A New Breed of AIDS Activists Dogs Obama
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
NEW HAVEN — David Carel was never a rabble-rouser. But amid the clutter of his dorm room at Yale University, Mr. Carel, baby-faced and slight-shouldered at 19, keeps evidence of his new life as an AIDS activist: posters, banners and the flier demanding “$50 bn for Global AIDS” that he concealed in his fleece jacket one Saturday in late October when, heart pounding, he sneaked past security into a Democratic campaign rally in Bridgeport.
He used the flier to do something he “never would have imagined”: heckle the president of the United States.
Cameron Nutt, a medical anthropology student at Dartmouth, says he backs President Obama “100 percent.” But, incensed over the president’s “failure to remain true” to a campaign promise to spend $50 billion over five years fighting the AIDS epidemic overseas, Mr. Nutt disrupted Mr. Obama this fall at a Boston rally. His co-protesters included Luke Messac, a University of Pennsylvania medical student and a field organizer for Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign, and Krishna Prabhu, a Harvard University senior who caucused for Mr. Obama in Iowa in 2008 — and rescheduled his final exam in global health to attend the president’s inauguration.
“The promise has not been fulfilled,” Mr. Prabhu said, sounding more disappointed than angry.
Roughly a quarter-century after gay men rose up to demand better access to H.I.V. medicines, a new breed of AIDS advocate is growing up on college campuses. Unlike the first generation of patient-activists, this latest crop is composed of budding public health scholars. They are mostly heterosexual. Rare is the one who has lost friends or family members to the disease. Rather, studying under some of the world’s most prominent health intellectuals, they have witnessed the epidemic’s toll during summers or semesters abroad, in AIDS-ravaged nations like Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
College activism, and AIDS activism in particular, is nothing new. On Wednesday, World AIDS Day, students across the nation will participate in speeches, fund-raisers and the like. But a loose-knit band of about two dozen Ivy Leaguers, mostly from Harvard and Yale, is using more confrontational tactics, as well as some high-powered connections, to wangle encounters with top White House officials in a determined, and seemingly successful, effort to get under Mr. Obama’s skin.
Their protests — which have drawn a sharp rebuke from the president (not to mention some disapproving parents) — come as many in the AIDS advocacy community are wondering aloud whether Mr. Obama is as devoted to their cause as his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush. In 2003, Mr. Bush began vastly increasing spending on life-saving antiretroviral medicines for AIDS patients in impoverished nations; the number receiving the drugs has shot up from 50,000 to more than five million today. Yet the World Health Organization says as many as 10 million lack needed therapy.
While spending on global AIDS has gone up on Mr. Obama’s watch, and the United States remains the world’s largest contributor to such programs, independent analysts say that the rate of increase has slowed significantly and that it will be difficult for the president to keep his $50 billion pledge — or even meet a lesser goal, set in 2008 by Congress, of $48 billion for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria by 2013. The task may grow even harder under a new Congress, with the incoming House Republican majority intent on cutting spending and Tea Party-backed Republicans in both chambers expressing skepticism about all types of foreign aid.
Still, armed with data from Health Gap, an AIDS advocacy group, the students are determined to hold Mr. Obama to his word. When Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist and health adviser to the president (and brother of the former White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel) spoke at Yale two weeks ago, he wound up sparring with Mr. Carel at a fruit-and-cereal breakfast at the campus Hillel House, a meal arranged by a fellow Yale student, Dr. Emanuel’s daughter. Later that day, Mr. Carel led a demonstration outside Dr. Emanuel’s talk, which ended with students chanting at the adviser as they followed him down the street.
When Eric Goosby, Mr. Obama’s global AIDS coordinator, traveled to Boston in November for a panel discussion with Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, he was collared at a cocktail party by Mr. Prabhu, the Harvard senior. Mr. Prabhu arrived with another panelist: his professor, Dr. Paul E. Farmer, founder of the global nonprofit Partners in Health.
“These students are my retirement plan,” Dr. Farmer said in a telephone interview from Haiti, where he is treating cholera patients. “A lot of them are doing much more than going to protests; they’re writing papers and articles, they’re doing graduate studies.”
Mr. Messac, the University of Pennsylvania medical student, explored the origins of Mr. Bush’s AIDS program in a 120-page paper, “Lazarus at America’s Doorstep,” for his Harvard undergraduate thesis. Mr. Carel, who spent last summer working at a hospital in the rural South African village of Tugela Ferry, now studies Zulu and persuaded a visiting professor from South Africa to let him take her upper-level course on “the political economy of AIDS.” (He had to skip Zulu class for the Emanuel protest; he said his professor understood.)
The students have also befriended a longtime veteran of the AIDS wars, Gregg Gonsalves, who at 47 is completing his undergraduate degree on a full scholarship at Yale. Mr. Gonsalves often lectures public-health classes on what he calls “ancient history” — the work of groups like Act Up in the 1990s.
“Theirs is not a first-person commitment, in the sense that none of them is living with H.I.V.,” Mr. Gonsalves said of the new AIDS protesters. “It’s all based out of a sense of solidarity and social justice. I used to wonder where the next generation would come from. They’re here.”
Inside the White House, Dr. Emanuel, for one, is not impressed. He says the students are serving up tired arguments about dollar amounts that ignore the Obama administration’s emphasis on spending money more efficiently and offering services, like circumcision, that can reduce the spread of H.I.V. While Mr. Bush emphasized AIDS and malaria, Mr. Obama is promoting a six-year, $63 billion “global health initiative” that seeks to address a range of diseases, with emphasis on women and children.
“To be honest, and this is no put-down to the sincerity of the students, I didn’t hear a new argument that I haven’t heard for months,” Dr. Emanuel said in an interview after his breakfast with Mr. Carel. “I’ve not seen a blog post on the number of people we have circumcised, or the number of mothers we treat in maternal-child health. Those are real performance measures.”
Dr. Emanuel would not discuss any conversations with the president about the students, but Mr. Obama’s reaction when he was disrupted in October at the rally in Bridgeport made clear he was irked. “You’ve been appearing at every rally we’ve been doing,” the president complained, telling them it was not “a useful strategy.”
The students were pleased that he addressed them directly, but their heckling prompted even some fellow AIDS activists to take issue with their tactics. Regan Hofmann, editor in chief of Poz, a magazine for people affected with H.I.V., questioned the wisdom of disrupting the president on the eve of a critical election for Democrats.
Mr. Carel says he and his fellow protesters thought long and hard about that. It was his first demonstration; his parents told him they wished he would be “more respectful.” His friends were shocked. Still, he says it was worth it.
“There are very few ways we could have any access to him,” he explained. “This was a way to get Obama’s ear.”