July 25, 2012 at 6:52 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
AIDS 2012: Protesters disrupt congressional panel on AIDS

Protesters disrupt a congressional panel moderated by former Sen. Bill Frist (left) at the 19th International AIDS Conference (Blade photo by Chris Johnson)

Protesters disrupted an HIV/AIDS panel discussion on Wednesday involving members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, accusing the Republican senators of blocking efforts to thwart the disease at home and abroad.

The activists, many of whom were affiliated with the umbrella group called the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, stormed the dais where the members of Congress began speaking shortly after former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, who was serving as moderator, started the event at the 19th international AIDS conference in D.C.

The session was titled, “The United States Congress & the Global AIDS Epidemic.” In addition to Frist, four sitting members of Congress took part: Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Chanting “Repeal the pledge for PEPFAR” and ringing cowbells, protesters called on Congress to repeal the portion of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, requiring organizations that receive money under the program to have policies against prostitution  — even though sex workers around the world are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. Protesters later chanted, “Sex workers rights are human rights!”

Many of the protesters carried red umbrellas. Their signs read, “U.S.A. Repeal the Anti-Prostitution Pledge” and “Export Justice; Not Bad Policy.” A banner unfurled before the dais read, “Export Justice: Not Bad Policy.”

The shouts continued for about five minutes as Frist seemed helpless in his efforts to regain control of the panel even after he said activists had made their point. After one protester said, “You have the floor, senator,” discussion on the panel began to proceed.

But as the members of Congress began to speak activists continued to criticize Republican members of the panel throughout the event — and not all the shouts were about U.S. aid to protect sex workers overseas against HIV/AIDS.

After Enzi gave his remarks recalling the process leading to passage of PEPFAR, protesters shouted, “What about epidemic at home? Where’s the Senate bill?” Enzi replied he’s voted twice to reauthorize funding for the Ryan White Care Act, which provides AIDS drugs to low-income people. The AIDS Institute later affirmed that Enzi twice voted for the measure in 2006 and 2009.

Frist also came to Enzi’s defense, saying the Wyoming senator has traveled to Africa seven times since his initial visit to monitor progress that U.S. global funds have been making on HIV/AIDS.

Rubio didn’t fare any better. When he began speaking, a member of the audience criticized the senator, saying the level of HIV criminalization is higher in Florida than any other part of the country. Another protester silently held up a sign reading, “Rubio Make Mitt Ends AIDS.”

Still, Rubio, a Tea Party favorite, seemed amenable to the United States confronting HIV/AIDS despite his general opposition to government spending, saying foreign aid represents about 1 percent of the U.S. budget and wouldn’t significantly reduce the deficit if taken away.

But the situation was different for Democratic lawmakers, particularly Lee, who last week introduced a bill in Congress called the “Ending HIV Act,” which, among other things, would repeal the ban prohibiting PEPFAR funds from going to sex workers. One protester before the dais held up a sign saying, “We <3 Barbra Lee.” Coons also didn’t endure significant barbs.

In her remarks on the panel, Lee touted the bipartisan work that has been done to confront HIV/AIDS, but said an expanded approach that includes drug users and sex workers is necessary because they represent the majority of people living with HIV. The lawmaker left immediately after her remarks to return to Capitol Hill for votes.

In the last 10 minutes of the discussion, Frist lost complete control of the event. When it became apparent that no time would be allocated for questions from the audience, protesters began to shout “Time for Q&A! Time for Q&A!”

Frist initially said he’d allow some time for questioning as panelists continued discussion, but the chants continued. Finally, as one male audience member demanded to talk and others chanted, “Let him speak,” Frist allotted him a full minute to talk, asking him to take up the full minute. The speaker, who didn’t identify himself, said he was an activist who hailed from Gambia, and accused panelists of allowing people in Africa to die, saying, “We could have saved lives if you allowed us to talk.”

The panel concluded shortly afterward. Protesters continued to chant as they exited the room together along with others.

Shawn Jain, a spokesperson for the conference, said the protesters and organizations with which they are affiliated do not face any consequences.

“The conference expects marches and other peaceful protests during AIDS 2012, including actions inside the conference venue,” Jain said. “AIDS activism has been very important to bringing about critical changes in how the world responds to HIV, and the conference endorses freedom of expression and peaceful protest as an essential principle in the fight against AIDS.”

Kelli Dorsey, one of the protesters and executive director of Different Avenues, said afterward the goal of the protest was to encourage Congress to lift the anti-prostitution pledge that is conditional for U.S. funds against AIDS under PEPFAR.

“What’s happened is some organizations — because of fear and because the guidelines are unclear — don’t provide the same services to sex workers, and therefore sex workers are marginalized from the health care systems,” Dorsey said.

Still, Dorsey expressed doubt that Congress will take action on this issue, saying, “I think it’s going to take a while for us to see action. I think Barbara Lee will put it in, [but] it’s going to be a slow build up because we have a very conservative Congress right now.”

Michael Tikili, a community organizer with an international AIDS activist group HealthGAP who held up the sign calling on Rubio to take action, said afterward Rubio “can actually influence” Romney because the senator is considered a contender as a vice presidential nominee.

“It’s really important for him to speak up on AIDS,” Tikili said. “The fear is that if Romney were to come into office, and he doesn’t have the same beliefs and intuition on AIDS funding, then we’re screwed.”

Tikili expressed confidence that Rubio got the message, saying, “I saw him look directly at me and frown.” And this message may have instigated progress. According to Tikili, Sally Canfield, Rubio’s deputy chief of staff, told the protesters after the event the senator would speak to Romney about issuing an AIDS strategy.

A Senate staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, characterized the situation slightly differently, but acknowledged Rubio agreed to talk to Romney on AIDS.

“After the panel, someone shouted out the general question, ‘Will you talk to Governor Romney about AIDS?'” the staffer said. “Marco said ‘sure.’ Nothing on a ‘national AIDS strategy’ though.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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