Keep the Promise March Worldwide Push for HIV Treatment and Research
On July 22, within full view of the Washington Monument, thousands of individuals from various walks of life and several well-known public figures gathered together to raise awareness regarding HIV/AIDS and to urge governments worldwide to "keep the promise" and not retreat on their commitments to HIV/AIDS research and treatment funding. Both inspiring and emotional, the event served as an unofficial opening to the XIX International AIDS Conference held in Washington, D.C. this week.
"The main message of the 'Keep the Promise' March on Washington is that now is not the time to retreat on global AIDS. In fact, now is the time to step up the war on AIDS and stamp it out," said Terri Ford, AIDS Healthcare Foundation's Senior Director of Global Policy and Advocacy and lead organizer of the march.
Keep the Promise activists filled the streets of Washington, D.C. even before the event began. Attendees dressed in shirts depicting the Keep the Promise logo walked the streets several blocks away while the sound of Batala, Washington, D.C.'s drum crew, grew louder approaching the Washington Monument. Celebrities were also on hand, including host Margaret Cho, Wyclef Jean, Rev. Al Sharpton, former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young, Dr. Cornell West and Tavis Smiley.
Portions of the AIDS Quilt were on display during and prior to the event, while attendees who arrived early received Keep the Promise umbrellas and formed a human red ribbon for an aerial photo in a symbolic representation of solidarity.
Solidarity and the spirit of working in unison lie at the heart of this event. According to the Keep the Promise website, more than 1,300 organizations from around the world have endorsed the D.C. Declaration of the Keep the Promise Rally and March, and 3,000 signed up to attend.
The D.C. Declaration addressed several issues, including the accessibility and affordability of HIV/AIDS treatment.
According to the declaration, HIV/AIDS care should be limited to less than $300 annually in resource-poor countries, while a greater percentage of global AIDS funding should be spent on treatment in order to treat more people using the resources available.
The declaration also calls for achieving universal access through fair-share contributions and cost-effective measures, prioritizing the testing, treatment and care for pregnant women, orphans and children and tearing down economic and political barriers to the condom access.
Delegates to the XIX International AIDS Conference also attended the rally. Two generations of activists -- Jessica Erickson and her mother Mary Erickson -- served as delegates representing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Both attended an interfaith event where people of different religions and faiths came together to discuss the impact of HIV/AIDS and how the disease knows no religious or cultural borders.
"The church is looking to the youth to bring the discussion back to the church," said Jessica Erickson.
Many of the speakers at the rally emphasized the impact that a combined and sustained call for change can bring.
Guest speaker Dr. Jorge Saavedra Lopez, the openly HIV-positive general director of Mexico’s National AIDS Control Centre, noted that it is only when the pressure on government remains high that government will react in favor of minorities. He encouraged activists to use their anger, courage and passion to bring about change.
Interweaving his own experiences with the movement to end polio and his involvement with Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights Movement, former U.S. ambassador Young put forth a call to remain on the case. Choosing to end his speech on a reflective note, Young shared a Native American saying that leaders have to make decisions not for the moment, but for seven generations yet unborn.
Rev. Sharpton said that with the seeming fall of the 24-hour news cycle to the minute by minute standard, it is all too easy for people to become distracted. Sharpton called for people to remain focused, to not lose sight of the goal and to have the determination to change the politics surrounding the issue.
One of the most important aspects of HIV/AIDS is that the issue is far from faceless. Countless individuals have personally felt the impact of the disease in their lives. Family members of those who lost their loved ones attended the event in droves to show their support and make their voices heard.
HIV-positive poet Roxanne Hanna-Ware lent her face and voice by reciting one of her poems, "What’s Inside of Me."
"I am surviving, not struggling," shouted Hanna-Ware to a cheering crowd. "I am here! I refuse to be in fear! I intend to live!"
Hope remained the prevailing emotion throughout the rally as the frequently asked question of whether or not we can end HIV/AIDS became a matter of will we and how.
"Together we have the power to end AIDS," said Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu via a pre-recorded message. "The question is will we use that power? We are at a crossroads; may we choose the right path."