Several hundred protesters marched on Capitol Hill yesterday, and 98 were arrested, during a demonstration that urged the presidential candidates and Congress to do more for people with AIDS.
The marchers, most of whom arrived on chartered buses from out of town, chanted, "Fight AIDS now," and, "Bush is a jerk, condoms work," as they paraded through the streets to Republican and Democratic party headquarters. They then congregated at the foot of the U.S. Capitol for a carefully orchestrated civil disobedience demonstration.
The arrests, on charges of unlawful assembly, came after a crowd of demonstrators lay down in the street where tour buses drop off visitors. A U.S. Capitol Police spokesman said the offense is punishable by a $50 fine.
"We need to get loud," shouted Martin Wiley, a protest organizer from ACT UP Philadelphia. "We need to find a spot of anger for the loss of people to a disease that should have been cured years ago."
The demonstration, billed as a "Wake Up, Time's Up" protest and a new call to action, was organized and endorsed by dozens of AIDS groups from across the country. Demonstrators carried alarm clocks that they set off during the arrests.
The intent, organizers said, was to send a message that the AIDS crisis is not over simply because there are medications to treat the virus. They said more needs to be done to provide AIDS care, including affordable generic drugs and housing, and to stem the spread of the disease in developing countries and among vulnerable populations in the United States, particularly nonwhite, low-income men.
The protesters called for the federal government to spend billions more on health care and scientific research on HIV treatment and prevention in the United States and abroad.
"We are here in Washington today because our national priorities are screwed up," Terje Anderson, executive director of the National Association of People With AIDS, told the demonstrators. He said President Bush and Congress have spent millions of dollars on the war in Iraq and tax breaks for the wealthy but have not kept pace with the needs of the AIDS crisis.
Federal spending on the AIDS Drug Assistance Program increased from $714 million in 2003 to $749 million this year, and Bush has proposed adding $35 million next year. But about 40,000 new cases of HIV infection are diagnosed each year, according to a current survey, and there are waiting lists for discounted medications that help keep the virus in check.
Yesterday's marchers stopped at the Republican National Committee headquarters first, shouting, "Shame, shame, shame," at what protesters said was the GOP's failure to take the AIDS problem seriously and the emphasis by the Bush administration of abstinence instead of other effective preventive measures, such as condoms.
The protesters then marched to the Democratic National Committee headquarters, where they warned Democrats not to take their votes for granted unless they do more to fight AIDS.
Chairman Terry McAuliffe was among DNC officials who watched the demonstration from the building's office balconies and terraces. Staff members circulated in the crowd, handing out fliers detailing support for AIDS-related programs by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the party's presumptive presidential nominee.
Among the first to be arrested was Leigh O'Donoghue, 43, a social worker from Bethesda who contracted HIV in 1996. She said she is concerned that drugs that help mange the virus are not available to everyone and that current drugs have such side effects as heart disease and liver and kidney damage.
"Whatever happened to finding a cure?" O'Donoghue asked. "If I had cancer, people would have compassion. With AIDS, I get stigma, and that's not fair."