Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the Nov. 20, 1997
issue of Workers World newspaper

Demonizing people with AIDS only worsens the epidemic

The Nushawn Williams case

By Leslie Feinberg

Who is responsible for the spread of the AIDS epidemic? Lurid front-page headlines demonize a homeless, unemployed, 20-year-old African American man named Nushawn Williams.

However, this kind of racist scapegoating has aided the growth of the epidemic over the last 15 years.

Nushawn Williams is the first person in the U.S. to be publicly named for having sex with partners after testing HIV positive. He may also be the first person in this country to be criminally charged as a result.

According to officials in Chautauqua County, Williams had sex with six women in upstate New York after he tested HIV positive. Those women have also reportedly tested positive, although there is no conclusive proof that Williams was responsible.

Chautauqua County District Attorney James Subjack has vowed to charge Williams with six counts of assault. Williams faces 50 to 150 years in prison.

Racist articles characterized Williams as a sexual predator. A super-spreader of AIDS. A gangster with dreadlocks who lurked in parks and preyed on vulnerable, apple-cheeked white girls.

Public health officials issued a public health alert with Williams’ photo that looked like a criminal wanted poster.

Politicians across New York and around the country have seized on this tragic case to dismantle existing AIDS confidentiality rights.

Will any of this stem the spread of the AIDS epidemic? Or will it in fact exacerbate the growth of this public health emergency?

How not to handle an epidemic

According to the Nov. 10 Newsweek, Williams explained to one of his sexual partners—Amber Arnold—that he thought health officials had lied when they told him he tested HIV positive.

Arnold talked to him in his cell at Riker’s Island. She said Williams told her "he thought they were lying to him to run him out of Jamestown."

Bigotry has played a critical role in the rampant expansion of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S.

Rather than marshal every dime and every human resource to meet this epidemic head on, politicians and right-wing ideologues—from Ronald Reagan to Jerry Falwell—resorted to racist and homophobic scapegoating of people with AIDS.

Right off the bat, that drove the virus deeper into the population because individuals feared coming forward for information and later for testing.

Virtually every dollar the government has spent on this epidemic was squeezed out of it through struggle by the AIDS movement.

AIDS is known to be spread through sexual intercourse. Yet local, state and federal politicians and the Catholic Church hierarchy have blocked safe-sex education and condom distribution.

AIDS is known to be spread through contaminated needles. Yet local, state and federal politicians have barred needle-exchange programs, while slashing funds for drug treatment programs.

A return to the Inquisition?

The criminalization of same-sex love and drug addiction has also made many fearful to honestly report how they came into contact with the virus.

Politicians are manipulating the Nushawn Williams case to demand mandatory notification of sexual partners of people who test HIV positive.

Yet short of a return to thumb screws, partner lists can only be extracted through voluntary consent.

Williams willingly cooperated with health officials who asked him for the names of past sexual partners.

But afterwards, Chautauqua County Health Commissioner Robert Berke made him out to be a monster for making the list. "This guy is some kind of scorekeeper," Berke told the media. "He seems to take some kind of delight in keeping records, whether in his mind or whatever."

Now who will want to be next to come forward to volunteer information about their sexual partners?

Moralistic tirades against "promiscuity" are not only anti-sexual, they serve to obscure the fact that the virus can be contracted through sex with one partner as easily as through many. The transmission of AIDS is not determined by the number of sexual partners or the variations of sex individuals enjoy.

Instead of a massive educational blitz as one front in a war against AIDS, the U.S. ruling establishment is conducting a war against people with AIDS.

District Attorney Subjack railed to the press that the scores of people Nushawn Williams had sex with have had sex with scores of other people. "No one knows how wide the base is," Subjack said. "It’s exponential. It could be hundreds of people already."

Yes. That’s how epidemics expand. Today millions of people around the world have contracted the AIDS virus.

Yet all the lynch-mob coverage in the media about Nushawn Williams is designed to divert attention from the real question: Who really has the responsibility and the power to stop the spread of this epidemic?

Individuals with AIDS? Or those who hold the reins of the economy, science and education?

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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