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July 24, 2012
We Can End AIDS March Converges on White House
by Reed Vreeland
Coinciding with the XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012), a mass of approximately 1,000 demonstrators under the banner of the We Can End AIDS Coalition crisscrossed Washington, DC, on July 24, ultimately converging on the White House to demand major changes to domestic and international HIV policy.
Five distinct branches of the protest were grouped to express demonstrators' top demands. The Occupy movement joined with a range of organizations, including the Robin Hood Tax Campaign, VOCAL-NY and National Nurses United, to demand a halt to all global and domestic cuts to AIDS services and a financial speculation tax to end AIDS.
"Right now big business is getting a free ride," said Eric Sawyer, a civil society partnership advisor at UNAIDS, who was at the march. "They are not paying their fair share on a number of specific issues, especially public health."
The proposed "Robin Hood" financial transaction tax is a 0.05 percent tax on Wall Street financial transactions that, activists say, could generate nearly 400 billion dollars per year to fund the HIV response, as well as other health, environmental and social justice issues.
"It's great for people to stay healthy so they can work, earn money and buy the products of big business," Sawyer said, "but [big business] doesn't really contribute to maintaining the health of people. It's time that their free ride ends." Over 1,000 leading economists support a financial transaction tax, an economic strategy that is gaining traction in Germany and France.
Other groups of marchers chanted for more AIDS housing; better accountability from big pharmaceutical companies and governments; access to HIV/AIDS and reproductive health services for women and lesbian, gay, transgender and queer people; and an end to the federal ban on syringe exchange programs. Protesters also pressed local and international policy makers to stop the criminalization of sex workers, drug users and people living with HIV/AIDS.
The march was punctuated with demand-specific actions across central DC, with special attention on the fact that the District of Columbia's HIV rates are among the highest in the Unites States, rivaling infection rates in many sub-Saharan African nations.
Eventually the five arms of the protest joined together at Lafayette Park in front of the White House for a rally that included music and speeches by public figures in the HIV/AIDS response. In a symbolic end to the protest, around twelve We Can End AIDS Coalition demonstrators were arrested after tying hundreds of red ribbons to the White House fence. Attached to the ribbons were dollar bills and other real and fake notes of international currency, as well as condoms and empty syringes—items symbolizing the resources needed to end global AIDS.
Demonstrators being arrested and those watching the arrests were unified in pointing out that even money-strapped domestic and international governments currently have the ability use a financial transaction tax to raise the funds necessary to put many more people living with HIV on antiretroviral treatment and save millions of lives. The action of those being arrested was meant to highlight the inaction of governments that aren't doing enough to end AIDS.