As the 22nd anniversary of World AIDS Day approaches, I am reminded of the angry, passionate and sometimes disorganized beginnings of the AIDS movement, and its parallels to Occupy Wall Street, a current movement in its infancy.
The AIDS movement of the 1980’s had the same feel as the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. People were hitting the streets in protest, using civil disobedience, to express their deeply personal pain and grief at watching their friends and partners die. At the same time, the movement prided itself on not having a centralized leadership structure. Uneasy alliances were formed between groups like the World Health Organization (WHO) and ACT UP, with their differing agendas and tactics. There were heated debates on what should be the primary advocacy goals: increased funding of treatment programs or of prevention programs? WHO, which conceived of World AIDS Day, enraged the activist community by creating themes which focused only on children living with AIDS and ignored homosexual men.
World AIDS Day evolved into a day when the uneasy alliances could come together to mourn and memorialize the departed, to reflect, and to demand future action. The annual issuing of the UNAIDS World AIDS Day Report became an opportunity to quantify progress and to demand action. The UNAIDS World AIDS Day report has been a great tool for grassroots groups to use to hold their governments accountable, and therefore push for change. This year’s report indicates that almost fifty percent of eligible people living with AIDS in low and middle-income countries have access to HIV treatment. In 2007, only three million people living with AIDS had access to HIV treatment in low and middle-income countries. In 2010, that number increased to 6.6 million. In the 1980’s no one could have conceived that such high access levels would have been possible in the world’s richest countries let alone in its poorest. Even in 2000, many policy makers and governments didn’t believe that it was cost effective to even attempt to treat people living with AIDS in impoverished countries. What makes the global AIDS movement so powerful is that on December 1st they will not celebrate the progress that has been made, but will use it as a tool to push for one hundred percent access to HIV treatment.
Having a day every year to mark the previous year’s progress or lack of progress has been a key ingredient in sustaining the AIDS movement, and it is an ingredient that has been missing in many protest movements. Occupy Wall Street organizers would be wise to attend to the AIDS movement’s history if it is interested in being a sustainable movement.