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Protesters Drown Out Thompson At International AIDS Conference

By David Brown

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson’s address at the 14th International AIDS Conference was drowned out Tuesday by activists who were angry that the Bush administration had not pledged more money to fight the global pandemic.

The protesters began blowing whistles and shouting “Shame! Shame!” and “No more lies!” as Thompson came to the podium. They continued until he finished his address, making his speech virtually unintelligible to the audience. There was no violence or attempt to stop the demonstration, and there were no arrests.

For part of the half-hour event, about 30 people stood on the stage holding signs accusing Thompson and President Bush of “murder and neglect” of people with AIDS, and demanding that the United States contribute more to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. A dozen plainclothes security guards and Secret Service agents stood silent and motionless between Thompson and the protesters.

Later, the protesters retreated to the aisles but continued to chant. The demonstration ended soon after Thompson finished his speech, took a drink of water, removed his glasses and walked backstage between parted curtains.

One of the two co-chairmen of the conference, Jose Gatell, an infectious diseases physician from a medical school in Barcelona, sat quietly in the front row of the auditorium during the protest, talking once with the head of security.

“Well, it happens,” Gatell said, declining to comment further.

Neither of the speakers who followed Thompson -- Richard Feachem, who will become the first executive director of the Global Fund next week, or Gro Harlem Brundtland, the leader of the World Health Organization -- made any reference to the protest in their addresses. There was no public criticism of the protesters, who later held a news conference in the conference’s Media Center.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Thompson said he “knew it was going to be rough, but I came here because I wanted to show that the Bush administration is committed to the fight. ... We have a strong message we’re going to continue to deliver despite the jeers, the shouts, the insults.”

Protests by AIDS activists are a regular part of international AIDS conferences. Scientists and public officials were the original targets, but in the past two conferences (in Durban, South Africa, two years ago and in Geneva four years ago) pharmaceutical companies were the more common ones. Protests there included spray painting and vandalism directed against the elaborate corporate displays (many larger than houses) in the commercial venue of the conference.

Thompson noted that he was the first U.S. secretary of health and human services to attend an international AIDS conference since Louis Sullivan -- who held the post during the administration of President George H.W. Bush -- was shouted down at one a decade ago. “No other secretary has had the courage to come,” he said.

At the news conference, Asia Russell of ACT-UP Philadelphia was asked why the thousand or more people in the hall weren’t allowed to hear Thompson speak.

“It’s unacceptable to allow him to continue to use his power and face-time here to tell lies ... and that’s why we did not allow him to speak, as people of conscience fighting this epidemic.”