Stella Maxwell
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Here’s How CBS Can Atone for Its Fearmongering HIV Tweet

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As we enter our fourth decade of AIDS activism, we knew we’d have to confront the remaining HIV stigma that exists, but this one even threw us for a loop.

The first tweet that went out from CBS New York this Wednesday was so horrific, it was hard to believe it was even released by a reputable news source in 2020. Collectively, activists and concerned advocates across the platform wondered if they had somehow stumbled into 1987.

The tweet from CBS New York read, “RELEASED AFTER HIV ATTACK: A judge has let a suspect back onto the streets after police at LaGuardia say the attacker spit into an officer’s mouth knowing they had HIV -- sparking outrage at another bail reform controversy. More here.”

It was difficult to even dive into the actual written piece the tweet was referring to (we may never know who the author is since CBS New York did not attribute the reporting) as we were so frozen in painful disbelief at “here.”

“Here” is where people still believe a person living with HIV can transmit the virus to another person through the exchange of saliva, which was medically disproven in 1986. “Here” is where HIV is active, virulent, and weaponized, and couldn’t possibly be managed with daily medication so an HIV-positive person would have an undetectable viral load, making the virus untransmittable to another person. “Here” is where HIV-positive people are dangerous, lawless, and out to harm innocent, HIV-negative citizens.

But “here” is not evidence-based or grounded in the years of advocacy that has led to scientific innovations such as undetectable equals untransmittable (known as “U=U”) and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

The tweet has since been deleted, and changed to the barely improved “RELEASED AFTER SPITTING ATTACK,” which, after more long hours of outrage, was changed again to “Absolutely Ridiculous,” which at that point was a valid reflection on how we all felt. The article itself has been edited and changed multiple times in response to concerns from the public, but one thing has remained the same: In it, representatives from New York’s Port Authority Police Department signaled that a suspect at LaGuardia airport fought officers while being arrested and spat into one of their mouths.

The suspect was initially arrested for stealing a yogurt, but he was subsequently charged with second-degree assault, or assault with a deadly weapon. It has not been reported anywhere that the suspect was carrying an actual weapon, so we could only wonder, in disgust, if the weapon in question was the suspect’s HIV-positive status. Indeed, in an article that ran yesterday in Gay City News, PAPD spokesman Bob Egbert said, “The problem is when a person with an infectious disease has a weapon, we have a problem with that … a guy who knowingly has an infectious disease — that’s a problem.”

CBS New York and the PAPD did not frame the suspect’s HIV-positive status this way out of ignorance or even with mere discriminatory intent. The relevant point was to contribute to the charged dialogue of rolling back bail reforms. On January 1 of this year, the New York State legislature signed a package of criminal justice reforms into law, including the elimination of cash bail for most nonviolent crimes.

Activists, advocates, and lawmakers fought for years to rid New York of the cash bail system, which disproportionately targets and criminalizes Black and brown and poor New Yorkers. Just this past June, a vibrant Afro-latinx trans woman Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, only 27 years old, died in a Rikers Island jail cell because she couldn’t afford her $500 bail. Now law enforcement (and the media willing to carry their message) want to roll back that victory, which would result in Black, brown, and low-income New Yorkers staying in prison because they cannot afford bail.

Yesterday, we, along with our comrades, planned and promoted a protest today at noon in front of the CBS corporate offices in midtown Manhattan in response to the criminalization of people living with HIV or AIDS and the weaponizing of fear and misinformation to roll back cash bail reform demonstrated by both CBS New York and the PAPD. Last night, CBS said in a statement that the unnamed reporter who authored this story was fired. We  have the swift response of the community and the anticipated public pressure of this protest to thank for that, but it’s not enough.

On behalf of people living with HIV and AIDS across the country, we demand written apologies from both CBS and PAPD for the stigmatizing and dangerous language they deliberately used to stoke fear. We want the story removed from the CBS website. We call for CBS to participate in a teach-in across the organization on HIV and AIDS, treatment as prevention (U=U), and our continued goal to expand access to prevention treatment to underserved communities.

We call on all New York news organizations to meet with leading advocacy organizations to learn about the merits of cash bail reform and to consider writing stories about those it has helped, not just sensationalistic hit pieces that serve the aims of law enforcement and the carceral state. And we ask CBS to think long and hard about why this story, with its repulsive demonization of poor and HIV-positive folks, ever happened in the first place. Finally, we ask that the New York State legislature, attorney general, and governor learn from this fearmongering.

We cannot allow acts of discrimination to roll back the progress that we have made both in ending the HIV epidemic and reforming our criminal (in)justice system, which harms oppressed communities every day. We cannot and will not go backwards.

The four of us all come from street activist backgrounds. We work and volunteer with organizations that serve and speak for people who are living with HIV or AIDS. We are passionate about fighting for the rights of our communities to have care, compassion, access to adequate health care, and freedom from stigma and harm.

We are deeply thankful to everyone who responded to this story and its implicit attack on our communities, and we hope to see you in the streets today.

Jennifer Johnson Avril, Housing Works, Brian Romero, Gay Men's Health Crisis, Jason Rosenberg, ACT UP NY, Jason Walker, ACT UP NY.

Tags: Commentary, HIV

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