With Democratic senators allowing Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft's hard-line positions on drug policy to go unchallenged, demonstrators less infected with the spirit of bipartisanship found it necessary to do the job themselves. It happened Wednesday afternoon when the tone of gentlemanly civility in the Senate hearing room was abruptly, if briefly, shattered when four spectators seated in the galleries stood up and began shouting. Although their shouted words were mostly unintelligible to television viewers -- except for the loud and clear yells of "Stop Ashcroft!" -- the quick arrests were beamed across the country by C-Span and MSNBC cameras and their identities and mission explicated by network newsmen.
The four men arrested are all members of Housing Works (http://www.housingworks.org), a minority-controlled, community-based, nonprofit corporation providing housing, health care, advocacy, job training, and vital supportive services to homeless New Yorkers living with HIV and AIDS.
In fact, Housing Works is the nation's largest minority-controlled AIDS service organization, and one of its most innovative, especially when it comes to dealing with mentally impaired or chemically dependent aids sufferers. Instead of insisting on abstinence-based programs, Housing Works has offered "low-threshold" programs designed to work with current drug users "where they're at." These programs include syringe exchange as well as the whole panoply of harm reduction measures.
DRCNet spoke with the group's legal counsel, Michael Kink, to find out what provoked the quick but nationally-televised demonstration.
"DRCNet gave us all this great info on Ashcroft's record," laughed Kink. "It's true, we got information from you guys, but we provide advocacy and harm reduction services for homeless people with HIV and that's why we were concerned."
"Harm reduction through needle exchange is a core mission for us," Kink explained. "Federal funding for needle exchange programs and harm reduction initiatives is desperately needed. Here in New York we're fortunate in that we have some state funding, so we can integrate needle exchanges and harm reduction measures into everything we do, but that's not the case everywhere," he said.
"We felt the Ashcroft nomination sent a very bad signal, since he has been such an outspoken leader of the congressional faction blocking needle exchange programs," said Kink. "We felt folks needed to put their bodies on the line and speak out as loudly as possible to highlight his record and raise the issue's profile in the context of this incoming administration."
Housing Works put together a six-person team for the operation, with four members -- all men of color with HIV -- prepared to risk arrest, Kink said. "These men all have personal experience being people in need of HIV prevention services," Kink told DRCNet. "They all believe strongly in expanding needle exchange programs and harm reduction services, and they all were willing to risk their personal freedom to make this critical point."
Charged with "disruption of Congress," a misdemeanor, are four New York residents: Housing Works co-executive director Keith Cylar (also a member of DRCNet's board of directors), staffer and former client Nelson Trinidad, and current clients Earl Ellis and Zonell Wright. The four will appear in court on February 1st, said Kink.
"People should feel free to contact us and/or come to court to support us," Kink encouraged.