Jan 10, 2020

We Won't Go Back! Activists and Advocates Say No To Criminalization of HIV/AIDS and Cash Bail Reform

We Won't Go Back! Activists and Advocates Say No To Criminalization of HIV/AIDS and Cash Bail Reform


Jennifer Johnson Avril, Housing Works

j.johnson-avril@housingworks.org, 646-732-1573

Jason Rosenberg, ACT UP New York

jasondavidrosenberg@gmail.com, 631-332-8990

Brian Romero, GMHC 

brianr@gmhc.org, (917) 575-6118

Jawanza Williams, VOCAL-NY

jawanza@vocal-ny.org, 917-488-4961

January 10, 2020 -- NEW YORK, NY -- On Friday, a number of HIV services organizations and activists held a rally in front of CBS Headquarters on West 52nd Street to demand accountability and an apology from CBS New York for publishing an article and coverage that stigmatized HIV. Activists are also demanding more information from the Port Authority Police Department and the Queens District Attorney’s Office.

Late on Wednesday, CBS New York published a stigmatizing article and social media post about a recent arrest and altercation with Port Authority Police at LaGuardia Airport that inappropriately stigmatized HIV and promoted misinformation and fear of HIV transmission via saliva. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), HIV is not transmittable by saliva and this fact has been known for decades.

The person who was arrested on suspicion of larceny at LaGuardia Airport on Monday is described in the article as fighting and spitting at a Port Authority police officer and disclosing that they are HIV positive. No physical injuries to the police officer were described and no weapons were described. The person being arrested was charged with criminal mischief and assault in the second degree, which can refer to assault with a deadly weapon or assault with “intent to cause serious injury to someone.” HIV groups are making inquiries to the Queens District Attorney to determine if this is an HIV criminalization prosecution in which someone’s HIV status is being used to increase charges, despite no risk of transmission.

In the article, Port Authority Police Benevolent Association President Paul Nunziato is quoted using scientifically inaccurate language about transmission of HIV via saliva to argue against NY efforts to implement bail reform. The cash bail system disproportionately targets Black and brown New Yorkers and criminalizes poverty, and the New York State legislature recently signed into law a package of criminal justice reforms including the elimination of cash bail for most non-violent crimes. However, efforts are now being made by some media outlets and law enforcement representatives to promote sensationalistic stories in order to frighten the public and pressure lawmakers to roll back reforms.

The initial version of the CBS New York article did not include accurate information about HIV transmission, but after push-back from HIV activists from ACT UP, GMHC, Housing Works and VOCAL on social media, CBS New York added a paragraph citing the National Institutes of Health, but did not retract other stigmatizing and misleading components of the article. The article also does not mention post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), an extremely effective HIV-prevention regimen that can be taken soon after potential exposure to HIV. PEP is available to police, medical workers, and the public, and the City even has a hotline to help people quickly access PEP. 

CBS News released the following statement in an article that ran yesterday in Gay City News:

“This online story should not have been published. It does not meet our journalistic standards, nor does it reflect our core values. The person who wrote and published the story and social media post failed to review the copy with our news managers. This individual is no longer employed by CBS New York.”

On Friday, a number of HIV services of organizations and activists will hold a rally at noon in front of the CBS Headquarters at 51 West 52nd (corner of Sixth Avenue) to demand accountability for the stigmatizing coverage. Activists are also demanding more information from the Port Authority Police Department and the Queens District Attorney’s Office.

“HIV stigma in the media needs to stop now. CBS New York’s misleading and stigmatizing coverage requires an apology and a teach-in for the organization on reporting on HIV,” said Reed Vreeland, Director of Community Mobilization at Housing Works. “The Queens DA and Port Authority police should immediately answer questions about the charges and whether HIV was a factor for elevating the charge to second degree assault—the State and City department of health should create a plan to educate prosecutors statewide about HIV to prevent against HIV criminalization prosecutions.”

“This deeply hurtful and scientifically inaccurate coverage is woefully irresponsible and reckless,” said Ruby Dioum, a leader in VOCAL-NY’s Positive Leaders Union, a group of politically active HIV+ New Yorkers. “And to use HIV as a political tool to roll-back bail reform is not only disingenuous, but criminal itself.”

“After years of progress in the movement to end the HIV epidemic, we claimed that we will not go back!” said Kelsey Louie, CEO of GMHC. “New York City’s Department of Health recently announced that nine in 10 New Yorkers diagnosed with HIV are getting treatment, 93% of people with HIV know their status and 92% of those on treatment are virally suppressed. As we move towards a vision of equity, we cannot allow political agendas seeking to weaponize any form of discrimination to roll back our progress in ending the HIV epidemic and in criminal justice reform. Institutions should promote education and fairness—not stigma—and we will not settle for less!”

“This sort of low-quality, sensationalist, tabloid-level ‘journalism’ directly threatens the lives and wellbeing of those of us living with HIV, particularly those who live in communities of color.” commented Jeremiah Johnson, HIV Project Director at Treatment Action Group. “In a state and a city where we have made such progress toward ending HIV as an epidemic, and where robust informational resources are readily accessible, it is a shame to see that CBS is so uninformed and too lazy to verify that HIV is not transmitted through saliva. Clearly, CBS was too busy salivating over how to leverage HIV-related stigma in an effort to attack bail reform and further criminalize poor New Yorkers.”

“As a proud HIV services provider, Harlem United calls on CBS to desist from its sensational and fear-mongering reporting on the recent arrest at LaGuardia Airport of someone purported to be HIV positive,” said Jacquelyn Kilmer, CEO Harlem United Community AIDS Center, Inc. “By spreading misinformation about how HIV is transmitted and implying that the arresting officers were at risk, both the Port Authority Police official quoted and CBS are complicit in the criminalization of people of color who are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS stigma and who often have financial barriers in raising bail due to systemic racism in healthcare and the law enforcement system. We stand with our HIV services partners in the fight to advocate for fair and dignified treatment of all people, regardless of their HIV status or ability to pay cash bail.”

"HIV stigma is insidious, insulting and when perpetrated by the media or law enforcement, it can also be dangerous” said Sean Strub, Founder and Executive Director, The Sero Project. “The science is clear; HIV is not transmitted via saliva.  Fear-mongering by CBS and a PBA spokesperson harms people living with HIV (PLHIV) and it also harms public health because it discourages those at risk from getting tested, makes it riskier for PLHIV to disclose their status and feeds the stigma, discrimination and bias that leads to violence." 



Jennifer Johnson-Avril
(718) 408-6062

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Housing Works is a healing community of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. Our mission is to end the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS through relentless advocacy, the provision of lifesaving services, and entrepreneurial businesses that sustain our efforts.

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