By almost any measure, one of the most important victories in the war on AIDS was the series of AIDS drug trials conducted in New York in the 1990s. Countless patients, many of them HIV-positive children, received a new lease on life from the experimental drugs. There was, however, one grievous side-effect: the trials infected the political far-Left with a malicious strain of conspiracy theory. The result is an ongoing campaign to discredit the trials as a sadistic, racist endeavor to poison or otherwise experiment on healthy minority children.
The campaign is predicated on the work of Liam Scheff, a self-described “very independent journalist” who won plaudits from the radical Left for his scurrilous attacks on George W. Bush during the “stolen” 2000 presidential elections (his word). Arguably Scheff’s most notorious screed was a January 2004 article called “The House that AIDS Built,” which appeared on the radical website Indymedia.org. In it, he alleged that doctors conducting the AIDS drug trials “brutally experimented on foster children, most of them Black, Latino, or poor” and “poisoned them with toxic drugs, sometimes against their parents’ will and without even being certain that they were sick.” Scheff also claimed that Incarnation Children’s Center, a charitable house run jointly by Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and the Archdiocese of New York, had in certain cases force-fed the children drugs “known to cause genetic mutation, organ failure, bone marrow death, bodily deformations, and fatal skin disorders.”
Curiously, despite such supposedly explosive findings, Scheff failed to find a reputable publisher for his story. Indeed, he posted the story on the web, because, in his own words, “I couldn’t get anyone to touch it.” This should not be surprising: There is not a shred of hard evidence to support his claims.
Even the New York Times dismissed Scheff’s claims out of hand: “[The controversy stems] from a single account of abuse allegations—given by a single writer about people not identified by real names, backed up with no documentation as supporting proof, and put out on the Internet in early 2004 after the author was unable to get the story published anywhere else.” There is, according to the Times, “little evidence that the trials were anything but a success.”
The utter inability to substantiate the story did not deter Indymedia.org from publishing Scheff’s piece. Indymedia is a front for the Independent Media Center, a self-described “network of collectively run media outlets for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of the truth.” Founded to provide radicals a venue to justify the violence done, havoc wreaked, and damage inflicted during the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, Indymedia.org does not attempt to guarantee the veracity of the stories published on its site. Rather, in response to questions concerning the site’s accuracy and reliability, the Independent Media Center warns readers, “All reporters have their own biases: governments and massive for-profit corporations that own media entities have their own biases as well, and often impose their views on their reporters.” Given such minimal editorial standards, it comes as no surprise that Scheff’s story found a home on Indymedia.org.
Yet the truth about the New York City AIDS drug trials is not difficult to come by. Here are the plain facts: In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, AIDS claimed the lives of hundreds of children, 50 percent of whom would die before their fifth birthday. As the Times reported:
There were no AIDS drugs approved for children in those years. The first AIDS drug, AZT, was approved for adults in 1987. Babies were being abandoned in hospitals. According to Dr. William Borkowsky, a pediatrician at Bellevue Hospital Center, “People were clamoring, begging for access to any drug,” but the available drugs had only been approved for adult testing, and many of the patients were foster children. Doctors therefore sought and obtained permission to “include foster children in what they regarded as promising drug trials.”
Incarnation Children’s Center, a boarding home for HIV-infected foster children, was chosen as a trial site. As a direct result of the trials, by the year 2000, “the number of children under 20 who died of AIDS in the city that year dropped to 13.” All told, for 14 years, 90 percent of all HIV-infected children in the city, not just those in foster care, participated in the trials, according to estimates by the Child Welfare Administration. Fewer and fewer children became sick, and many of those in foster care were eventually adopted.
Despite the well-documented success of the trials, the demagogues in New York’s black community, desperate to divide the city among racial lines, have seized on Scheff’s indefensible assertions to attack whites. Take Omowale Clay, a leader of the so-called December 12th Movement, an organization that campaigns for slavery reparations. Clay claims to have investigated the charges against Incarnation Center and Columbia Presbyterian and found evidence that “trials were done on black infants who did not even have HIV.” Clay has alleged that racism alone accounts for the existence of the trials, stating, “What we know already is that 98 percent of the children experimented on were black and Latino and that the fundamental basis of why they chose those kids was racism. They have the arrogance to say it was for their own good, but we know it was racism.”
Notably, however, Clay disregards some key facts: African-Americans, who comprise only 12 percent of the population, have accounted for 40 percent of the AIDS cases diagnosed since the epidemic began; a large percentage of the infants diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s were minorities; and the Center for Disease Control has stated that “African Americans are more likely to face challenges associated with risk for HIV infection, including the following: partners at risk, sexually transmitted diseases, and denial.” If minorities made up the majority of the drug trial patients, it was because they were empirically the most at-risk for AIDS infection. Moreover, the city officials who approved and oversaw the trials, including then-mayor David Dinkins and Commissioner of Social Services Barbara Sabol, were black.
All the same, the conspiracy theory that the drug trials were orchestrated by white racists has found its champions. Clay, unable to recognize the realities of the AIDS crisis, has taken his message to “churches, public gatherings, and private meetings”; he has even managed to persuade one-time Black Panther and New York City Councilman Charles Barron and fellow councilman Bill Perkins to call for City Council hearings on the drug trials. Barron has planted his standard solidly in the radical camp on many occasions, most recently by his consistent and vocal support for cop-killer Assata Shakur. In May 2005, he introduced a resolution to offer clemency to Shakur, a woman he praised as a “social justice advocate, a poet, a mother, and a grandmother.” Clay has been linked to potentially violent domestic organizations by the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT), including the now defunct “New Afrikan freedom fighters,” an “anti-capitalist organization which announced a commitment to secede and form a black state, by force, if necessary.” A police raid in 1984 brought the “freedom fighters” to justice. At trial, the group, known collectively as the New York Eight, was charged with conspiring to free Kuwasi Balagoon (convicted of robbery and murder for his role in the Nyack Brinks Truck Robbery of 1981) and Sekou Odinga (convicted, among other things, on 6 counts of attempted murder of police officers). During the trial, prosecutors described the Eight as a “highly organized, dedicated cell of armed bandits.” Clay and his accomplices avoided the conspiracy charges but were convicted of weapons violations.
In the drug trials 1990s, unreconstructed black radicals like Clay and Barron have once more found a cause they can rally around. Indeed, they have reprised many of their onetime methods. Rather than grapple with the success of the AIDS trials, these prefer to inspire fear, instill hatred, and polarize the body politic. Rather than confront members of “at-risk” communities with the hard facts of HIV/AIDS, those leaders prefer the political expedient of blaming traditional adversaries, in this case, whites.
The effort to rewrite the history of New York’s AIDS trials should be seen as yet another episode in the long history of radical black leadership’s attempts to exploit the AIDS epidemic to grab headlines and exacerbate racial tensions. So long as these leaders can manufacture successive crises in the minds of their constituents, they can maintain their vice grip over the black community's political activism. For the people they've managed to scare silly, the success of the New York drug trials has proven no cure. These demagogues may be literally killing their constituents in the name of their twisted agenda.