Dispatches from the International AIDS Conference: The Power and Pitfalls of Protest

I love a good protest. When executed well, there’s no better way to generate media interest and draw attention to an issue in a creative or moving way. The AIDS community is famous for utilizing protests as a tool to make noise and drive policy change, and even those on the receiving end of their protests often acknowledge the role they played over the last 30 years in shaping the global response to the epidemic. As a young AIDS activist myself who—much to my mother’s chagrin and current colleagues’ amusement—was once arrested in an AIDS civil disobedience protest in college, I’ve felt firsthand the sense of empowerment that comes with knowing your voice made someone pay attention to an otherwise neglected issue.

Protests naturally vary in method and purpose. But two keys to any effective protest are timing and targeting, and unfortunately the protests I saw today at the IAC were off the mark on both fronts. Picture the scene: an IAC panel focused on the US Congressional response to the AIDS pandemic, featuring four Members of Congress from both parties and Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist as moderator. They were there to highlight the bipartisan support that the fight against AIDS has had over the years and to discuss how, in this increasingly polarized environment, they could continue to make headway. Senator Rubio, Congresswoman Lee, Senator Enzi, and Senator Coons each also spoke about their own experiences seeing AIDS as they travelled domestically and internationally, and underscored their personal commitment to the issue. Almost immediately, their voices were drowned out by protesters with agendas varying from the decriminalization of sex workers to the need for scaled up AIDS funding. The protests happened so frequently throughout the hour that it was difficult for any of the speakers to fully express their views or for a coherent debate to emerge. I understand the validity of protest—as did the panelists themselves—but these ultimately were so disruptive that they veered quickly from healthy to frustrating.

The protests may succeed in drawing the headlines tomorrow, but from my perspective they were aimed at the wrong targets at the wrong time. If anything, the five people on stage were and are champions of the US government’s response to AIDS. Some, like Senator Frist and Congresswoman Lee, have been at this work for years, working in the Congressional trenches to forge bipartisan support and drive unprecedented funding levels for the issue. Others, like Senator Coons and Senator Rubio, are newer to Congress and the fight, but have consistently used their voices and their votes to ensure continued funding for programs like PEPFAR and the Global Fund. Senator Rubio in particular has been articulate about our investment in AIDS as a national security and moral imperative, and about why cutting AIDS programs wouldn’t help our national debt but would hurt lives and our standing abroad.

At a time when our own economy is in trouble, it is courageous and commendable that Members of Congress would speak up so publicly about the importance of the fight against global AIDS and the need for new resources. The AIDS activist community doesn’t need to give them a free pass, but they must take care to educate, work with, and support these Members as they try to do the right thing and get others from both parties to join them. If anything, the message I wish the panelists had heard loud and clear from the audience was “thank you, and keep going.”