ACT UP: Rallies Against Bush AT RNC Headquarters
At a rally held Friday in Washington, D.C., more than 500 AIDS activists criticized Republican presidential nominee Texas Gov. George W. Bush's record on treating the disease in his home state and said that a Bush presidency would have a negative effect on people with HIV/AIDS. The protest, sponsored by ACT UP/Philadelphia, was held in front of Republican National Committee headquarters and culminated in seven ACT UP members being willfully arrested by U.S. Capitol Police. ACT UP speakers criticized Bush on several fronts, most notably his ties to the pharmaceutical industry, which they said would affect the ability of poor countries to develop generic drugs to combat the effects of HIV. "We're not going to let our country stand in the way of other countries trying to save their people's lives," Julie Davids, an ACT UP/Philadelphia member who led the rally, said. ACT UP is concerned that Bush would repeal an executive order signed by President Clinton in May that excludes sub-Saharan African countries from U.S. trade and patent laws when HIV/AIDS pharmaceuticals and medical technologies are concerned. ACT UP/Philadelphia member Paul Davis said there was "circumstantial evidence" that Bush would repeal the order, which is criticized by the pharmaceutical industry. Protesters carried signs with Bush's photo and the caption, "Drug Company Puppet," in what Davis said was a reference to pharmaceutical companies having "a major hand in writing" the governor's prescription drug benefit plan. ACT UP members also said that Bush favors incarceration of drug users over rehabilitation. Abdul Hakaim, one of the protesters later arrested, said, "If Bush had his way, he would lock up everybody." Hakaim also echoed a contention expressed throughout the rally that Bush has yet to publicly say the word "AIDS" as governor of Texas. Cliff May, communications director for the RNC, said, "We think everybody has a First Amendment right to protest and we're gratified it was a peaceful process." The Bush and Gore campaigns did not return calls seeking comment on the protest. In the most dramatic sequence of the rally, protesters heaved several black wooden caskets filled with empty prescription drug containers onto the steps of the RNC headquarters. Seven ACT UP members then formed a human chain as they handcuffed themselves to the gates outside of the RNC front door in an attempt to get arrested, according to ACT UP/Philadelphia member Laura McTighe, who provided legal support for the seven protesters. As other protesters chanted "More Bush is more AIDS, silence equals death," the seven individuals -- five men and two women -- then moved to the street in front of the building and handcuffed themselves to the caskets. They were then arrested by Capitol Police, who wore rubber gloves as they transported the protesters to a large police vehicle. According to Lt. Dan Nichols of the Capitol Police, the protesters were to be charged with "obstruction of passage on federal grounds," a violation of D.C. law. They were not arrested on the steps of the RNC because that area falls under the jurisdiction of the D.C. Metropolitan Police, who chose not to take action, Nichols added. Capitol Police confirmed that the protestors were released later Friday evening. Non-Partisan, But ACT-UP's Choice Is Clear While the rally focused solely on attacking Bush, Davis said that ACT UP is a non-partisan organization and its support for Vice President Al Gore came only after the group pressed for Gore expressly to support compulsory licensing. ACT UP demonstrated at several Gore campaign events until U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky announced in September 1999 that the United States would support compulsory licensing and parallel importing for South Africa. "Gore's response to the issue was dramatic and swift," Mark Milano of ACT UP/New York said. He added that "Gore's response [to AIDS] has been more appropriate than Bush's" and was "quite sure" that the "shameful" current policy regarding compulsory licensing would continue in a Gore administration. Few ACT UP members, however, expressed unequivocal support for Gore. Milano criticized Gore for supporting the current policy of banning HIV-infected individuals from immigrating to the United States, and also spoke out against the Clinton administration's "lack of federal funding for needle exchange programs." Still, in the end, Milano -- who said he was thrown out of a Bush campaign event in Pennsylvania when he attempted to ask the governor a question on AIDS -- said the choice between the candidates comes down to one question: "What's more important, protecting the interests of corporations or protecting people with AIDS?" Davis said that ACT UP would continue to hold demonstrations criticizing Bush until the governor addressed its concerns. Republicans Respond While no opposing viewpoints were heard at Friday's rally, Bush's AIDS policies and proposals have been supported by the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization that works within the Republican Party to advance equal rights for gays and lesbians. Kevin Ivers, the group's director of public affairs, said ACT UP's statement that Bush has not mentioned AIDS was a "gross exaggeration," adding that it "ignores the facts about the governor's record in Texas." According to the LCR's Web site, Bush has increased funding for HIV medications and education, has signed "patient protection legislation" for HIV/AIDS patients and has overseen a decline in the number of AIDS-related deaths in Texas. ACT UP "is a group whose tactics are extremely radical," Ivers said. Disputing ACT UP's contention that compulsory licensing will help mitigate the global AIDS pandemic, Ivers said it will "increase the amount of death and will not reduce the incidence of AIDS." The only solution, he said, is the development of a "health care delivery infrastructure" so that poor countries can distribute drugs to their citizens. According to Ivers, only the private sector has the capacity to deal with the global AIDS problem. "If ACT UP thinks that drugs grow on trees or will be produced by government, I don't know what they've been smoking." Ivers also argued that a Republican administration under Bush would benefit the HIV/AIDS community more than a Gore administration. "Clinton [and] Gore are committed to political solutions," he said, adding, "We continue to get budget requests woefully inadequate to deal with the domestic crisis, and nothing but demagoguery in dealing with the global problem." While stating he was not a spokesperson for the Bush campaign, Ivers said Bush would support "sound Republican policies," including AIDS Drug Assistance Programs and continued AIDS research (Jon Kastellec, Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 10/16).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.