WASHINGTON -- During a demonstration Wednesday against the federal ban on clean needle exchange programs, a total of 29 AIDS activists were arrested at offices around Capitol Hill on charges of demonstrating within the Capitol building or unlawful entry, according to Capitol Police. Demonstration organizers Housing Works, Health Global Access Project and Citywide Harm Reduction put that number at 32.
The demonstration at the Capitol was one of dozens planned around the country, including rallies in New York outside the offices of Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Like many of the people arrested at today's sit-in, Ken Robinson works for Housing Works in New York City, which provides housing and life-saving services to homeless people living with HIV. But today's demonstration has an even more personal meaning for Robinson, who for years was an addict himself.
"Somehow I managed to dodge the bullets of HIV and hepatitis, but many people don't," he told HuffPost moments before he was arrested on Wednesday. "When I started shooting, I was kind of what people called a 'garbage can' -- I would basically shoot up anything I could get my hands on. And that evolved into alcoholism and cocaine use and stuff like that. Eventually I got into recovery and I've been clean and sober now for over 12 years."
With his silver hair and black shirt declaring "Clean Needles Now!" Robinson doesn't fit in inside the Rayburn House Office Building, where he was arrested along with nine other AIDS activists outside the office of Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) this morning.
Other lawmakers targeted in Wednesday's demonstrations at the Capitol included Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Rehberg was targeted for his role as chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on health and human services, where he led the effort to ban funding for needle exchange programs, adding it to a House spending bill that funded the federal government through fiscal year 2012. Boehner and Rogers, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, were similarly targeted for their role in reinstating the ban.
The other 19 activists arrested Wednesday were protesting outside the offices of Boehner and Rogers.
The ban was originally adopted in 1989 but was finally lifted by Congress in 2009. Republicans lawmakers quietly slipped the ban back into their spending bill in December of last year.
With budget talks starting to make headlines again, activists see an opening to pressure lawmakers to reconsider the ban.
"They snuck it in," Robinson said of the ban, "after we worked so hard to get funding back. The Democrats didn't do anything about it because it's such a political hot potato in an election year."
Rehberg's office did not return requests for comment, while Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the Speaker would not issue a statement. Press assistant Christine Hardman said Rogers similarly declined to comment.
Studies have shown that providing clean syringes to injection drug users is an effective way to curb the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, and such programs have been credited with reducing the rate of new HIV infections among injection drug users by as much as 80 percent. Additional research shows that syringe exchange programs do not increase the numbers of injection drug users and can further reduce long-term healthcare costs for people with HIV or hepatitis C.
"People who are addicted to drugs, they will not go out there to buy syringes," said Pedro Batista, a 46-year-old activist sitting next to Robinson in the Rayburn building. "They will reuse and they will share. If they get clean needles, obviously they will use a clean needle and avoid infecting other users as well."
Bastista, who works as an executive director for a property management company in New York, said he's been involved with clean needle advocacy for years now and has seen the good that needle exchange programs can do.
"Scientific study after scientific study after effing scientific study proves consistently over and over again that this is one of the most effective ways to stop the transmission of HIV," Robinson said. "But the pious lawmakers that are here dominating the Hill now ... people are going to die because of their judgments of what's moral and what's right. And it really, really pisses us off."
He had to shout to be heard above the chants of "Clean needles save lives!" Robinson said that he himself is a recovering addict, adding that his partner works as a doctor. "It hits close to home for me in a number of ways," he explained.
His comments to HuffPost were cut short by the police. "This is your first warning," a cop said into a megaphone. "You continue to chant like this, you'll get arrested."
The demonstrators continued to chant.