When a group of activists shouted Monday as she began her keynote speech at the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quipped, "What would an AIDS conference be without a little protesting?"
She's right. Five groups are marching Tuesday from the city's cavernous convention center, where the conference is being held, to the White House, each representing a different AIDS-related cause and each taking a different route through the nation's capital.
One group is protesting bans on syringe exchange funding and criminalization or stigmatization of those with HIV, and calling for greater protection of members of the population protection of members of the population who are marginalized but drive much of the AIDS epidemic in some countries, such as sex workers and injection drug users. "We can have an AIDS-free generation, but that requires leadership on these issues," says David Munar, president and CEO of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. "It's not just a scientific challenge."
Another is calling for political leaders to support a "Robin Hood" financial transaction tax on Wall Street to raise money for AIDS medicines and health programs for Americans. "This small tax of less than one-half of 1% on Wall Street transactions can generate hundreds of billions of dollars each year in the U.S. alone," says its website. "It's not a tax on the people, but a tax for the people."
Holding signs that read "Silence = Death," "State Homophobia Kills," and "It's Only Fair: Act Up. Tax Wall Street. End AIDS," the groups headed toward the White House around noon. Some had dollar bills with masks drawn on George Washington's face – representing Robin Hood – that they planned to throw over the White House fence. There were rumors of possible civil disobedience – that some might try to chain themselves to the fence in protest.
"We want to make sure people with HIV and AIDS are seen," said Jose DeMarco, a spokesman for activist group ACT Up, which brought 10 busloads of protesters to Washington for the day. "Many of the people here are marginalized."
The conference is the first to be held in the U.S. since 1990, and made possible only after the Obama administration dropped a two-decade old entry ban on travelers infected with HIV.
The protests drew others supporting related causes. "We're seeing a lot fewer nurses by patients' bedsides, decrease in staff and supplies, broken wheelchairs not being fixed," said Sam Aldi, a nurse with the Veterans Administration in New York who had come with the National Nurses United to support the Robin Hood tax. Financial cutbacks "are noticeable," he said.
"Why don't we tax big corporations rather than bailing them out?" he said.