The last few weeks have been rather incredible here in Brooklyn, New York. The people of our community have really responded; they truly want a fresh direction right here in the heart of New York City's largest borough. The volunteers are flooding in. The donations are increasing. The New York Times called us one of the area's most competitive races. People really get what we're trying to do.
And then my friend, Cyrille Phipps (www.theuntoldwar.com), e-mailed about AIDS in our 'hoods in general, and it reminded me how little my opponent, Congressman Edolphus "Ed" Towns, has done to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic right here in Central Brooklyn. Here is part of her outreach:
I'm working on a doc about black women and AIDS and was wondering if you had a position paper on AIDS in Bed-Stuy since it has one of the highest infections rate in the country, no not just the city but country. If not, let me know. I think a few Brooklyn groups would love to work with you on developing one and I can assist as well.
Cyrille and her colleagues are so deeply concerned about the silence around HIV/AIDS in Central Brooklyn that they are making a documentary film about it.
Right then and there I was reminded of why I decided to run for Congress in the first place. Campaigns are great. You can discuss your ground game, prepare for debates, work the phones to secure another $100 donation to buy stamps to send out a mailer, hoping folks will read it.
But people, particularly people of color and women, are dying of AIDS. Dying. Dying in the sense that there are billboards currently up in New York announcing that 92% of all new HIV/AIDS cases are black and Latina women. Dying in the sense that every single day I walk the streets of Brooklyn, I hear and see evidence of people -- young, middle age, and elders alike -- engaging in highly unsafe sexual activities. People routinely confess to me that they have herpes or gonorrhea; that they are HIV-positive or have full-blown AIDS; that they knew little to nothing about safe sex practices, or abstinence, because the few HIV/AIDS prevention measures out there barely ever reached them. This is especially true in devastatingly poor parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York, Brooklyn.
While much of the Western world begins to see HIV/AIDS as a terminal condition and not a death sentence due to advances in medicine and real work on reducing stigma, people in my congressional district continue to die.
And people die from HIV/AIDS with a frequency in the 10th Congressional District that is unmatched in the United States. First, New York has more people than any other state living with HIV/AIDS (over 121,000.) Brooklyn itself has 25% of those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in New York City. That's a raw total and it's high. It is safe to say that Brooklyn, New York is the epicenter for the HIV/AIDS virus in New York City, and, in many ways, in America as well.
But it is one thing to live with HIV/AIDS and it is another to die from HIV/AIDS. As I mentioned, people in some parts of our nation don't see HIV/AIDS as a death sentence because they have access to doctors and medications, community centers and counseling. People simply don't die from HIV/AIDS in these communities.
However, people die here in the 10th congressional district. In fact, the four neighborhoods where HIV/AIDS is most seen as a death sentence all fall within our Congressional district to some degree (neighborhood (deaths per 1,000 people with HIV/AIDS)): Canarsie/Flatlands (23.8), Williamsburg/Bushwick (23.6), East New York (22.7), and Bedford Stuyvesant/Crown Heights/Brownsville (22.6).
Something is horribly, horribly broken in the heart of Brooklyn. Almost 24 people out of every 1,000 infected with HIV/AIDS will die in Canarsie. Stop and think about that.
Cyrille and countless other concerned residents and community influencers I speak to point to the lack of effort by the sitting congressman. The math bears them out. Other areas around the country, city, and borough have high infection rates, often on par with our own. But if you contract HIV/AIDS in the 10th congressional district where Mr. Towns fails to connect you to federal health benefits set aside for those suffering from HIV/AIDS, where Mr. Towns remains silent in our community efforts to fight stigma and fight ignorance and fight fear of those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, where Mr. Towns is nowhere to be seen in the streets where we so desperately need more free clinics, more counseling and more housing for those who contract HIV/AIDS. And where Mr. Towns has not led the charge to prevent the spread of the disease in the first place, as an elected official representing us in Washington, D.C. should be doing.
Mr. Towns, HIV/AIDS doesn't have to be a death sentence. It isn't in other places, places not too far from where we are. But HIV/AIDS is a death sentence in your Brooklyn. And if you continue to negligently stand aside, you, congressman, are guilty of watching your own neighbors die, and not doing all you can to spare their lives, prevent the disease from spreading, or from happening in the first place.
In the sunset of your political career, Congressman Towns, I ask you to make this the fight of your life. I ask you to work with our community activists, non-profits, free clinics, churches, synagogues, mosques, nurses, doctors, teachers, and parents to keep these good people alive.
Indeed, over the past few years I've admired local Brooklyn leaders like L. Joy Williams, Shalawn Langhorne, and Dr. Karen Aletha Maybank doing the best they can with their limited resources around HIV/AIDS prevention. It is time we who have national platforms do the right thing and give them the support, resources, and leadership they so desperately need, Mr. Towns... win or lose.
Kevin Powell is a 2010 Democratic candidate for Congress in Brooklyn, New York. He can be reached via his website, www.kevinpowell.net