Click here for full conference coverage
The Reverend Jesse Jackson likes to refer to himself as a “country preacher.” But on this frigid February morning, dressed in a well-cut, three-piece charcoal suit and crisp striped tie, he looks more politico than pastor. Fact is, he’s come to Philadelphia to play a bit of both, speaking on the opening day of the ninth annual National Conference on African Americans and AIDS (held February 12th and 13th) on a wide range of topics—everything from Jesus to jails.
In an interview with POZ before his speech, Jackson, a long-time advocate for those living with HIV, says, “We need to talk away the taboo of AIDS. The taboo needs to become that you haven’t been tested. We need to get this issue into the presidential debates; it deserves that kind of publicity. We focus more on Michael Richards [whose racial slurs at a stand-up comedy club made national headlines] than on AIDS.”
Jackson’s unswerving commitment to ending AIDS and his resolution to maintain a high level of awareness of the need for people to be tested for the disease—especially those in the black community—makes him arguably more knowledgeable about AIDS than many of his political peers, especially those currently in office. Yet he is not quick to vilify them for their lack of responsiveness to the crisis. Jackson, 65, is nothing if not the consummate politician. Asked what he thinks about Vice President Dick Cheney not knowing that AIDS is the leading cause of death for African American women ages 25-44, Jackson says, “It just shows the culture of neglect. If he’d have known, he’d have been glad to give his point of view. But it’s out of sight and out of mind. If [AIDS] was still part of popular culture in the U.S., he’d have been briefed on it. Science is driven by the politics of popular culture. That’s why people who have visibility must take [HIV] public.”
Jackson’s southern drawl is slow and statesmanlike and he enunciates every word in neatly packaged truisms. “Education’s the antidote to ignorance. Ignorance leads to fear. Fear leads to hatred. Hatred leads to violence. It all starts there.” He has a preacher’s habit of embedding his words in the mind through repetition. “Ignorance and fear of the unknown leads to hatred which creates an act of violence,” he says for emphasis.
Half an hour before his talk, there’s not an empty seat in the ballroom in the Sheraton City Center. The place is packed with prominent leaders in the AIDS community, medical practitioners, people living with HIV and noted activists—Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute; Frank Oldham, executive director of the National Association of People with AIDS; Dr. Marjorie Hill, chief executive officer of Gay Men’s Health Crisis; and Charles King, president and CEO of Housing Works and mastermind behind the Campaign To End AIDS, to name a few. Asked about the alarming increase in HIV infections among African Americans, Jackson says, “It’s a mistake to reduce AIDS to a black disease because it creates less interest in its resolution.” He continues, “If you put a black face on AIDS, it allows people to be dismissive of it. The disease affects us disproportionately because of several things: late detection, lack of insurance, jail conditions and other social conditions.”
Jackson, who has been publicly tested for HIV more than once, is well rehearsed on the disease, particularly on how and why it disproportionately affects people of color. He goes a step further, keeping himself tuned into promising developments on the forefront of treatment, even supporting independent researchers hunting for the cure. The Reverend has brought two scientists with him to Philly. Both are MDs working with isotopes, hoping to crack the code for a cure for cancer—and AIDS. “We need to fight for the funding for this type of independent research,” Jackson says, offering a prelude to a major theme in his speech: the need for a pharmaceutical commitment to ending the epidemic, not just profiting from it.
Jackson is introduced by Dr. Benny Primm, executive director of the Addiction Research and Treatment Corporation and chair of the National Minority AIDS Council. Jackson’s not halfway up the stairs to the stage and the audience is already on its feet clapping thunderously. From the moment Jackson opens his mouth, there’s little question that this is a man of God.
“I say,” he bellows, “that early detection…” (the crowd repeats obediently after him: “early detection”), “good medicine…” (“good medicine”), “modified behavior…” (“modified behavior”), “leads to correction” (“leads to correction”).
“The first step as we move toward a cure is to overcome our fear of the disease. Take the test. Know your status,” he says. Jackson talks about the difference between the antigen test (which allows you to know your HIV status immediately after exposure) and the more common, and less expensive, antibody test (which can yield a true positive result weeks after infection but may require months of waiting for the body to develop antibodies to the HIV virus before producing a positive result.) He advocates for the antigen test. He asks, as he has been doing for years, for African Americans with a great deal of visibility (like those at the pinnacle of the music and sports industries, as well as black ministers) to get tested for HIV—in public.
“We need to put light in dark places,” he says. He tells the story of how Jesus spent his last night on earth in the quarantined shelter of Simon the leper, thus using his “prestige and visibility” to “take light to a dark place to help those who felt helpless.” “What will you do?” the Reverend asks the crowd, “on your last night on earth?”
Referencing Jesus’ selfless act intended to show others that they had nothing to fear from leprosy (the AIDS of that time), Jackson says, “We need to make knowing your HIV status the fashionable thing to do,” going on to suggest that marquee athletes like those scheduled to play in the NBA All-Star Game that weekend get publicly tested. “We also need more prominent people to admit they have it,” he says. “Magic’s dilemma helped more people than any other single thing.” Then, echoing himself, adds, “Magic’s early detection led to correction. That plus a healthy diet, exercise, medicine and water.”
Jackson reminds the crowd that Rosa Parks did not wait for civil rights leaders to come to Montgomery, Alabama. “It gets hard sometimes,” Jackson says, of activism, “But [ending AIDS] requires the dignity of the common people rising up.” Later that day, in a press conference, Phill Wilson, corroborates Jackson’s claim for the need for an uprising, saying, “The story of AIDS in America has been mostly a story of failed leadership. It’s imperative that we focus on a mass national black mobilization. Each of us needs to do our part.”
To illustrate one of the most prevalent ways young black men get exposed to HIV, the Reverend points to a photo of the front page of the Richmond Times newspaper. It shows a jail packed to the gills with “strong-bodied young black men,” shirtless, playing cards. Their jeans are low slung around their hips, their boxer shorts poking out the top. Jackson likens the image to that of the hull of a slave ship and reminds us that the reason these men wear their pants so low is that their belts and shoestrings have been taken away so they can’t hang themselves—or hurt someone else. His suggestion? “I say, we put ankle bracelets on them and send them to trade schools where they can learn to earn a legal living,” says Jackson. As for the cost of building a trade school? He points out that it can cost approximately $80 million to construct a new jail. He references a 17.5% budget cut in Cook County, the location of the jail, which will result in more people incarcerated for a longer period of time awaiting trial and/or release because there is much less money to pay public defenders.
Meanwhile, more taxpayer dollars will support those incarcerated, 70% of whom are jailed for non-violent crimes. Thousands of young African American men are dumped into overcrowded jails where “more same-sex sex, jail sex, rape sex, and drug sex,” according to Jackson, lead them to contract HIV; a disease they take back out onto the streets with them, infecting the heterosexual women they meet when they’re out. Jackson points out that there are more black men in jails than in college in every state in America. He claims the system’s set up to take taxpayers’ money to support these prisons, giving as little as possible back to the inmates and institutions, facilities and staff that support them, as possible. His take on the criminal justice system? Profit before justice. He points out that the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is traded on the floor of the U.S. Stock Exchange.
He next moves on to the pharmaceutical companies, saying that the developers of lifesaving AIDS meds are not giving enough back to the community they serve. He says they have failed to support organizations and programs that could help prevent AIDS and claims they are not spending enough money looking for a cure for the disease. (As opposed to concentrating development dollars on reformulations of existing classes of drugs, or the development of new treatments that prolong life but do not eradicate the illness.) He’s not the first to suggest that monies are being disproportionately spent to keep those with HIV/AIDS alive indefinitely, at extreme cost. But, for many in this room who have choked down remedies for years while waiting for a cure, his words ring especially true.
“Repeat after me,” he says, “Yesterday’s miracle is today’s medicine.” The crowd nods in unison and obediently repeats his words.
Jackson urges the gathering to collectively buy shares of stock in the drug companies and attend shareholder meetings. Ask the drug companies, he says, to spend more money looking for a cure and not just developing new and more meds. “Ultimately,” adds Jackson, “we don’t want medicine. We want the cure. We need independent research with no vested interest in [existing meds]. Because wherever there’s profit involved, there’s a reluctance to give it up.”
Before the end of his speech, Jackson makes a play for support for his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, encouraging those in the crowd to open up their checkbooks to support his work. Large wicker baskets are passed, church-offering-style, through the crowd.
By the second day of the conference, despite the excellent turnout, there’s a lingering undercurrent of disappointment as the second day’s speakers wind down their speeches. In her opening remarks on the first day of the conference, Mary Hess, founder of the conference, thanked HBO, Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb for their support, then mentioned that GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)—a supporter of the conference in years past—had reneged on the $70,000 they’d pledged in support of the NCAAA this year. She said that GSK had not returned phone calls. For those who work in AIDS, the story of last-minute funding cuts is no surprise. When Hess talked about the difficulty of soldiering on with diminished funds, many a head bobbed in sympathy. Hess and her organization, Minority Health Care Communications, Inc. of Fogelsville, PA, a non-profit health-education organization, have produced this conference, as well as one on Latinos and AIDS, for nine years, in spite of dwindling financial support.
Before leaving the podium, Frank Oldham and Charles King, roused by Jackson’s words from the previous day, asked the crowd to join them as Dr. Benny Primm led a group to demonstrate in GSK’s U.S. headquarters, right next door to the hotel where the conference was held. There was talk of civil disobedience, of a die-in. In the end, it was decided that rather than publicly scolding GSK for discontinuing their support of the conference, the group would instead thank them for their historical support and request that it be continued, explaining why the help of the pharmaceutical company is so needed, especially now.
The group headed over to the drug maker’s lobby, assembling peacefully and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Charles King’s account (relayed via e-mail) of the demonstration read thus: “About 30 people from the National Conference on African Americans and AIDS occupied the lobby of GSK for a half hour to protest GSK’s lack of support of and participation in the conference this year. The protest came about spontaneously as word spread that GSK had withheld its support without giving a reason. The demonstrators hummed until they were met by GSK reps.”
Having joined the talks with the pharmaceutical company, King said, “I couldn’t help but be gratified by the action since I had spoken at noon about the need to generate new activism.”
Fewer than 24 hours after the protest, Peter Hare, GSK’s HIV Business Unit VP, issued a letter to the NCAAA. It read:
“Firstly, let me apologize again for the misunderstanding and process glitches regarding GSK’s support of your recent meeting in Philadelphia.
I appreciate the time you took to explain your concerns and your constructive suggestions. The GSK team will be reaching out to several of you for insights as to how we may handle these types of interactions better.
Once again, you can rest assured that GSK remains committed to support dialogue and education that can help people of any ethnicity who are vulnerable to, or suffering from this terrible disease.
As we post this report, a grant is allegedly going out to the NCAAA.
While the money was yet to hit the bank as we went to press, for those who were stirred to action by the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s call and followed the prompting of the AIDS leadership present last week, even the promise of a $70,000 check and the hope of better lines of communication going forward seemed a small miracle. Could it be tomorrow’s medicine?
For information on the 2008 National Conference on African Americans and AIDS sponsored by National Minority Healthcare, go to www.minority-healthcare.com.
For information on the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, go to rainbowpush.org.
Click here for full conference coverage