March 6, 2001

Demonstration at Bayer plant in Berkeley/USA

Thousands protest AIDS suit

As part of an international day of action Monday, more than two hundred Bay Area residents protested in front of Bayer Corp.'s Berkeley plant, blasting its involvement in a lawsuit that may keep South Africans from getting cheap AIDS medication.

Some carried picket signs that read "Stop Medical Apartheid." Others wore white T-shirts demanding that Bayer be stopped from "committing mass murder." One man held up a sign with "Capitalist predators must die" written in bright red. But despite 38 arrests, the demonstration, led by the East Bay branch of ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), remained peaceful.

The demonstration was part of an international effort to pressure drug makers to withdraw the joint suit they filed in 1998 against the South African government, accusing it of patent infringement.

In the eye of the storm is a law signed by Nelson Mandela in 1997 that allows South Africa's health minister to override patent protections to create generic AIDS drugs. The 42 drug companies, whose lawyers began making their opening arguments Monday in the Pretoria High Court, argue that the law, which has never been implemented, would ignore patent rights and prevent them from recouping the high cost of the research that goes into creating drugs.

But South African officials and AIDS activists counter that many South Africans who cannot afford expensive AIDS treatment will die if not allowed access to cheap versions of AIDS medications.

"I'm against large companies using poor people to make profits," said Margaret McNabb, an unemployed social worker in Berkeley.

Protesters in Berkeley painted an unbecoming portrait of greedy corporations ready to sacrifice the lives of the poor to their profit-making machines. "What they're doing is murderous," said Marla Ruzicka, an organizing member with ACT UP, an AIDS activist group, and Global Exchange, a human rights initiative.

Maudelle Shirek, 89, was the first of 38 demonstrators, including a father-daughter duo, arrested for trespassing on Bayer's private property. Amid cheers from fellow protesters, Shirek was escorted by Berkeley police spokesman Bobby Miller to a table where one of three officers calmly noted down her name and address before letting her go. Shirek, who is vice mayor of Berkeley, says she feels strongly about South Africa's right to pursue affordable AIDS treatment for its people. "I'm here for justice and health care in South Africa," she said.

When about a dozen protesters staged a sit-in at the entrance of the Bayer parking lot, officers calmly announced that anyone found inside company gates would be arrested for trespassing.

Capt. Miller said that since the protesters weren't hurting anyone or anything, the 20 police officers overseeing the event felt no need to manhandle anyone. "We understand that it was going to be low-key and they wanted to make a statement by being arrested.
San Francisco Examiner, By Zoe Mezin