Demonstrators briefly occupied the office of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in the Rayburn House Office Building recently, resulting in the arrest of seven individuals. These activists, including one individual wearing a shirt featuring the phrase “HIV Positive” in colorful lettering, aimed to persuade the congressman to advocate for the approval of a funding bill that would allocate resources to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
Since its inception in 2003, PEPFAR has been at the forefront of combating the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. However, apprehensions among conservatives about potential funding for abortions have sparked concerns about the program’s continuation.
On Monday, September 11, demonstrators forcefully entered the legislator’s office, echoing the chant, “Pass PEPFAR now, McCarthy!” They formed a human chain as they seated themselves on the office floor and remained resolute, despite security personnel’s admonitions that they would be apprehended if they persisted. Subsequently, Capitol Police took into custody four men and three women, charging them with unlawful entry. Among those arrested were Charles King, the CEO of Housing Works, and Asia Russell, the Executive Director of HealthGap.
PEPFAR, conceived during George W. Bush’s administration, channels U.S. taxpayer funds towards the battle against HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. This initiative extends its reach to over 50 nations and has been credited with saving approximately 25 million lives globally. It operates continuously without the need for periodic congressional authorization, although lawmakers retain the authority to decide whether to continue allocating funds.
By September 30, Congress faces a critical decision on whether to allocate additional resources to PEPFAR. Republicans have expressed reservations, citing concerns that as much as $7 million from the program’s funds could potentially support providers offering abortion services. The House must finalize its budget before the month’s end, and if an agreement is not reached, it could result in a partial government shutdown.
Certain conservatives are drawing parallels between the seven protesters and the individuals involved in the January 6th insurrection, raising doubts about whether these peaceful demonstrators should potentially face extended prison sentences for their occupation of a House official’s office.