Peter Severson (Twitter: @lutheranAdvoCO); Director of Lutheran Advocacy Ministry – Colorado
Being in the city of Durban for this 21st International AIDS Conference is being in the center of a roiling cauldron. This event brings together a huge and complex and disparate group of people whose focus is supporting individuals with HIV and working to prevent the spread of the disease. The presence of many high-level world leaders, from heads-of-state and diplomats to United Nations officials and world agency leaders, gives all attendees a higher level of access than usual to key decision makers. As a result, activist actions and protests have been a part of the proceedings from the beginning, as people agitate for change.
One of those moments happened on Tuesday afternoon, during an otherwise quiet afternoon hour of downtime for me. I was outside on the conference center plaza, having a snack with an acquaintance of mine from college, when suddenly a knot of people formed inside and began chanting. Curious, I walked inside to see what was happening. I discovered a mass of people surrounding a man in a suit who had just come out of a session. The protesters were holding signs that said “Thank you,” along with drawings of pills and medicine, while the man in the suit looked uncomfortable but was evidently trying to listen to some of the protesters ask him questions.
As I watched the scene unfold, I learned from context clues that the man in the middle was Patrick Gaspard, the United States Ambassador to South Africa. The protesters’ signs were sarcastically “thanking” him and the U.S. Government for “doing the bidding” of big pharmaceutical companies, evidently by not supporting generic HIV drug manufacturing programs in countries like India. The ambassador said several times that he did not view being “ambushed” as a respectful way to initiate conversation, but was willing to listen to several women articulate the protesters’ concerns before he walked away. He had the demeanor of a politician who clearly did not want to be made to look bad or uncaring while nonetheless trying to quickly extricate himself from a confrontational moment of grassroots anger. As someone who works in public policy, I’ve seen that look on the face of elected officials many times before in my home state of Colorado.
So many questions emerged for me, even as I stayed behind to listen to the activists talk to news media about their tactics and demands. I confess that I have struggled sometimes to view this kind of “in your face” activism charitably, as I rarely see it emerging with the kind of results that the activists are hoping for. As a strong believer in our American democratic traditions and institutions, I often think that if protest groups would merely use the many tools available to them to have dialogue with elected officials, including organizing during election season, they would find themselves on the winning side more often. So, at first, I had the same reaction to these tactics of confrontation.
But I’ve come to question some of those assumptions as I watch events unfold here in Durban. What if the “usual” channels and mechanisms for political change don’t work? What if the results are the same over and over, and achieving meaningful progress becomes impossible? Should civil society activists simply accept their failure and change their goals, or do more direct tactics become necessary?
It so happens that the panel I’d just listened to in the morning was addressing some of these same questions, in the context of ensuring that key populations affected by HIV are able to seek justice and achieve treatments in line with the “90-90-90” targets of UNAIDS (90% of infected people knowing their status, 90% of infected people on treatment, and 90% of people on treatment are virally suppressed). One person who spoke was a public official from Jamaica, who described the struggle between having facially just public policies while not being able to give them substantial meaning to ordinary citizens. Another panelist talked about mechanisms of judicial redress in the face of human rights violations being unavailable to poor and marginalized people who can’t afford legal representation, and whether that means the policy, however high-minded, is truly just.
As a representative of the Lutheran World Federation and the ELCA, I am called to consider deeply these questions of justice as they relate to vulnerable people, those for whom Jesus called on us to give our highest and deepest consideration in society. If vulnerable people are not able to achieve meaningful change through “normal” channels of political representation available in a democratic society, isn’t it the case that they ought to pursue extraordinary means to carry their message forward? Shouldn’t the extraordinary access that we have to high-level public figures here at the conference be a catalyst for those kinds of actions, even if they are confrontational? I am left with perhaps more questions than answers, but I am deepening my understanding of what it means to truly pursue justice for vulnerable people. The city of Durban, in these five days of the conference, presents precisely the kind of “kairos” moment for many groups to be heard who have not been heard. It is our call to listen and learn, and to stand in solidarity as we advocate alongside people affected by HIV and AIDS.