What Kind of Movement Are We?

Healy Thompson

As we approach our last chance to improve the PEPFAR reauthorization bill, we must ask ourselves: do we care about claiming a victory on a mediocre piece of legislation and maintaining relationships with Congress, or do we care about taking a principled stand for the needs of people around the world?

"We have to ask ourselves if we care more about our UN badges or about taking a stand for the needs and rights of people around the world."

Those words are a paraphrase of those spoken by a committed South African activist who was encouraging civil society at the 2006 U.N. General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) AIDS meeting to risk our badges by protesting the disgustingly weak consensus document reached by member nations. (She was successful in getting us to take action. You can read a blog about that protest here.)

I am reminded of her words as I think about how civil society has responded to the PEPFAR reauthorization bill that has now passed both the House and Senate committees and is headed to the floor of both chambers for a vote. I have been shocked over the last few weeks by the number of organizations and prominent individuals who have responded positively, or even neutrally, to the compromise bill. Some who have been through these processes before eagerly remind the more outraged among us that this is how it works: you simply don't make great leaps forward on these issues.

Why have so many of us accepted that the way it has been is the way it has to be? And why wouldn't we exhaust our options before settling? Why are we doing this work if not to demand something other than "business as usual"?

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We call ourselves a movement. A movement demands progress; it demands big dreams backed up by big action. And last I checked, a movement does not accept compromise that comes at the price of lives without at least putting up one heck of a fight.

As we approach our last chance to change the PEPFAR reauthorization bill, we must ask ourselves: do we care about claiming a victory on a mediocre piece of legislation (by Congressional standards — it's a horrible piece of legislation by the standards of what is actually needed) and maintaining untainted relationships with Congressional offices, or do we care about taking a principled stand for the needs of people around the world? It is time for our community to face the facts. Not only is this piece of legislation an unacceptable compromise, but that if we so-called advocates do not call it what it is, no one else is going to. If we don't hold lawmakers' feet to the fire, no one else is going to.

When it's time to draw the line in the sand, which side are you on? Are you on the side of a comfortable Washington, D.C. NGO existence that won't push the envelope beyond the agreeable gray area of compromise? Or are you on the side of the billions of people around the world who suffer as a result of (and simultaneously resist) our complacency and tacit complicity in a global system that robs their nations of resources, exploits their labor, prevents access to life-saving medicines and contraceptive supplies, and floods their communities with ideological misinformation about sex and sexuality?

It's time to let go of our delusions about what we continue to permit our world to look like today. It's time that we stand together, knowing that we have let this slide too far, and say in unison: The PEPFAR reauthorization legislation is a sell-out.

You might say I'm overreacting. But give yourself an advocate's reality check. Ask yourself why you do this work – what does it mean for you to be an "advocate"? Then, ask yourself why you are saying that this bill is acceptable (or that it's acceptable for us not to resist it). Maybe you're protecting an organizational position on the issues, Congressional relationships, respectability in the media, or community approval. Or maybe you're protecting your need to believe that the last five years of work to change PEPFAR have paid off.

As the final part of your advocate's reality check, ask yourself what these relationships, this "respectability," approval, or sense of accomplishment are worth if they don't help us challenge the misogynist, racist, nationalist, capitalist, homophobic system that let the AIDS pandemic take hold as it did. Are they worth the lives they cost?

My personal reality check leads me to conclude that it's time to stop deluding ourselves. We need to realize that:

  • An appearance of bi-partisanship is NOT more important than the lives of millions of people separated from us by race, nation, or HIV-status.
  • We will NOT stand by while even the most progressive members of Congress decide to fall into line rather than stand their ground and put up a fight for what's right. We can, and we will, make them accountable for their actions.
  • Money does not solve everything, especially when that money has strings attached, especially when that money ends up lining the pocketbooks of U.S. government contractors and organizations doing the ideological bidding of the Administration, and especially when that money goes to programs that advance U.S. global hegemony.

"Well at least we tried; we'll do better next time" is not something a community caregiver can tell a young man for whom there isn't enough treatment, or a visiting healthcare worker can tell a thirty-year-old woman for whom having another baby may mean death in the face of inadequate healthcare. And it isn't something that we, as a movement, can afford to tell ourselves.

Social change is not accomplished overnight and it is not accomplished through one piece of legislation, but it is also most certainly not accomplished by backing down. If we don't fight this fight here, no one will. If we're not willing to fight back, then our silence will mean death and the U.S. Congress and the Bush Administration will not be the only ones to blame.

Having worked through my own reality check, I conclude that it is time to act decisively and aggressively; it is time to commit ourselves to changing this bill before it is signed into law.

If your reality check leaves you where mine has left me, then let's start acting like a movement. Let's stop putting off until tomorrow (a day that, conveniently, never comes) the real change we believe in. Let's do something NOW to change PEPFAR reauthorization. If we don't we will have to admit that we did not do all we could to end the AIDS pandemic, that when push came to shove we weren't willing to put up the fight necessary, and that we let a movement with real potential fizzle because we were too jaded to believe we might be able to accomplish more. I'm not ready to do that. I hope you aren't either.

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