The Washington Post

AIDS conference unites protesters in march to the White House

AIDS activists take part in a rally across from the White House in Washington, D.C. July 24, 2012. The international AIDS 2012 conference is currently being held in Washington. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

An octopus-like mix of protest groups converged on the streets of downtown Washington Tuesday to raise a range of issues related to AIDS, health care and sexuality while the International AIDS Conference is in town. Midday traffic was snarled as thousands of marchers coming from different directions wove toward the White House.

A dozen people were arrested — as they had planned to be — after they began tying hundreds of pouches of medicine and dollar bills tied with red ribbon to symbolize their desire for more funding to AIDS medication. As the 12 were arrested, hundreds chanted from behind barricades: “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”

The march was a complex mix of groups and agendas, some connected to the AIDS conference and some not. At least a dozen nationwide groups participated, meeting at a park near the Walter E. Washington Convention Center at noon and marching down different streets toward the White House.

“The message here is that we need more attention, we need a cure for AIDS and we need more resources,” Lisa Moses, 35, an AIDS clinic manager from Dallas said as she watched other activists being put in a Park Police van.

Some sought changes on health-care policy and sex education, others lobbied for a “Robin Hood tax” on financial transactions — saying some revenue would be designated for HIV/AIDS. There were advocates for sex workers, women’s health and sexual minorities.

For all, the mood was carnival-like.

People danced their way through Washington’s central business district, ringing bells, waving signs and chanting. Many wore green pointy felt hats with a red feather and green masks — a sea of Robin Hoods marching on a cloudy day and stopping at various buildings that house key financial institutions.

“It’s not a tax on the people, it’s a tax to end HIV/AIDS,” said a sign many waved.

The main organizing groups were National Nurses United, Health Global Access Project, VOCAL-NY, ACT UP and National People’s Action. The Occupy movement also joined the protest.

Among those on the D.C. streets were HIV-positive women from Latin America.

“This has been an epidemic for 20 years, but women have been invisible,” said Patricia Perez, 50, of Buenos Aires. “Our goal is that women’s rights should be respected and we should be at the table when decisions are made.”

There have also been protests inside the convention center, where more than 23,000 people were attending the AIDS conference. On Tuesday, hundreds of people chanted and walked inside the building to protest the U.S. restriction preventing people who say they are sex workers or drug users on their visa applications from entering the country.

Among them was Darby Hickey, 32, a transgender woman who says she’s been a prostitute in Washington for about a dozen years. A graduate of a Long Island college who studied writing, Hickey said she’s motivated by the same thing in her job as other people are in theirs: paying the bills.

Hickey made a point that’s been loudly voiced at the conference: It’s wrong to hold a meeting about the health of people — drug users, sex workers — who can’t come speak for themselves.

She went to an AIDS conference in 2008 in Mexico City, where there were about 3,000 sex workers. In Washington this year there are fewer than 100.

Hickey always uses condoms and is not HIV positive, but believes being infected with the virus should not rule out being in the trade.

“We support the right of people with HIV to engage in sex work. We can protect ourselves as long as we have support and tools,” she said.

Washington Post staff writer David Brown contributed to this report.

Pamela Constable covers immigration issues and immigrant communities. A former foreign correspondent for the Post based in Kabul and New Delhi, she also reports periodically from Afghanistan and other trouble spots overseas.

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