Students rally for AIDS funding

by Tracy Landers | 4/29/02 5:00am

BOSTON -- Several Dartmouth students, along with hundreds of other college students from across the country, gathered in front of Boston's City Hall yesterday to speak out against the lack of funding to combat the global and local AIDS epidemic. Students specifically called for the reinstatement of $9.7 million recently cut from the Massachusetts AIDS budget.

Participants rallied under the leadership of the Students Global AIDS Campaign, a national group founded by Harvard students in 2001 that counts as members Dartmouth students such as Richard Callahan '03 and Tetse Ukueberuwa '04. Protesters braved the pouring rain to send a message to legislators such as Massachusetts Senator John Kerry (D-Mass).

"The message to get out to people is that this pandemic is the greatest health crisis the world has faced in 500 years. How can we not do anything about it?" Callahan said of his reason for getting involved in the rally.

As co-coordinator of SGAC's national research and education team, Callahan spread news about the rally to AIDS organizations throughout New Hampshire. His team sent out some 2,000 fliers out to people on the AIDS Services of Keene's mailing list.

Although he said he didn't hear back from the many people he contacted, Callahan was excited about the overall turnout for the rally. He and other coordinators said they thought the event was very successful, a statement proven by Callahan's scratchy voice resulting from a day of enthusiastic shouting.

SGAC and the students from 20 schools who rallied yesterday are asking Congress to increase the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis from $300 million to $2.5 billion. This fund, originally created by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2001, called for $7 to $10 billion annual spending to stop the spread of AIDS.

Rally participants signed petitions urging the U. S. House of Representatives to vote in favor of an AIDS amendment to President Bush's emergency Supplemental funding request, which if passed next week would add $700 million to the Global Fund for this year.

Despite their youthful enthusiasm, many of the organizers were new to the art of protest. Students attempted to compensate for lack of experience with passionate speeches against the horror of dying from AIDS for people, especially those living in Africa, who cannot afford medicine.

"This is the first rally I've ever been to," Harvard student and protest organizer Healy Thomason said. At the same time, Thomason was not afraid to shout to the crowd, "We are outraged by our government's inaction. We have to tell the government to make fighting AIDS a priority."

Fellow Harvard student and SGAC member Will Prichard said that for himself and others organizing this rally has been a full-time job for the past two months, but one that has changed the way they think about the world.

"I got involved based on the belief that AIDS is the crisis of our generation in terms of economics, politics and human rights," Prichard said. Many people at the rally, including Prichard, expressed the opinion that the Massachusetts state budget cut effectively violates human rights.

"By refusing to give money, we're allowing thousands of people to die," Prichard said. Rally posters and banners posed questions such as, "How much is a life worth?" Other championed statements including, "Pills cost pennies, greed costs lives," "Dollars are Death" and "U.S. must do more: 2.5 billion."

Mpule Kwelagobe, the 1999 Miss Universe from Botswana, captured the enthusiasm of the crowd when she said, "Change has always been done by young people -- that's why we're braving this cold weather. We're very powerful standing here." Kwelagobe urged young people to abstain from sexual intercourse in order "not to be part of the problem, but part of the solution" to the AIDS epidemic.

Another rally speaker, medical anthropologist and physician at Harvard Medical School, Jim Yong Kim, had a more radical message for the protestors. He said students needed to tell their leaders, "We are going to make your life miserable until everyone gets housing and food and medicine."

Students dancing to the beat of impromptu drums made from water jugs captured the rally's generally cheerful atmosphere. An African dance group from Harvard called Gumboots led the rally on a march around the City Hall, joyfully stomping through the rain in large black goulashes.

Later on, organizers led the crowd in an exuberant chant: "Free the funds, save the lives, more delay means more will die." A Red Cross Disaster Relief vehicle appeared at the rally and passed out cups of hot cocoa to chilly protestors.

One of the highlights of the rally, according to Callahan, was actor Chris Tucker's humorous and passionate speech, which was transmitted via cell phone from the airport where Tucker was waylaid due to bad weather.

While rain and wind may have ended yesterday's rally earlier than expected, SGAC's efforts to end the global AIDS epidemic will continue into the future.

"I will be involved with fighting global AIDS forever," Callahan concluded.He said he hopes to work with AIDS patients next year through a nongovernmental organization in mainland China. He awaits College approval of a grant to continue working to stop the spread of AIDS in Asia.