9 Minutes, 29 Seconds
by David Waggoner
Minneapolis captured the world’s attention recently when the trial of police officer Derek Chauvin, accused on various counts of murder and manslaughter for kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, ended in three verdicts of guilty. George Floyd repeatedly told the arresting officers and bystanders, “I can’t breathe,” and Darnella Frazier captured video of the murder on her phone. When she shared it on social media, and, later, as it was repeatedly shown on news sites and Facebook walls, we could not look away.
And then, inevitably, we look toward justice and accountability. When Ms. Frazier told the jury something she had earlier expressed—that she spends her nights sleepless, apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more to save his life—it made me remember promises made to loved ones who died of AIDS-related causes. We wanted to do more to help save their lives. We did what we could. That’s what I would like to tell Ms. Frazier—she did what she could. She in fact may have saved numerous lives of Black people and others who are at the mercy of the police who use brutality and brawn instead of brains.
We may feel powerless in times like these, but, just as Ms. Frazier is now part of a larger movement, we need to remember we are not alone. We often did feel powerless in the early days of the AIDS pandemic. Not all of us rolled out of bed and took to the streets automatically. Friends encouraged friends; phone trees grew and produced fruit. Soon, we did trust in our power to transform the world. Activists and advocates did make a difference—lifesaving medications were fast-tracked, the Ryan White CARE Act was passed, more and more women were included in clinical trials, among other changes for good. There was more work to be done, for sure.
Nowadays, thanks to the Internet and particularly social media, we can see the changes that need to be made more quickly. For all of its limitations, social media has become the public square, our political homebase. That’s part of the reason why this month’s cover story subject, Sister Roma, fought back against Facebook’s “real name” policy a few years back with the #MyNameIs campaign. Sister Roma explained to interviewer and A&U Senior Editor Hank Trout why she needed to take action when Facebook locked her out of her account until she could prove who she was with an appropriate I.D. Says Sister Roma: “When it happened to me, I tried to contact Facebook, which is literally impossible, so I went to Twitter and tweeted ‘Tell @Facebook that their ‘real name’ policy is unfair and discriminatory. #MyNameIsRoma.’ The next day the tweet had gone viral and local [television station] CBS5 came to my office to interview me about the situation.” The stakes for using a name of one’s choosing were high: “I’m talking about heart-wrenching stories from domestic violence survivors, schoolteachers, authors, mental health workers, trans youth, burlesque performers, law enforcement officials, this was a huge problem.” The campaign worked!
Sister Roma has long used her voice to support individuals living with HIV/AIDS, too, and, as the stunning photography of Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover shows, she knows the power of the visual to make a statement.
Others taking a stand in this issue include the Latino Commission on AIDS’ poster campaign, designed by Carlos Aponte, that celebrates allyship to combat homophobia and transphobia, as Hank Trout reports. Chael Needle explores how director Chris McKim created a powerful documentary about David Wojnarowicz, utilizing the artist’s own visual and audio recordings, as well as paintings and drawings. Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1992, pulled no punches. He was fearless when it came to being graphic. And violence surfaced often in his art. It may be hard to look at sometimes, but so are all forms of oppression, including police brutality.
Most people I know found it very, very hard to watch Darnella Frazier’s video; some even refused. But while some of us had to look away, none of us can deny something must be done to stop the violence. As President Biden tweeted in response to the nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds of Floyd’s murder, “We must not turn away. We cannot turn away.”
David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.