December 1, 2007

COMMENTARY: WORLD AIDS DAY

Walking on the Ledge:
Silence = Death

By Miguel M. Morales

After 26 years, AIDS no longer devastates or threatens the life of the average American.

While there is no cure for what is now known as HIV disease, it’s become a manageable chronic illness in the United States.

In fact, a report released last month by the United Nations and the World Health Organization cut the global number of estimated infections by approximately 7 million. This 16 percent reduction comes from improved methods of tracking infections.

Unfortunately, a similar revision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is Ivexpected to increase the number of HIV infections in the United States as much as 50 percent.

But we’ve clearly established, PWAs, or People With AIDS, can live long productive lives.

While I am not infected with HIV, it has affected my life.

Deciding to write this column for World AIDS Day, I searched the Internet only to discover that many of the friends I parted ways with have died.

In the early 1990s, I served as a member of the radical AIDS activist group called the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT-UP/KC.

I remember my new friends inspired me to fight for more treatment options at a time when AZT was the only drug used to manage HIV infection and when the only answer was to identify “AIDS victims” though mandatory testing of all patients.

That fight included three arrests for civil disobedience.

The first arrest came in a demonstration at the annual American Medical Association conference in Chicago. We were protesting the AMA’s proposal to support mandatory AIDS testing. As we the police processed the arrested protesters, I saw them beat a young man as he tried to assert that he had rights. I quickly looked away as not to be noticed by the officers. As I stared at the white linoleum floor, I saw blood fall like rain sprinkles and the young man’s screams grew louder until he was sobbing uncontrollably.

The second arrest came in Washington DC in protest of the murderous policies of George Bush. I guess I should be specific -- the murderous policies of George Bush, Sr.

Hundreds of AIDS activists marched through DC chanting their way to the White House. During the march, I met Nurse Bush -- a drag queen dressed as a nurse wearing a Barbra Bush wig and carrying a bloody hammer. Nurse Bush said she was simply carrying out her husband’s AIDS policies. And of course, she was hilarious.

Once we reached the White House, my group helped chain PWAs (People With AIDS) to the White House fence. We then chained ourselves. Naturally, the parks department revoked our permit and began arresting people. In teams of two, officers approached each protester along the fence asking him or her to leave. When the protester refused, officers notified the protester that he or she was under arrest and ask him or her to come willingly or be carried.

After the bloody mess in Chicago, I was ready for anything. But these officers surprised me. Obviously, they deal with protesters all the time and have worked out a system that ensures respect on all sides. Some protesters tried to resist, you know for the cameras, but the officers simply carried the protester to the arrest wagon or whatever its called. When it came my turn, I refused to leave but when the officer asked me to walk or be carried, I didn’t know what to do.

If I walked, I’d be the first one to do so. If they carried me, would I get charged with resisting arrest?

What’s an AIDS activist to do?

“If you carry me, is it an extra charge?” I asked the officer.

I guess no one had ever asked that before because he looked confused.

“We ... don’t charge,” he said.

“No, I mean is it an extra arrest charge like resisting arrest?” I explained.

“No.”

“OK, carry me.” I said.

When I arrived at the police wagon, he searched my pockets. That’s when I froze.

During the march, an elderly Mexican woman asked me to carry her jacket. I tied it around my waist and thought nothing of it -- until that moment.

My poor officer, he pulled out a little pink teddy bear from a pocket of the jacket. Then he pulled out some tissues and a lipstick tube.

“Is this yours?” he asked as he twisted the lipstick tube revealing a shade of red that would have make Nurse Bush drop her hammer.

I paused for a moment trying to decide if I should explain about the old Mexican woman but that big hulking man wearing riot gear suddenly looked like a confused nine years old boy. I don’t know why, but I lied and said they belonged to me. You should have seen his face.

My final arrest came at a protest. at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Mo. Secret Service agents arrested me because they though I was someone else, a man named Mark Chaney who was my AIDS-infected hero. They took me to the KCMO police department where they found I had a warrant for not paying a $10 parking ticket when I attended classes in Texas at Tarrant County Community College. The Secret Service was trying to get me extradited to Texas but the campus police refused. A female Secret Service agent seethed as I paid a $25 fine and walked out of jail.

Soon I became a respectable and worked as one of the first HIV educators in Kansas City -- but that’s a story for another time.

As I learn uninfected friends are now HIV positive and friends who were positive are now dead, all I have left are stories and the knowledge that AIDS no longer devastates or threatens life of the average American -- unless you or someone you becomes infected.

Twenty-five million people have died from AIDS since 1981. Currently, there are more than 38 million people infected with HIV.

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