Published April 25, 2012
NEW YORK – Longtime AIDS activists who have chanted in the streets for a quarter century joined supporters of the much newer Occupy Wall Street movement Wednesday in a march through lower Manhattan to demand better health services.
The protest marked 25 years since ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — was formed in the same Wall Street neighborhood.
Now, the group is asking government to impose a small tax on each Wall Street trade — a so-called "Robin Hood tax" to finance treatment and services for people with HIV.
"We just want one tiny portion of each penny," said Sharonann Lynch, an HIV policy adviser to Doctors Without Borders, an international medical humanitarian organization.
New York Stock Exchange workers jeered from the sidewalk as protesters wearing Robin Hood costumes were dragged across the pavement to clear Broadway for the stalled morning rush-hour traffic. The nine who had stood across Broadway, chained to each other, were then handcuffed and loaded into police vans.
Police used metal cutters to remove the chains.
About an hour later, more than 200 activists gathered near City Hall for the march on Wall Street. They were flanked by police in riot gear and on scooters.
ACT UP was founded in March 1987 with hundreds of activists staging a protest in the same area against the high cost and low availability of HIV medications.
Eric Sawyer, a founding member of the group that now includes chapters worldwide, said he and others returned for good reason.
When it comes to AIDS treatment and other services, he said, "big business is not funding anything, but they got the bailout."
Another longtime ACT UP member, Julie Davids, said it made sense for the organization to march with Occupy supporters.
"ACT UP has always looked at the AIDS crisis through an economic justice lens and has always recognized that obstacles were rooted in greed and the profit motive," she said.
At another point in the march, protesters dragged couches and chairs into the middle of Broadway, chanting "Housing saves lives!" to draw attention to what they said was the lack of adequate housing assistance available to people with HIV. One protesting woman faced police while sitting on a toilet that was part of the makeshift "home" and its furnishings.
New York City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez, whose district includes upper Manhattan's largely minority Washington Heights, said HIV patients have been hurt by a reduction of services because of budget cuts.
"We're asking the mayor and other politicians to be more creative with finances — for instance, by supporting this Wall Street tax," he said.
Sawyer said supporters of the transaction tax would like to see it implemented both in the United States and abroad — especially on the two biggest stock exchanges, in London and New York — potentially raising billions of dollars over time.
The money could be used for medical and social services for people with HIV and AIDS, as well as help implement universal health care, said Sawyer, who works for UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS, the world body's main advocate for global action on the epidemic.