Organizational Sign-on Statement in Response to Michael Johnson Sentencing

Joint Statement on the Sentencing of Michael L. Johnson                                                                                                                    

Counter Narrative Project/Positive Women’s Network (PWN-USA)/HIV Prevention Justice Alliance/ National Center for Lesbian Rights

On Monday July 13, 2015, Michael L. Johnson was sentenced to 30½ years in prison (a concurrent sentence) after being convicted of “recklessly infecting a partner with HIV” and “recklessly exposing partners to the virus.” We are outraged by this sentencing and Johnson’s incarceration. This represents a failure of the justice system and a blatant manifestation of structural violence in the lives of Black gay men.

The State of Missouri was able to convict Michael Johnson without having to prove that he had any intent to infect his sexual partners nor demonstrate that he was in fact the person who transmitted HIV to his sexual partners. We are outraged by the criminalization, arrests and imprisonment of those prosecuted under HIV criminalization laws. We will continue to fight for Michael, to repeal HIV criminalization laws, to dismantle the Prison Industrial Complex, and to end the stigma and violence perpetrated upon people living with HIV by these laws. With this mission in mind, we are calling for the following:

The Right for People Living with HIV to choose if, when, and how they disclose

HIV disclosure is not safe under every circumstance. People with HIV may face risks ranging from loss of employment to personal humiliation, custody battles, and violence resulting from disclosure. In addition, the burden of proving disclosure rests on the person living with HIV, not her/his partner. While we are committed to helping create a world where disclosure of HIV status is safe, we reject the notion that disclosure of HIV status should be coerced by the State. Laws criminalizing alleged non-disclosure do not make it easier to disclose, and do not protect people from acquiring HIV.

An HIV prevention policy that relies on disclosure of HIV status fails to account for the fact that data shows a person is more likely to contract HIV from a sexual partner who is unaware of their HIV positive status and that effective care and treatment for people living with HIV reduces the likelihood of transmission to almost zero. The best approach for those who are HIV-negative or of unknown HIV status is to practice self-efficacy and care – an approach which could include prevention strategies such as: (1) Learning how HIV and other STDs are transmitted and effective ways to prevent contracting the virus (2) Taking PrEP (3) Using condoms (4) Getting tested with partners for HIV and other STDs (5) Engaging in lower risk sexual activities (6) Identifying support and resources to leave unhealthy relationships that don’t support protecting oneself (7) Confronting insecurities that lead oneself to seek validation by engaging in higher risk sexual behavior.

Today, HIV is no longer a near certain death sentence. With timely diagnosis and proper treatment HIV has become a manageable chronic disease similar to diabetes. People living with HIV can and are living long, healthy, and wonderful lives. And yet, the stigma remains. The truth is that criminalization of HIV is not really about our fear of HIV itself but the stigma that is attached to it. Those of us who are not living with HIV fear that if we contract HIV that we will suffer a lifetime of discrimination and rejection. Given this fear, those of us who are HIV negative should understand why someone who is living with HIV would not disclose her or his HIV status. Therefore, the real target is HIV stigma, including institutionalized stigma which manifests in laws and policies such as HIV criminalization.

Advocacy Against HIV Criminalization is Advocacy Against Mass Incarceration

HIV is a human rights issue, and criminalization of people living with HIV is a social justice issue. Resisting the Prison Industrial Complex means understanding how inequities in the HIV epidemic and sentencing disparities within the criminal justice system interface with laws that criminalize people with HIV. HIV criminalization laws serve as a means of expanding the categories of people subject to imprisonment, by virtue of an immutable characteristic-positive HIV status. In effect, this creates a biological underclass. HIV criminalization does not provide solutions nor will throwing people into prison lower HIV acquisition rates.

HIV criminalization is another manifestation of a broader agenda which has attempted to control the bodies, the sexuality, and the desires of queer and trans people and cisgender women, especially those who are low income and/or from communities of color. This is the same agenda that plays out in attempts to control women’s access to abortion and contraception and reproductive decisions. This not only includes denying low income women abortion services through Medicaid but the criminalizing of pregnant women who are drug users. The sexual and reproductive rights of communities of color, LGBTQ folks, and women has been policed and criminalized throughout the history of this country. Policies based on restricting our body autonomy, stirring up homo- and transphobia, and spreading HIV-related fears have never been and will never be just or sound public policy.

Alternatives to Criminalization: Towards Restorative Justice and Healing

We acknowledge the HIV epidemic has caused immense pain to many in our communities. As a society, we must be intentional about supporting and providing healing for those who have been affected by HIV. We firmly believe that HIV criminalization does not serve to meet these ends. Prisons will not save us. Criminalization is never a solution. Instead, we call for a wholistic approach based on restorative justice principles. Rather than resorting to criminalizing sexuality of people living with HIV, we should treat HIV as an issue of public health, individual health, and human rights and dignity. We must ensure that everyone who is living with HIV (and those who are not) have access to quality and affordable healthcare. As stated above, data shows that suppressing the viral load of a person living with HIV through effective care and treatment reduces the chances of HIV transmission to zero, even if condoms are not used. If states like Missouri are seriously concerned about reducing HIV transmission, they would do better to focus their resources on ensuring their residents living with HIV have access to high-quality, nonstigmatizing, trauma-informed, affordable healthcare. Instead they perpetuate a political agenda that cuts lives short and violates human rights, especially for people of color and those living in poverty, by refusing to expand Medicaid.

Even more importantly than individual actions, we must push for societal changes to the norms and stereotypes that inhibit sexual autonomy and encourage higher risk behaviors. We must advocate for sex education that challenges dominant paradigms around gender norms and heteronormativity. Thus, comprehensive sex education rooted in modern medical science, sex positivity, and harm reduction, and inclusive of all sexualities and genders is crucial. We must address systemic discrimination that places people at risk for housing, food and employment insecurity. We must address systemic discrimination that places people at risk for housing, food and employment insecurity. We should demand media accountability on pathologized portrayals of Black, brown, and queer bodies and sexuality.

We should demand media accountability on pathologized portrayals of Black, brown, and queer bodies and sexuality.

Demanding accountability

HIV criminalization laws are intricately tied to histories of racism, sexism, and homophobia. These forces in the present continue to enact injustice and perpetuate these laws. For this reason, we call for greater engagement of LGBT and racial justice organizations and leaders in HIV decriminalization advocacy. We know various local, state, and national organizations and individuals have already stepped up to the plate, but more boots on the ground are needed to fight back against these laws. LGBT and racial justice organizations must take more leadership around this issue by resourcing advocacy, defense litigation, attempts to repeal these laws at the state level, and drawing attention to HIV criminalization as a practice grounded in homophobia, racism, and sexual and reproductive oppression.

We are heartbroken at what has happened to Michael Johnson, but we are no less determined to fight for him, fight for his freedom, and the freedom of all our brothers and sisters incarcerated under HIV criminalization laws. We are also equally committed to standing in solidarity with all movements committed to ending oppression from the dominant culture of policing and criminalizing vulnerable communities. Together we become more powerful. We must resist. We will resist. We resist.

Black is not a crime.

LGBTQ is not a crime.

HIV is not a crime

Signed:

Charles Stephens

Executive Director

Counter Narrative Project

Naina Khanna

Executive Director

Positive Women’s Network – USA

Suraj Madoori

Manager

HIV Prevention Justice Alliance

Tyrone Hanley

Policy Counsel

National Center for Lesbian Rights

To sign your organization on to this statement, click this link 

Counter Narrative Strategy Call (Wednesday 7pm EST)

We are relaunching our Counter Narrative Strategy Call. The
call is scheduled for Wednesday June 17th at 7pm  EST

Register here:
https://goo.gl/PGwdxh

Once you register, I will send you the call info. Please register by
tomorrow 5pm EST.

The goal of this call is to start planning our July 2015 programming

*On the call we will discuss the following:*
1) Updates around Michael Johnson’s case
2) Our July programming
3) Discussion around our collective memory/movement history work
4) Share information about opportunities to get more involved in Counter
Narrative
5) Chat about other issues happening throughout the political landscape.

JUNE TWITTER CHAT: “We Are Worth Wanting Each Other”  

JUNE TWITTER CHAT 
“We Are Worth Wanting Each Other” 
A Conversation on Desire, Value and Vulnerability”
Thursday June 11, 2015 7pm EST (TOMORROW)
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Joseph Beam invoking the words of Audre Lorde in his 1986 anthology In the Life wrote “I dare us to dream that we are worth wanting each other,” and went on to say “Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act of the eighties.” What are the implications for his words in our current moment? How does this notion impact how we resist the criminalization of our bodies, the stigmatization of our desires, and our fight for sexual rights? How does this notion impact how we think about race, sexuality, sexual health vulnerability and sexual networks?  Our June twitter chat will explore Beam’s legacy and his contemporary relevance. Join us!
The hashtag we will use is:  #revolutionaryacts 

We Shall Not Be Removed: Black Gay Men Respond to the Sentencing of Michael Johnson

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May 15, 2015

Today at Michael Johnson’s trial, the jury recommended a 30 year sentence. Yesterday, after just a few days of testimony and only two hours of deliberation, a nearly all-white jury convicted Michael Johnson on one count of recklessly infecting a partner with HIV, one count of attempting to recklessly infect a partner with HIV, and three counts of recklessly exposing partners to HIV. We are saddened and enraged by what seems to have been a lackluster defense of Johnson, but ultimately we are not surprised. There are many people in this country who still believe, out of ignorance or cruelty, that people with HIV are pariahs who we all need to be protected from. But Michael Johnson is a part of our community and he is not disposable. Far too many young Black gay men receive an HIV diagnosis in this country, and nearly one in three can expect to in their lifetimes. And Missouri’s solution, to a problem they helped create, is prison.

Contracting HIV isn’t Michael’s fault. For decades, so few resources have gone toward a community based HIV prevention and treatment response for Black gay men. This has created a situation where contracting HIV feels almost inevitable. It is ironic that the state of Missouri would convict Michael Johnson of criminal transmission out of a claim of concern for “the public.” If Missouri has such concern about the health and wellbeing of its residents, why won’t the Missouri state legislature even expand Medicaid—a very easy way to ensure nearly all people with and at risk for HIV could have access to health care? After the trial is over, it is very likely that the young men accusing Johnson will continue living in a state that will do very little to ensure they have access to HIV prevention services and basic access to health care. Johnson will be in prison, and the accusers who are currently HIV negative will likely remain highly vulnerable to HIV infection. That’s the state’s fault—not Michael Johnson.

It is hard to ignore the racial optics of this case. A very muscular and attractive Black man stood accused by mostly white men, in a small county, and was tried in front of a nearly all-white jury. Whether in health care, or the courtroom, there is no justice for Black gay men in either location.

We want to reiterate that our support for Johnson will continue, whether or not he disclosed his status to the accusers, and despite whatever sentence he receives. We will continue to fight until he is released, and until all such laws are removed from Missouri and across the country. We will continue to work to support Michael through any appeals, and his time in prison, however long it may be.

But in the meantime, this is the agenda we will be actively pursuing:

1.Support Michael Johnson while he’s in prison, continue to raise awareness about his case, work to support any potential appeals or strategies to reduce his sentence or overturn this ruling altogether.

2.Continue to dialog with Black gay men around the country in person and through social media about the importance of opposing such laws.

3.Repeal of the laws that criminalize HIV exposure and transmission, in Missouri and nationwide.

4.Challenge our allies in Black progressive organizations, criminal justice reform, HIV prevention and treatment, and the LGBT movement to take more of an active role in challenging HIV criminalization.

5.Develop more capacity for Black gay men’s grassroots organizing.

We know that many people still remain incredibly frightened of an HIV diagnosis, which undergirds the logic behind many of these laws. We also know that this country has an all-too vivid imagination when it comes to ideas of out-of-control Black sexuality, and a commitment to prisons and punitive responses to challenges. This allows state actors to be absolved of responsibility for creating the conditions that lead many Black gay men to become HIV positive, or imprisoned, or both.

We will fight until Johnson is released, and until we are all free.

Sincerely,

Adrian Ogle

Akil Patterson

Alvin Agarrat

Amir Dixon

andré m. carrington, Ph.D.

Anthony Antoine McWilliams

Anthony Galloway

Anthony Thompson

Aunsha Hall-Everett

Brandon Dykes

Brian Alston-Carter

Bryan C. Jones

Bummah Ndeh

Charles Stephens

Corey Yarbrough

Cornelius A. Wilson

Cornelius Mabin

Craig Washington

Daniel D Driffin

Darius Bost

Darron Marble

Darwin Thompson

David Malebranche

David Roscoe Moore

Derrick D. Matthews

Derrick Merkerson

Devin Barrington-Ward

Devin D. Moss

Dr. Jeffrey McCune

E.Taylor Doctor

Eddie Wiley

eric o. reece

Ernest Hardy

Errol L Fields

Gavin Morrow-Hall

Geoffrey Winder

Isaiah Wilson

Jafari Sinclaire Allen

James Lester

Jonathan

Jonathan Jacob Moore

Justin Smith

Kali Lindsey

Keith R. Green

Kenneth LeBlue

Kenneth Moore

Kenneth Pass

Kenyon Farrow

Kevin Q. Ewing

Leo Moore

Marco M. Brown

Marquez Rhyne

Martez Smith

Mathew Rodriguez

Matthew Rose

Max Smith

Michael Blair Franklin Jr.

Michael C. Webb, Jr.

Michael Everett

Michael J. Brewer

Michael Tikili

PrestonMitchum

Raul Posas

Raymond Thomas

Reggie Dunbar II

Rev. Bertram Johnosn

Ricardo D. Wynn

Robert W. Williams, III

Ronald G. Murray,MPA, LSW

S.Wakefield

Stephaun E. Wallace

Steven G Fullwood

Tabias Wilson

Terence Pleasant McCune

Tyrell manning

Tyrone Hanley

For more info, contact: freeblackgaymen@gmail.com

Resources:

http://www.hivlawandpolicy.org/initiatives/positive-justice-project

http://www.amfar.org/heavy-impact-of-hiv-aids-on-black-gay-men-us/

http://thecounternarrative.org/2015/05/07/an-open-letter-to-michael-johnson/