ACT UP, expanding its AIDS activist mission, challenges Clinton on police killings

Jamaal Henderson leads chants against police shootings. The subject is an unusual foray beyond AIDS and HIV by the ACT UP organization.

In an afternoon protest outside Hillary Clinton's Center City campaign headquarters, a familiar message - stop police violence against minorities - was delivered by an unexpected messenger: ACT UP.

Anyone who lived through the 1980s and '90s remembers how in-your-face AIDS activists around the country forced the government, pharmaceutical companies, and much of America to confront an epidemic that was devastating gay communities.

But chapter after chapter gradually closed as early victims of the disease died off and later ones, mostly gay white men, got the new drugs that turned AIDS into a chronic disease from a death sentence.

Only Philadelphia's chapter transformed to reflect the new face of HIV, which is mainly a disease of the poor and vulnerable.

Today ACT UP Philadelphia is changing again, broadening its mission beyond HIV to action against shared injustices.

"In 2016 homelessness, poverty, drug addiction are reasons people of color and poor white people are infected with HIV. These issues mirror why folks are incarcerated. ACT UP is going to have to change to meet the challenges," said Jose de Marco, 61, an organizer of Thursday's demonstration. He said it was the first to tackle an issue other than HIV in the chapter's 20-year history.

In a toned-down version of the raucous events of years past, about 20 protesters marched the few blocks from the Municipal Services Building to Clinton's campaign offices at 18th and Market Streets.

Jamaal Henderson, who said his 19-year-old son fears leaving their West Philadelphia house "because he's afraid of police interaction," led the chant:

When black and brown is under attack, what do we do?

ACT UP fights back!

No hope, no vote.

They were not allowed up to the 15th floor but de Marco said he met later with the campaign's state director, Corey Dukes, who accepted a letter and told him he would try to arrange a meeting to discuss it.

ACT UP wants Clinton to pledge to set up independent oversight committees to investigate every police shooting of minority civilians. It also demands her support to make medicines invented using taxpayer funds available off-patent in low- and middle-income countries. A protest on the drug issue is planned for 2:45 p.m. Saturday outside Clinton's Philadelphia office.

Paul Davis, a 44-year-old Philadelphia ACT UP alumnus, came up for the protests from his new job in Washington for a nonrofit that works to make high-priced drugs more affordable globally. He said that Clinton had agreed during the 2008 campaign to support ACT UP's position on off-patent medications but had not renewed that pledge this year.

A Clinton spokeswoman said the campaign had no specific comment. But she pointed to remarks that the candidate made in May promising to increase global funding for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. Clinton also has called for strengthening the Justice Department unit that monitors civil rights violations.

ACT UP's Philadelphia chapter has a long history in presidential politics. With, at the time, Vice President Al Gore siding with pharmaceutical companies in a fight over patents and emergency drugs for AIDS, its members helped organize a protest that unfurled a banner - "Gore's Greed Kills. AIDS Drugs for Africa" - as Gore announced his candidacy for president in June 1999 in Carthage, Tenn.

President Bill Clinton signed an executive order 11 months later that changed U.S. policy and immediately led to steep discounts by major drug companies in developing countries. President George W. Bush created the main international program to fund treatment in low-income countries a few years later.

In October 2007, days before a Democratic debate at Drexel University, ACT UP warned the Obama campaign that grave diggers would show up with shovels and signs saying "Obama AIDS Policy: Dig More Graves." Julie Davids, who was involved with that effort, has said that Obama faxed a statement pledging $50 billion over five years the day before the debate. (The recession began two months later, and funding did not keep up.)

While Thursday's protesters sought to increase pressure on Hillary Clinton to act on drug availability and police tactics, "we're not sending a message to black and brown people not to vote," said Jon Rose, 45. He and others said they were not aware of any ACT UP protests at the Republican National Convention this week in Cleveland.

Walking up 18th Street toward Clinton's offices, the group chanted: "Stop police killings. Our folks matter. All folks matter."

Deborah Bullock, 53, has been involved with the local chapter since 1997. "I'm surprised that ACT UP went out of the box," she said. But she also saw a clear connection between the issues.

"Police are killing people because of the color of their skin," she said. The risk of becoming infected with HIV also is greater for poor people and people of color.

In both cases, Bullock said, ACT UP is standing against "inequality."

dsapatkin@phillynews.com

215-854-2617

@DonSapatkin