POZ Exclusives : We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For: AIDS Advocacy in the Obama Era - by Charles King

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July 9, 2009

We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For: AIDS Advocacy in the Obama Era

by Charles King


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Text from the keynote speech by Charles King, president and CEO of Housing Works, at the 10th Annual Prevention and Outreach Summit in Philadelphia on June 24, 2009.

I know that I was asked to speak on housing as prevention, and I will certainly get to it in my remarks.  But, to be honest, that isn’t what is really on my heart this morning, desperately important as it is.  Instead, have titled this morning’s speech, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for:  AIDS advocacy in the Obama era.”  I have also taken the trouble to write this speech out so that I can clearly articulate my thoughts and not be misunderstood.

The election of Barack Obama as the 45th president of the United States clearly marks an important moment in the history of this country.  In a nation born with the original sin of slavery and racism written into its very constitution, a nation that took some one hundred years to find its way to emancipation and another hundred years after that to repudiate segregation, a nation in which a Black man is still 20 times more likely to go to jail than a white man and 10 times less likely, if he hasn’t gone to jail, than a white man who is a convict, to be hired for a job, the election of an African American as president is certainly a remarkable moment in history. 

Moreover, this election was no mere signifier to be noted in the history books.  First, it was without question a repudiation of the eight prior years of unilateral and foolhardy militarism, unbridled cronyism, lassie fair capitalism, no-nothing nativism and a deliberately divisive use of rightist religious and cultural ideology manifest by the Administration of Bush Junior.  And, without question, it spoke to the desire of most white Americans to move beyond the stain of racism that continues to taint so many of our day to day interactions with suspicion at the very least.  In fact, the historicity of this moment can be seen in the rising extreme rhetoric and rising individually-enacted but nonetheless consequential violence of the religious and political right.  There is a real sense of profound diminishment and even grief among these segments of society who know that they have indeed lost something even if it is too intangible for them to articulate.

But, having said that, I also strongly believe that the significance of the election of Barack Obama can certainly be overstated, and it has been overstated by way too many people who yearn for progressive social change.  Yes, it is true that Obama ran in the Democratic primaries as an anti-war, affirmative social change progressive.  You could go on his campaign web site and chalk up the issues, whether the war in Iraq, women’s rights, civil rights, labor, immigration, health care, urban affairs, LGBT concerns, you name it, he had staked out a progressive posture, generally not too, too radical, but almost always just a hair to the left of Hillary Clinton, if way to the right of Ohio’s Dennis Kucinich.  On AIDS, he called for a national strategy, committed to an increased global fight, and offered a platform that we could have written for him…in fact, if you look at the platform articulated by the Campaign to End AIDS and its AIDS Vote partners, we probably did, and we were thrilled when his campaign plagiarized from us.

And then there was his consistently eloquent talk of change we could believe in…coupled with soaring rhetoric that made the heart sing and yearn to believe….He could have  been a good old Baptist preacher, for God’s sake…only much cooler, much more articulate.  But to tell the truth, 150 days into this administration, it is amply clear that Obama is in fact governing as a moderately conservative Democrat, much in the strain of his predecessor, Bill Clinton. 

On war, notwithstanding the hay he made in his campaign for having opposed the invasion of Iraq, he has basically maintained the Bush trajectory on withdrawal from Iraq and significantly increased our nation’s investment in war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  On the campaign trail, he repeatedly spoke to his commitment to women’s right to choose their own destiny, over and over pledging to pass the Freedom of Choice Act.  Yet, when questioned about it in his nationally televised 100 day press conference, he made a point to say that this legislation was not high on his priority list, not doubt sending the leadership of both NOW and NARAL into apoplexy. 

Notwithstanding his claims to stand on the shoulders of the great civil rights activists of yesteryear, in almost every case that has come up in federal court since his inauguration, whether the right to sue for being tortured, the right to view photographs of US involvement in torture, limits on warrant-less surveillance or even the most recent case on the right to post-conviction DNA testing, Obama’s Justice Department has taken the stand most antithetical to true civil libertarians.  As to his debt to organized Labor, let’s just say he was against free trade agreements before he was for them, and if you count priorities by the billions of tax dollars committed, he definitely favors saving the banks on Wall Street over the jobs on Main Street…and no economist today is comparing his bank reforms to Roosevelt’s unless it is to say that there really isn’t a comparison.

As to LGBT issues, don’t look for an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell” any time soon.  As General Gates made clear, we’ve got a war to fight, so we’re not going to rock the boat now.  Repeal of “The Defense of Marriage Act” is somewhere below the Freedom of Choice Act on the priority list.  To be sure, this week the President signed an executive order giving partners of gay and lesbian federal employees a handful of rights, but no right to health care or survivors’ pensions, the most important ones.  In fact, the President was forced to issue the order when the Administration provoked loud outrage and the threat of a boycott by major gay funders of the Democratic Party by arguing in court against decisions by two federal judges granting married gay spouses spousal health insurance.  Not only did the Justice Department make the argument that the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition of state laws granting gay marriage, is constitutional, it did so by comparing gay marriage to incest.

The only reasonably progressive commitment President Obama has held to his health care reform, and even there, he has hardly staked out a radical position.  He wouldn’t even touch the truly progressive single payer proposal, and now is signaling his willingness to compromise on even a federal health insurance option for anyone who is not impoverished or disabled. Specifically, he welcomed as a potential compromise a proposal by Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota to substitute regional or state-run health care cooperatives as a possible alternative.

When it comes to AIDS, well, he didn’t say so out loud, but clearly AIDS isn’t on the top of Obama’s priority list either.  Yesterday, as I am sure you saw on television or read in the newspaper, there was a horrible train wreck in the District of Columbia.  At least six people were killed and dozens injured.  The President immediately issued a statement expressing his and Michelle’s condolences to injured and the families of the deceased and his thanks to the “brave first responders.”  On March 16, the Washington, DC Department of Health issued a report reflecting the following:  DC has an HIV infection rate of 3%, by far the highest HIV infection rate in the nation, and among the worst HIV infection rates in the world, 7% of Black men in the district are infected (as are some 50% of Black men in DC who have sex with men), and that the HIV infection rate has increased 22% in just two years.  Notwithstanding the particular role the federal government plays in DC affairs, or the acclaim the Obamas have gotten for their interest in local Washington matters ranging from soup kitchens and homeless shelters to schools and churches, and even to hamburger joints, to this day, the President’s press office has not said a word about the local AIDS epidemic raging in the shadow of the White House…and no shout out to the “brave first responders” either.

Remember, Obama promised to develop and implement a national strategy to address the epidemic within his first year of office.  So now five months have passed, and we don’t even have a plan to develop a plan.  Call up Jeff Crowley, the Director of the White House Office of AIDS Policy, and ask him about it.  What he will tell you is, “I hope to be able to announce a plan to develop the plan very soon.”  Asked why it wasn’t important to have the process announced by 100 days, the deadline activists had demanded, he was quoted as saying, “I don’t believe in artificial deadlines.”  Of course, that’s why the President held a nationally televised press conference on his one hundredth day to catalogue all of the really important things he had already accomplished.

Not only is Obama not proving progressive on AIDS, but in some regards we are moving backwards in this Administration.  Last year, President Bush pledged $50 billion to the fight against global AIDS over the next five years.  Candidate Obama took the same stand, but President Obama put forward a budget that would spread that same $50 billion over six years.  In other words, a cut over what Bush had proposed.  Yes, President Obama has actually proposed cutting funding for global AIDS.

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