by SAMUEL HUBER
December 1, 2011
One month ago and fifty-one days into Wall Street’s occupation, I finally caught a train into Manhattan to visit Zuccotti Park. My reasons were multiple—it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I had no commitments keeping me in New Haven, and (less incidentally) I received an email through a queer mailing list two days before promoting an “OWS Ribbon Bee” organized by Visual AIDS in preparation for World AIDS Day. “As you know,”—I didn’t—“twenty years ago a group of friends called the Visual AIDS Artists’ Caucus came together to create the Red Ribbon,” began the email. The red ribbon quickly became an iconic symbol of both support for people living with HIV/AIDS and commitment to the ongoing search for a cure. “Bees” were organized to unite communities in the simple task of making and distributing these ribbons, providing a non-threatening forum for education and discussion about AIDS as well as an accessible means of political engagement for those suffering from or touched by the epidemic.
Given the ribbon’s ubiquity and relatively long history, I scanned the park upon my arrival for some sign or banner, perhaps, under which I expected to find a sizable crowd of ribbon makers diligently at work, with their finished products piled high above the field of tents. What I stumbled upon instead was a clear patch of steps straddling a handrail, where two organizers from Visual AIDS had draped a couple of blankets and dumped some gallon bags full of supplies. They noticed me hovering and invited me to sit, clearing a couple square feet of blanket on one of the lower steps. For the next three hours, I made ribbons.
Ribbon-making is difficult, though the bee’s organizers denied the existence of a proper or preferred technique. Each short length of red ribbon had to be doubled back on itself and its bow secured with one of four buttons specially designed to commemorate World AIDS Day. “Not Over,” each insists, one in stark red capitals on a black background, another in a repeating spiral of red. A third pieces the words together from an incongruous collection of typefaces, and the last riffs on General Idea’s “AIDS” appropriation of Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” image. Each button was designed by a different artist—John Chaich, Avram Finkelstein, Joe De Hoyos, and A.K. Burns, respectively—to mark the twentieth anniversary of the red ribbon and to remind those who wear it or see it of the alarming rates at which HIV is still being contracted in this country.
The CDC estimates that over one million Americans are currently infected with HIV, though one in five of them do not know it. In the U.S., African Americans and men who have sex with men remain the two populations most affected by the virus. Thanks to medical advances made in the last couple of decades, it is now possible to live long and well with HIV, and researchers have begun to make slow but promising advances towards a cure. Nevertheless, thousands of Americans continue to die each year of AIDS-related illnesses.
Visual AIDS, the organization responsible for the red ribbon and the bee I attended, held bees all over New York throughout November in preparation for today, World AIDS Day, when the group plans to distribute the ribbons. Visual AIDS will also be distributing the documentary Untitled, a reflection on the AIDS epidemic and the queer activism it provoked told through a collage of assembled footage, to be screened around the country on December 1, including here at Yale at 7:00 pm in the Whitney Humanities Center.
Of Occupy Wall Street, one of the bee’s organizers remarked, “This seemed like the perfect place for it.” Most of the other volunteers, though older than me, were also too young to have experienced the earliest days of AIDS. Many stopped by for just long enough to make a ribbon or two, but a core crew of six—two Canadians, an Australian, an artist from Brooklyn, a meditation teacher, and I—worked through the entire afternoon. The meditation teacher was a regular at OWS, where she led free meditation sessions. One of the others had recently lost a friend to AIDS. Another volunteered in prisons educating inmates about HIV.
In his beautiful and elegiac 1990 essay “Late Victorians,” Richard Rodriguez captured the humble strength of an AIDS Support Group’s diverse members with the phrase, “These knew the weight of bodies.” I, and many my age, are lucky enough not to. I have only in my life ever known one person with HIV. Mercifully, my list of lost lovers and friends is, as of yet, blank; my death count is still at zero. It’s a blessing, certainly, and one that too many people had to sacrifice too much for, but it carries its own danger. Thirty years later, complacency still kills. And so twenty years later, we still make ribbons.
Samuel Huber is a junior in Yale College. He is the managing editor of Broad Recognition.