People With ME/CFS Protest in Front of Department of Health and Human Services Building

Posted by Cort Johnson

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ME/CFS Demo May 10, 2011 — Dept of Health and Human Services, Washington DC
Contact: Rivka (at) ThatTakesOvaries (dot) org

On May 10, 2011, 6 individuals with ME/CFS, each sick and disabled from 9 to 21 years, demonstrated in front of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 200 Independence Ave, S.W., Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. They carried with them just one sign, a 25 foot banner that read:

“Obama, Sebelius, HHS: Shame on you for abandoning 1 million sick and disabled Americans with ME/CFS and XMRV (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and a newly discovered retrovirus). Clinical trials now!”

The representatives from the ME/CFS community were Kitty Lorenz, Karen Ravitz, Sharon Stapleton, Kat Stephens, a patient from New England, and the demo organizer, Rivka Solomon. They ranged from 21 to 70 years old and came from Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas and Pennsylvania.

Around 2:15 pm, the demonstrators unfurled their banner in front of HHS’s imposingly large building. They stood by the side of the street, thinking they were on what must constitute the public sidewalk, where, in most cases, people are allowed to partake in their civil rights to protest without arrest. However, it was hard to tell where the sidewalk was, given the design and layout of HHS’s plaza. But it was a good guess, as the very traffic-y and thus noisy street, Independence Ave, was just a few steps behind the protesters.

They choose not to position themselves across the street, on the opposite side of Independence Ave. By choosing to stay on the same side of the street as the HHS building itself, they knew they were taking more of a risk, since this would attract more police attention. The police that circulate around the vicinity of HHS include the Capitol Hill Police, the Washington DC Metropolitan Police, Homeland Security and of course the security for HHS itself. (Just before they started their protest, a cluster of 12+ cops were seen across the street. Later it was learned they were there for *another* nearby demonstration regarding abortion).

The ME/CFS demonstrators began filming themselves holding the banner and reading aloud a statement focusing on the plight of people living with ME/CFS. The statement included demands — next steps they hoped the government would take. (Statement text found below.)

Within seconds, HHS Security came out of the building. At their peak, there were 7 members of HHS Security standing around watching the protest — but they never approached the demonstrators. Instead they stood back about 50 feet, allowed the proceedings to continue until the protesters deemed their work done (i.e. the shooting of the video), a total of about 15 minutes.

After the shooting, the demo organizer, Rivka, walked up to the first tier of HHS Security, the men who had been closest, to thank them for allowing the protest and videotaping to go on uninterrupted. The one plain clothed security official present in that tier (apparently plain clothed equals higher up in authority) grumbled something, and then he and all the other (uniformed) men pointed behind them to two women standing further away. Assuming they were the bosses, Rivka approached the two women and thanked them, too. One was a security officer in uniform, the other was plain clothed, and it was she who was head of security for HHS. The conversation went something like this:

Rivka: Thank you for letting us to protest here.

Head of HHS Security: (grumbling, shaking head, angry)

Rivka: It was legal, right? We were on the sidewalk.

Head of HHS Security: No. No —

Rivka: (interrupting) But I spent last week calling the Capitol Hill Police, Washington DC Metropolitan Police and Homeland Security, trying to find out who has jurisdiction over the sidewalk in front of HHS —

Head of HHS Security: (talking at the same time) No. No. No. We have jurisdiction.

Rivka: (interrupting) And I talked to Commander xxxx from Homeland Security — did he call you and tell you about us?

Head of HHS Security: No, he did not call.

Rivka: He said he would…? Or I thought he said he’d let everyone know. I mean, uuuh, are you head of HHS Security? He told me your name (drawing a blank) —

Head of HHS Security: Yes, I am xxxx xxxx.

Rivka: (nervous, but realizing that actions speak louder than words, and they *had* allowed the demo to take place) — and Homeland Security Commander xxxx said the Washington DC Metropolitan Police had jurisdiction over the sidewalk, but that we’d —

Head of HHS Security: (angry, shaking head) No, if you had been on the other side of Independence Ave, that would have been legal.

Rivka: — that we’d be fine protesting on the sidewalk as long as we did not do anything too outrageous.

Head of HHS Security: Not here. You need a permit here.

Rivka: Oh. Well, we really appreciate it. We came from very far away —

Head of HHS Security: (still shaking her head, but maybe, slightly, warming a bit?) I know.

Rivka: — and we’re very sick. Will pay a price for doing this demonstration. Could be bedridden a long time after this…

Head of HHS Security: I know, we had to put out cots for those at the meeting. [She meant CFSAC, happening inside HHS that day.]

Rivka: Right. Exactly. Well, uh, thank you again, we appreciate it.

It was clear she had cut us some slack by allowing us to demonstrate uninterrupted and without a permit. Rivka walked back to the protesters packing up, then did an about-face and returned to hand the Head of HHS Security the protesters’ informational one-pager (same as what was spoken into the video), asking her to give a copy to Sebelius, and adding, “Could you please tell Secretary Sebelius that this happened, that we were here today?”

“Oh, she’ll be hearing all about this, all right.”


Goal #1 Mission Accomplished: Put Sebelius on notice that she is being impatiently watched by patients and their families. After years of her ignoring the CFSAC recommendations, after her refusals to meet with representatives from the ME/CFS community, she will now most definitely hear (from the head of her own security team) that we exist, that we were on her home turf, unfurling a 25 foot banner, demanding attention, respect, action.

Goal #2 of this demo: Inspire ME/CFS patients to make their voices heard in mini protests everywhere; to not wait for that elusive big demo to be organized by someone else, but to instead (for those who are able) get out in public and just do their own mini-demos around the U.S. and globe. Goal #2 will be accomplished, hopefully, by folks viewing this video of the HHS May 10th demo:

A hearty “Thank you, you were amazing,” to the HHS protesters. They were brave, ready for action, fun and quite photogenic individuals who signed on just days before, or the day of, the demo. At least 3 of the 5 are MCWPA volunteers.

A special thank you to Robert, a wonderful demo-collaborator who knows how to make a great banner

(banner-making video: )

The biggest thank you, however, is reserved for those who will take the next step, those who will hold their own mini-demos. It does make a difference, and it will have an impact. In the U.S., there are plenty of places to demonstrate:

– 10 HHS regional offices ( in Boston, MA; New York; Philadelphia, PA; Atlanta, GA; Chicago, IL; Dallas, TX; Kansas City, KS; Denver, CO; San Francisco, CA; Seattle, WA.
– 10 CDC satellite offices in Anchorage, AK; Cincinnati, OH; Fort Collins, CO; Hyattsville, MD; Morgantown, WV; Pittsburgh, PA; Research Triangle Park, NC; Puerto Rico; Spokane, WA; Washington, DC

Each of these sites is calling for a small group of 1 to 5+ ME/CFS patients and their families to stand in front, on the sidewalk, demanding to be heard — even for just 15 minutes. Each head of security of each site will be mandated to let their national headquarters know that there was a person there that day, holding a sign in front, protesting HHS/CDC’s policies on ME/CFS. Eventually, with enough mini-protests, this will impact policy.

If not you, who? If not now, when?

If anyone wants to use our already made banner for their demo, we’ll ship it to you.

== Organizer’s Costs Prepping for Demo (Money & Time) ==

  1. Bolt of cloth (40 feet): $38.56
  2. Red and black paint: $13.17
  3. Paint brushes: $7.99
  4. Popcorn for late night banner making: $3
  5. Flight to Washington DC: $169.80
  6. Taxi to Health and Human Services (HHS) demo: $31.10
  7. Return trip Metro card: $3.40
  8. Banner making: 2 wks.
  9. Calls inquiring which police has jurisdiction over the sidewalk at HHS: 6 hrs.
  10. Pitching to the media: 2 days. (Media that came: None).
  11. Trying to get a 5 minute meeting with HHS’s head of Public Affairs: 4 hours. (Minutes approved: None.)
  12. Writing script/statement for the video; also served as the handout for the press (that did not come): Half a day.
  13. Expected post-demo relapse (based on previous post-demo relapses): 6 wks in/near bed.
  14. Influencing the U.S. government’s ME/CFS policies and funding allocations: Priceless!

== Statement Read Aloud at Demo (and handed to HHS staff) ==
Why are we protesting at the Dept of Health and Human Services?
Advocating for people with ME/CFS — Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

o We are Americans who have spent much of the past 10-30 years bedridden and homebound with a severe disability that was given a belittling name by our government, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

o Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) is the full name of our illness.

o It is an “invisible disability”: We often look fine, but are severly disabled, many of us are unable to leave bed.

o This belitting name, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, sounds like we are “just tired” and thus it does not reflect the seriousness of our disease. But it certainly makes it easy for our government, medical community and media to dismiss and ignore those who suffer with it.

o However, if you have ME/CFS it is not easy to ignore. It stops your life. We lose our ability to work, attend school or have a social life. Many of us are bedridden and using wheelchairs. Some of us have died early from leukemia, other cancers or health complications.

o There are 1-4 million Americans with this illness –17 million people worldwide.

o ME/CFS drains $18 billion to $23 billion annually from the US economy.

o The US government, media and medical communities have delegitimized the illness and falsely psychologized patients.

o This has resulted in very little federal money spent on research to discover the cause, treatments or cure of this illness.

o Then, in 2009, there was a research breakthrough, and scientists found a retrovirus (called XMRV) linked to CFS. A retrovirus is a virus that never goes away (like HIV).

o Still, the FDA has not banned people with ME/CFS from donating blood (the Red Cross has).

o Today, we are here protesting to demand that Obama and Sebelius (Dept of HHS):

– Protect the nation’s blood supply: Ban peole with ME/CFS from donating blood.
– Fund research via Centers of Excellence just for this illness, including the Whittemore Peterson Institute (the lab that discovered XMRV’s link to CFS).
– Fund fast-track clinical trials for treatments, medications.
– Act on the recommendations of CFSAC (the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’s Advisory Committee). They have ignored these recommendations for years, while patients and their families suffer with a devastating illness.

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