In the biggest protest by AIDS activists to date, thousands of picketers surrounded City Hall and 200 were arrested Tuesday for disrupting morning rush hour traffic to dramatize their demand for better city services for AIDS patients and others infected with the human immunodeficiency virus.
“There is a tidal wave of AIDS cases coming, and all the city has for sandbagging the steps of City Hall is a pile of reports--none of which has been acted upon,” charged Mark Harrington, a member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.
Members of ACT UP also called for establishing safer-sex education programs for the city’s adolescents, among whom the AIDS virus is spreading faster than in any other group.
“Stop beating teen-agers over the head with a moral club,” implored health educator Ann Northrop. “ ‘Just say no’ is not enough.”
Mayor Edward I. Koch hastily scheduled a press conference Tuesday afternoon at which he insisted that the city “is responding to the maximum of our fiscal ability to respond.”
Police estimated the crowd at 2,500, while a spokesman for ACT UP claimed 3,500. Either number represents a several-fold increase over the 700 demonstrators that the 2-year-old group attracted a year ago at its last major New York demonstration on Wall Street, where just over 100 were arrested.
Posters promoting the demonstration had been plastered around the city for weeks, so city officials were well-prepared when the picketing got under way shortly after 7 a.m. About 600 helmeted police officers, some on horseback, guarded the perimeters of City Hall Park, frustrating demonstrators who had hoped to occupy the building.
Instead, protesters sat down and blocked traffic at a number of key thoroughfares, including ramps leading to and from the Brooklyn Bridge and lower Broadway.
The demonstrators’ basic charge--that New York City’s health care system is on the verge of collapse--has been supported by a number of recently issued reports. The Citizens Commission on AIDS, a panel of civic leaders and health care experts, warned earlier this month that the health care crisis could force businesses to leave the city and deter others from locating here.
Some AIDS patients, as well as others requiring elective surgery, have been forced to wait days for hospital beds due to overcrowded and understaffed hospitals.
“My doctor says ‘don’t get sick, because I don’t have a bed for you,’ ” said Charles Barber, an AIDS patient who took part in the demonstration.
At the same time, scores of impoverished AIDS patients are being “warehoused” in city hospitals--at a cost of $800 a day--because the city lacks hospices or other facilities for them.
“We want the city to spend its AIDS dollars more intelligently,” said Mike Signorile, member of ACT UP’s media committee.
Protesters carried signs bearing ACT UP’s slogan, “SILENCE EQUALS DEATH,” as well as others personally attacking Koch, who is running for reelection this year.
One such sign, widely plastered on city subways in the weeks before the demonstration, featured a picture of the mayor along with the line “10,000 New York City AIDS Deaths” followed by a favorite phrase of Koch’s, “How’m I doin’?”
Other signs and chants mocked the bachelor mayor’s widely reported declaration earlier this month that he is a heterosexual.
The mayor’s press conference had to be moved to an interior hallway in City Hall after ACT UP learned it had been scheduled and two dozen chanting demonstrators marched outside the Blue Room, where such gatherings are usually held.
With neither a cure nor a vaccine for AIDS, “there has to be someone you can vent your spleen on,” Koch said. “I’m the one.”