Since 1997, I have been directly engaged in grassroots struggles to end AIDS and abolish prisons. My organizing practice was developed in collaboration with my beloved mentor, John Horace Bell, and the myriad friends, chosen family, and movement comrades who taught me again and again that everything worthwhile is done with other people. I recorded some early reflections from my work in Philadelphia in the zine “Why Are You Here?: Challenging the Prison System, Challenging Ourselves” and have expanded on the histories I was part of making in the article “Our Relationships Carry The Movement,” which was published in the Radical History Review special issue, “The AIDS Crisis is not Over.”
Our work in Philly and all of my organizing since has challenged the intersections of HIV and mass criminalization by doing. By being with the people. By staying in the work. To say this is more than a simple nod to the core tenets of community organizing. Whatever stories we tell about the intents of the criminal legal system, mass criminalization as we know it today has been built through the disassemblage of entire communities. We learn how to decarcerate our communities by literally reassembling them. Through relationships of solidarity that were built in care, we worked to transform the social conditions for which prisons have been posited as the solution and, in so doing, to create together prison-free futures in real time.
That is why I argue that the radical HIV prison activist movement has always been, in practice, an abolitionist movement. Our decades of work unfold a three-part methodological toolkit for HIV prevention justice. First is harm reduction: literally showing up and providing relief, no questions asked, amid the immediate crisis of being diagnosed with HIV in prison. Second is mutual aid: creating deep communities of support through which formerly incarcerated people living with HIV can care for one another and build new social relations that are more survivable than those produced by HIV stigma, mass criminalization, and organized abandonment. Third is transformative justice: mobilizing together to challenge criminalization in all its intimate, communal, and structural forms, a task necessary to build a racially just and strategic HIV movement.
Each of these three methods is both a vision and a political strategy. They are how we refuse what is and grow the world that must be. They are how we dream with our eyes wide open. When we practice these methods, we walk strongly in the legacies of our HIV prison activist elders and ancestors. It is in this spirit that I carry forward and give freely to my people in New Orleans, Chicago, Tallahassee, and beyond the same spark that John passed to me so many years ago.