version for printing


By John Spritzler
September 14, 2002

Bill Gates was the keynote speaker in Seattle February 24 at the largest meeting in the United States of AIDS physicians and medical researchers. As a biostatistician doing AIDS research, I attended the conference. I also wrote the leaflet printed below and passed it out to people as they entered the large ballroom where Gates was to deliver his speech. After I had passed out 400 leaflets in ten minutes, two security guards suddenly grabbed me, pulled me out of the ballroom and, acting on instructions from the conference Planning Committee, took away my credentials badge and barred me from the rest of the four day meeting.

The next morning I asked for my badge back and was told it would not be returned. I decided to plant myself at a table in a part of the convention hall open to the public and tell everybody I recognized who came by what had happened. Many literally could not believe it at first. People were furious. One doctor said, "Not only is this a violation of free speech, but I agree with the leaflet!" Several went to talk to scientists on the Planning Committee to express their outrage.

By noon twenty-three people (everybody I knew personally and had asked) told me they would sign a letter to the Chair of the conference demanding a public apology. At one o'clock five physicians and a fellow biostatistician were sitting around my table, discussing not only their anger at what happened to me, but sharing stories about what's happened in the US since 9/11. One doctor said 9/11 reminded him of the burning of the Reichstag an event staged by the Nazis to justify suppressing the civil rights of ordinary Germans.

Another doctor said he once car-pooled with a CEO of a big company who during the ride one day said, "Today I'm going to really stick it to the workers" by diverting the profits from their "profit-sharing" part of the company to another part of the company. Another doctor told a similar story and then, in mid-sentence, said, "Oh, my god, I can't believe I'm agreeing with your radical leaflet!" Then another doctor at the table said, "We've got to get you back inside today."

The doctors decided to find the Chair of the Planning Committee and tell her I should be re-admitted, and went off to do just that. Two hours later a conference official found me and handed me back my badge, saying "The Planning Committee changed their mind."

I wore that badge for the rest of the conference with a big grin on my face and every time I met anybody I knew I told them the story. A doctor from California said, "Wow! This is the most exciting thing I've been involved in since I was a student at Berkeley in the 60's." He added, "Gee John, I didn't know you were such a Marxist." I said "I'm not. Communism is terrible too." He said, "Well that's a new one for me, somebody who's anti-capitalist and anti-communist." The next day I met two doctors from NYC who said how much they liked the leaflet and that they wanted to be on my e-mail list in the future.

Doctors at this meeting demonstrated that they don't want their professional meetings to be used as platforms where people like Bill Gates can paint capitalist privilege and inequality as a benevolent force and not have to worry about anybody passing out a contrary leaflet. The doctors in Seattle showed that solidarity and a willingness to stand up for what they think is right can happen even among people who wear stethoscopes.



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