On World AIDS Day 2019, ACT UP Philadelphia, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, recognizes 31 years of direct action and civil disobedience. ACT UP membership reflects the AIDS epidemic. AIDS is a non-crisis crisis, now that the disease is impacting primarily Black and Brown people. The majority of infections still come from men having sex with men. Transmissions of the virus are also generated by homelessness, poverty, addiction and stigma. These issues mirror reasons Black and Brown people are disproportionately incarcerated — the only difference is that the racist war on drugs caused those incarcerations.
Black and Brown trans women are being murdered and brutally beaten; however, trans women of color were the first to fight back, making Stonewall a riot and a legend that gave birth to a movement. They deserve respect and protection first. Cisgender gay men maybe next. As a queer Afrolatinx man, I can be killed or beaten by police. I cannot hide my skin color. Throughout my life, I have been stopped and frisked. I have been pulled over for no reason other than my skin color and driving at the same time. It is my reality.
Effective HIV medications were hard-fought for and won by ACT UP chapters and AIDS activists collectively across the country, and we honor our roots. Systemic racism and homophobia are now fueling the HIV epidemic in communities of color. Immigration issues are triggering HIV infections in migrant communities. The modes of HIV transmission are the same, but the reasons are vastly different in 2019. AIDS activism must now challenge social injustice and systemic racism. Systemic racism must be dismantled, and injustice repaired.
Two decades ago, ACT UP and allies fought for and won sterile syringe exchange. During that period, half of all HIV infections were from people sharing syringes. In later years, only 5 percent of all HIV infections in Philadelphia were due to sharing syringes. A recent article reported 11,000 HIV infections were averted by sterile syringe exchange, which saved Philadelphia millions of dollars. Homelessness and a lack of safe spaces make people share needles, and now we see an alarming spike in HIV infections again.
Fentanyl is an inexpensive synthetic opioid that has taken the place of heroin. It is powerful and unmeasured.
In Philadelphia, there have been over 1,200 overdose deaths, with Black and Brown people disproportionately overdosing. Fentanyl is now a nationwide problem with thousands of overdose deaths. It has been found in other drugs as well — cocaine, marijuana, K2 and crack cocaine. To prevent overdose deaths, we need a safe consumption facility — a place where people can use pre-obtained drugs while monitored by medical professionals. If overdose occurs, Naloxone can be administered to reverse it immediately. People are already reversing overdoses publicly. Why not indoors? People using a safe facility will have onsite referrals to detox and treatment centers. Medical and social service referrals will be given to people that often do not seek those services due to living with addiction and the judgmental attitudes of some providers.
A safe consumption facility called Safehouse was prepared to offer these services in Philadelphia. When challenged in federal court, the ruling was in favor of Safehouse and saving lives. After losing the case, Trump attorney William McSwain vowed to arrest anyone using Safehouse. That statement personifies what the war on drugs is — a miserable failure. The war on drugs did not offer any support or offer solutions; it did, however, mass incarcerate Black and Latino people for small amounts of drugs. It ruined lives and communities, and McSwain wants to continue the failed policy by incarcerating even more people. The U.S. government needs to acknowledge the harm that was done by the war on drugs and repair some of that harm by offering safe consumption facilities. With the money saved from the harm reduction measures and solutions provided by Safehouse, more affordable housing should be provided using federal funds. Housing is HIV prevention, and federal funding for AIDS housing (HOPWA) has been slashed under Trump.
Join ACT UP Philadelphia and allies to deliver the “Golden Urn Award” to Federal Attorney McSwain on Tuesday, Dec. 3 at his office at Chestnut St. at 11 a.m.
We still have meetings every Monday night at St. Luke’s Church, 330 S. 13th St. at 6 p.m. Please join us! AIDS is not over for anybody until it’s over for everybody. n