Sanders attacks top AIDS activist, partners with anti-PrEP group

UPDATE: The Sanders campaign did it again, launching a visceral personal attack against longtime AIDS activist Peter Staley. Coincidentally, Staley will appear in tonight’s AIDS episode of CNN’s series “The Eighties.”
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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is facing yet another outcry from the LGBT community after one of his top campaign aides viciously criticized longtime AIDS activist Peter Staley.

Staley was attacked by the Sanders campaign for joining a group of other top AIDS activists in criticizing Sanders for lying about a recent meeting in which the activists asked Sanders to oppose a drug pricing initiative in California. Sanders left the meeting and immediately issued a press release implying that the activists supported Sanders’ call to pass the same initiative they had just asked him to oppose.

In response, the activists — a mix of both Sanders and Clinton supporters — issued a public letter criticizing Sanders for twisting their meeting and using it to help him in the upcoming California primary.

One of Sanders’ top campaign officials, Warren Grunnels, responded to the letter on Twitter by attacking Staley, and claiming that the AIDS activist was in the pocket of Big Pharma, which he most certainly is not. This led lead LGBT activist Dan Savage, among others, to leap to Staley’s defense.

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The California initiative that Sanders is supporting is being sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), an organization that is a vocal critic of the anti-HIV drug PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). Sanders’ younger supporters might be surprised to learn of the Senator’s cozy relationship with the anti-PrEP movement. Staley said this morning on MSNBC that Sanders’ “big drug companies” smear came from the anti-PrEP group.

Sanders is no stranger to controversy over HIV/AIDS. His campaign was criticized two months ago for not including even a mention of HIV on the campaign Web site’s LGBT page; and it was only after such criticism that Sanders finally came out with a last-minute plan to fight HIV should he become president. Sanders further enraged the AIDS community when he backed out of a meeting with them last month, at the last minute, and refused to reschedule, giving the appearance that he no longer saw any political gain in listening to the AIDS community’s concerns.

For his part, Staley is one of America’s top AIDS activists, and has been for decades. Staley was working for JP Morgan in NYC in 1985 when he was diagnosed with what was then called AIDS-Related Complex, or ARC. Two years later he joined a new AIDS activist group called ACT UP, and participated in its first-ever protest. I’m going to share a bit more of Peter’s Wikipedia page to give you the full force of just who this guy is:

American AIDS activist Peter Staley.

American AIDS activist Peter Staley.

Staley was diagnosed with AIDS-Related Complex (ARC) in 1985, after seeing a doctor for a persistent cold. In 1987, after being handed a flyer on his way to work prior to the first demonstration by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), he decided to attend the next meeting. Although he had come out to his family, Staley remained closeted at work, working as a bond trader by day and chairing ACT UP’s fundraising operations by night, before coming out at work and going on disability leave. On March 24, 1988, he took part in an ACT UP demonstration on Wall Street on the first anniversary of the group. At that demonstration, he was in one of the first waves of people sitting in the street to block traffic, and was interviewed by a local TV station who broadcast his image with the caption “Peter Staley, AIDS victim.”

On April 25, 1989, Staley and three other activists barricaded themselves in an office at Burroughs Wellcome in Research Triangle Park, NC to protest the price of AZT (at the time priced at $8,000-$10,000 per year). The four protesters used power tools to bolt metal plates to the door of an unoccupied office and had planned to drop a banner that would be visible from the nearby highway, Interstate 40, before authorities cut their way through a wall. The protestors then chained themselves together, and were cut apart and charged with trespassing and property damage. Staley, who at the time had been in talks with AZT developer David Barry to lower the price on the drug, would make peace with the company years later, following their $1 million donation to AIDS clinical trials programs in 1992.

On September 14, 1989, Staley and six other activists staged another demonstration to protest the rising cost of AZT, this time in the New York Stock Exchange. Dressed in suits and carrying fake credentials, they chained themselves to a balcony above the trading floor before unfurling a banner that read “Sell Wellcome”, drowned out the opening bell with airhorns, and dropped fake $100 bills that read, “Fuck your profiteering. We die while you play business.” on the traders below. Within days, Burroughs Wellcome lowered the price of AZT by 20%.

In 1989, he was part of a group that stormed the Fifth International AIDS Conference in Montreal, at the time a members-only event for doctors and HIV/AIDS researchers. They took over seats reserved for dignitaries, and released their first Treatment and Data report calling for speedier access to AIDS drugs, although coverage of the demonstration was overshadowed by the events at Tiananmen Square. The next year, Staley was a featured speaker at the Sixth International Conference on AIDS in 1990, held in San Francisco. Staley would be involved in many more demonstrations and protests, ultimately being arrested 10 times, although due to the work of pro bono lawyers, he doesn’t have a criminal record.

This is not the life’s work of a sell-out.

Staley’s colleagues in the AIDS activist movement were swift to criticize the Sanders move. Here’s Sanders’ supporter and longtime AIDS activist Gregg Gonsalves:

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I also spoke with Alan Klein, a founding member of ACT UP/NY; co-founder of Queer Nation; and a partner at Public Impact Media Consultants:

A real political and social movement demands commitment and sustained action in order to effect change. Over the last three decades, the AIDS activist movement changed the face of the AIDS crisis by saving countless lives here and abroad. Fellow AIDS activists like Peter Staley have never wavered on that commitment. It is a travesty that the Sanders campaign so cynically played politics with HIV/AIDS by ignoring history and by misrepresenting noted AIDS activists.

This isn’t just about Peter. Peter represents a movement of LGBT people, a real political revolutionary movement that actually changed the face of health care, saved millions of lives, and did that work over three decades for no pay. We did it because we cared, because our friends were dying, because it was necessary to act. That’s the real political revolution. You have to put in the time to actually have an effect, and we did that. And to come out and say that Peter Staley has ulterior motives is a horrible misrepresentation. The fact is that without the work of AIDS activists, HIV would not today be a chronic manageable disease, and there would be millions more dead.

Joy Reid covered the controversy this morning on MSNBC. She had Peter Staley as a guest, and invited the Sanders campaign to comment, but they refused.

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Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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