.
This is all part and parcel of AIDS Action’s policy to deflect criticism of the Bush administration and to focus its lobbying on funding efforts like ADAP and the reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act. Other issues, like fighting names reporting and the murderous abstinence-only prevention education have been relegated to a low priority. On hot button issues, AIDS Action is missing in action.
So in December, I got fed up, contacted members of AIDS Action’s board, sent an email to other activists and caused a minor media stir. Marsha Martin eventually agreed that her participation in the Republican election celebration was inappropriate and withdrew her support, saying she hadn’t seen the partisan wording on the invitation.
On January 4, I attended a planning meeting in Washington, DC, for the Campaign to End AIDS—an exciting and historic grassroots effort to mobilize AIDS activists around the country (see “On the March,” page 12). At that meeting, I spoke to Martin about AIDS Action’s strategy. She argued that her “inside” strategy was effective and implied that my public criticism of AIDS Action could weaken the organization and even threaten its survival.
Housing Works’ Charles King, one of the leading organizers of the Campaign to End AIDS, put it succinctly: “The effectiveness of the insider-outsider strategy has always been something of a myth. Insiders are generally most interested in their own interests, not in protecting those who are not invited to the table.”
AIDS Action was founded to speak for outsiders, those who were not invited to the table, but who were being decimated by an uncaring government. AIDS Action has betrayed those roots. Their strategy, to play ball with and suck up to the current administration and, in effect, be its voice to the AIDS community, rather than the other way around, is one that needs serious reconsideration.
And the Campaign to End AIDS? AIDS Action Council has announced it will not endorse it. There are also signs that some of the big ASOs that fund AIDS Action are waffling on whether they will support the march. This is a terrifying development—in a time of crisis, the community cannot be a house divided.
I urge you to contact AIDS Action Council at 202.530.8030 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and your local ASO and tell them that their failure to support the Campaign to End AIDS would be a shameful disgrace.
We—meaning people with HIV—have, for the most part, lost control of the local AIDS service organizations that we founded. Demanding their support for our massive and peaceful march on Washington is one small step toward reclaiming some of that power.