AIDS Activists Walk, But the Shoes Talk

Darren Sisco, 9, of New York City and the group Alive with Arrive protest to make treatment more accessible for people who are HIV-positive.
Darren Sisco, 9, of New York City and the group Alive with Arrive protest to make treatment more accessible for people who are HIV-positive. (Michael Robinson-chavez - Twp)
By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005

They were piled in front of the White House yesterday by the thousands: red kitten heels, tan Timberland boots and a baby's white leather crib shoes, among others.

Activists carried about 8,000 pairs of shoes down Pennsylvania Avenue to Lafayette Square to remind anyone watching -- they hoped President Bush was among them -- that 8,000 people die of AIDS-related illnesses worldwide every day, and that the victims are as many and as varied as the sandals, wingtips and sneakers the protesters brought with them.

"I'm not really who you'd expect to be HIV-positive," said Paige Swanberg, 24, of Billings, Mont. "I found out when I was 20 and trying to get into the Navy. It's the kind of thing that happens in big cities, not Montana. But the man who infected me also infected my best friend and six other girls."

Swanberg visited Washington for her first time to speak to members of Congress and march in the protest because she said she believes that AIDS funding, prevention and awareness has dimmed on the public's radar.

She marched with the Campaign to End AIDS, a new organization that is reflecting a shift in the makeup of the AIDS activism movement.

"Way back when, the activists were usually gay, white men, privileged and educated," said Eric Sawyer, who helped found one of the most prominent AIDS activist groups, ACT UP, in the late 1980s. "Today we've got African American churchwomen from the South walking with someone straight out of prison, walking with an Asian Harvard graduate."

About 3,500 people took part in the march, organizers said.

David Harris of Nashville slung a pair of black and white two-tones over his shoulder and began singing in a honey baritone: "One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you," as he marched from Freedom Plaza, carrying a poster of a boot stomping on the words "End AIDS."

"I'm tired of seeing my friends and loved ones infected and affected by this virus," Harris said.

He is the housing case manager for Street Works, an agency that works to prevent sexually transmitted diseases in the city.

Harris and Ron Crowder, the group's executive director, made their first visits to Washington this week to tell members of Congress what they're seeing on the streets.

"We know AIDS affects people from Yale and people from jail," Crowder said. "It's now a disease of people from park benches to Park Avenue. And we hope to get our message through to Congress and the Bush administration today."

Fatima Prioleau, 42, rounded up about 30 people from churches in New York to take a bus to Washington.

"People of faith are concerned about this epidemic, but there is silence," said Prioleau, a math teacher and mother of five who has been HIV-positive for about 13 years. "Our goal is to break that silence in the church."

Tim Murphy, one of the organizers of the Campaign to End AIDS, said the idea for a more diverse and textured coalition had been percolating for a couple of years.

"There's a general public perception that AIDS is not a problem right now," he said. "This is not 1989. We have the tools to treat this now. They're just not accessible for a huge percentage of the population."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company