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NYC Protesters Arrested During Demonstration Linking HIV/AIDS Activism With Occupy Wall Street

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OCCUPY WALL STREET
AP

About 10 protesters trying to draw attention to what they say is a dearth of funding for HIV/AIDS treatment, prevention and affordable housing were arrested Thursday near New York's City Hall.

A column of protesters -- many of them dressed in green T-shirts layered over winter gear to evoke the 13th century English folk hero Robin Hood -- marched around 11:30 a.m. from Zuccotti Park to Broadway and Park Place. Event organizers estimated that about 150 people participated, but some protesters interviewed outside City Hall put the event's headcount at more than 200 people.

The protest, held on World AIDS Day, marked what for many was the public unveiling of a connection between New York's HIV/AIDS activist community and the Occupy Wall Street movement, event organizers said. Most of the protesters were members of organizations that advocate for those living with HIV/AIDS in New York City and people involved in Occupy Wall Street's LGBT working group.

Since the Occupy Wall Street movement started in Zuccotti Park in September, protesters in New York and other cities have almost universally decried growing income inequality. Many have called for modern-day efforts to redistribute wealth from the nation's wealthiest 1 percent to the remaining 99 percent of the population. For many around the globe and in the United States, there is a strong connection between HIV/AIDS infection, treatment and income.

"It's a lie when we're told there isn't enough money to fight AIDS," said Felix Rivera-Pitre, a leader with the nonprofit VOCAL-NY, in a statement released by the organization Thursday. VOCAL-NY is an advocacy organization for people living with HIV/AIDS.

"The reality is that Wall Street crashed our economy, and now politicians are saying there's less money for basic needs like health care and housing," added Rivera-Pitre, who is living in a homeless shelter and has HIV/AIDS.

Rivera-Pitre was among those arrested Thursday and was also jailed in connection with an Occupy Wall Street protest earlier this month.

In July, the CDC issued a report indicating that there is a strong relationship between poverty and HIV infection among heterosexuals living in urban portions of the United States. Poor people have limited access to sexual health care services that may allow for safer sex, early detection and treatment of the disease, according to the report.

Homeless people and those with unstable housing situations also have a more difficult time prioritizing health concerns, receiving medical care or sticking to a treatment regimen, said Sean Barry, executive director of VOCAL-NY. Many also exchange sex for housing, he said.

"We believe that income inequality and the effects of poverty also help to explain some of the racial disparities in HIV infection among gay men," Barry said.

As the group of protesters neared city hall Thursday, 12 people who had bound themselves together with metal chains walked into the street at Broadway and Park Place. At first, the group stood in the intersection, obstructing traffic. Within 15 minutes, police moved in and cleared one lane of traffic. The remaining protesters laid down on the street, refusing to move. By 12:40 p.m., all of the protesters had been carried away and forcibly cleared from the street.

Police officials did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. Protesters said more than three dozen officers responded to the demonstrations and were involved in making arrests.

Event organizers called the effort an act of civil disobedience and a "die-in." The term is a reference to a sit-in, a non-violent protest tactic that involves occupying a place peacefully and refusing to move until demands are met -- first widely employed by Mohandas Gandhi in South Africa and India, but widely used by civil rights protesters, anti-war activists and student groups in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, die-ins were a tactic utilized by ACT UP, a group that has long worked to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and to demand increases in public funding for treatment and research.

After the die-in and arrests, several VOCAL-NY members lingered on the scene. About 15 officers also stood nearby.

"It went beautifully," said Wayne Starks, a board member of VOCAL-NY who is 51 and living with AIDS. The big issue for Starks, and many of the other activists on Broadway, is the extension of the so-called millionaire's tax. "We tried to send a message to our government about how we need to stop cutting funding to fight AIDS and start sending cuts to billionaires," he said.

Starks said he spent a lot of time in Zuccotti Park before police cleared it out more than two weeks ago, although he did not regularly spend the night there. He said he thinks Occupy Wall Street and VOCAL-NY have essentially the same goals. "It's human rights. They want affordable housing, we want affordable housing. They want jobs, we need jobs too," he said.

"The history of AIDS activism is one of the best modern day examples of the power of political protests to bring about social change," Barry said. "People think it's merely a health issue, but let's face it -- if HIV did not primarily affect gay men of all races and poor women of color, our government would be taking this issue more seriously. What we're doing today is our effort to really make the connection again between the health and politics, the messages of Occupy Wall Street and how mass inequality imperils us all."

The protesters behind Thursday's march say they have two specific demands. The group would like to see a .02 percent tax implemented on financial transactions, and would like to ensure that the millionaire's tax is not allowed to expire on Dec. 31.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said that he would like to see the tax expire because it deters hiring and spending. The Bloomberg administration has also cut more than $10 million from funding to support housing for those living with HIV or AIDS, according to the statement released by VOCAL-NY.

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