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AIDS Activists Protest at House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's Public Address

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor addressed the IOP's JFK Forum on Monday night.  His speech consisted of calls for increased education spending, but was interrupted when HIV/AIDS activists protested Cantor's decision not to fund a syringe exchange program.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor addressed the IOP's JFK Forum on Monday night. His speech consisted of calls for increased education spending, but was interrupted when HIV/AIDS activists protested Cantor's decision not to fund a syringe exchange program.
By Steven R. Watros, Crimson Staff Writer

House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor called for improvements to the American education system in an address at the Institute of Politics Monday evening.

“One of my priorities this Congress will be to move heaven and earth to fix our education system for the most vulnerable,” Cantor said, advocating for the charter school concept.

But the news of the night came as a protest staged by a campaign led by the Harvard College Global Health and AIDS Coalition interrupted Cantor’s appearance. After the group refused requests by Institute of Politics moderator C. M. Trey Grayson ’94 to return to their seats and cease their chorus of, “Lift the ban”, they were escorted out of the forum by security personnel.

Coalition members, who were not forcibly removed, primarily protested Cantor’s support for a two-year-old ban on federal funding of a needle exchange program that allows drug users to trade in dirty needles for new ones, thus preventing the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV.

When asked whether he would vote to lift the appropriations ban if it is brought back before Congress on March 27, Cantor said, “No, I won’t.”

To this, protesters replied, “Shame on you!” and began their chant of, “Lift the ban!”

The coalition was participating in a campaign with Harvard Medical School students and members of local AIDS awareness group ACTUP/Boston.

The protest launched when coalition member Darshali A. Vyas ’14 made the first statement of the post-speech discussion, asking fellow campaigners to stand up with her. After the delegation had risen, Vyas recounted Cantor’s last visit to the IOP, which the group also protested.

During that visit, Cantor stated that the government did not have the money to fund certain AIDS research and treatment funding.

Vyas said that after being escorted out, she and fellow demonstrators “chanted in front of the window until [HUPD] asked us to stop” and told them to move away from the Kennedy School’s Littauer Building.

Indoors, Cantor continued to participate in the question and answer session, remarking that “As far as the activists who just left, it wouldn’t be Harvard without that.”

Cantor’s address, which preceded the protest, focused primarily on federal spending cuts and the importance of medical advancements, something he said would be aided by improvements to the American education system.

Cantor also discussed the need to fix the higher education system, saying that this issue was at the center of his conversation with University President Drew G. Faust earlier Monday morning.

In addition to discussing general goals for the country during his speech, Cantor also stated his positions on a number of contentious political issues currently plaguing leaders in Washington. He stressed that mental health care reform deserves prominent attention in the gun control debate that has developed since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, pointing to Virginia’s response to the 2007 shooting at Virginia Technical University. After the shooting, the state mandated updates to its mental health databases, thus improving the gun-buyer background check system.

—Staff writer Steven R. Watros can be reached at watros@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @SteveWatros.

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