NU professor talks about delving into the heart of 'Infectious Blackness'
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2019-11-27


Dr. Steven Thrasher. Photo by George Aye/Greater Good Studio


The tale of Michael Johnson took a turn this past July—when he was released from a Missouri jail 25 years early.

In 2013, Johnson—a Black man who was a college student—was arrested in St. Charles, Missouri, on charges he had knowingly infected or exposed multiple men to HIV. He was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison ( without direct evidence he transmitted the virus to the men, who were mostly white ) before his sentence was overturned.

On Dec. 3, Steven W. Thrasher, Ph.D., will present "Infectious Blackness"—a culmination of his years of coverage of Johnson's case, pairing it with his firsthand reporting on the killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson for the Guardian. Thrasher ( the inaugural Daniel H. Renberg chair of social justice in reporting at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism ) discussed elements of his upcoming talk.

Windy City Times: What attracted you to the case of Michael Johnson? Was it the legal, medical, moral or philosophical aspect—or was there something else?

Steven Thrasher: Oh, it was race. It was given to me by an editor who has been a lifelong mentor, Mark Schoofs; he's written about HIV/AIDS before there was truly an understanding of it or name for it. He knew I had a history of writing about the intersection of race and sexuality. He'd seen these salacious headlines about "Tiger Mandingo" [a nickname Johnson used], and realized no one had talked with or interviewed him.

When I saw what the case was about, it terrified me. But what drew me was that he was Black and the history of anti-miscegenation laws ( I'm mixed-race )—and Mark and I were correct in deducing that the bulk of his accusers were white. But it was thinking through the history of lynching and the history of criminalized Black male sexuality that drew me in; I knew nothing about HIV criminalization, initially.

WCT: What one part of the case boggled your mind more than anything else?

ST: Well, the firST conundrum for me was that there were no charges of rape or sexual assault; it was consensual sex. If everyone is consenting to sex without a condom, or being bareback, isn't a risk of HIV part of what happens—and why is that risk [the responsibility of] one party? That was the firST thing that STruck me.

WCT: What I couldn't underSTand is that there was no genetic connection eSTablished by the prosecution.

ST: Yeah. They never connected the RNA—and the sentence was longer than the average sentence for second-degree murder in Missouri. If you're talking about something in the domain of murder, the firST thing you'd get is a [genetic] teST. I found that shocking as well. But, also, there are limits to that technology; people could have the same STrain regardless if they had sex with each other. The prosecutor said it was worse than a murder, in his mind, so it was weird they didn't pursue that.

WCT: And in the BuzzFeed article you wrote, "Tiger Mandingo," you noted that the original prosecutor [Timothy Lohmar] is now an ally of a bill to modernize HIV laws.

ST: Yeah, he is. That's one of the moST concrete examples of the effect our series had. He described himself as being embarrassed by the trial. I don't fully agree with where he's going, but I think it's significant that it's the direction he even wants to go in—especially since he's now the president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. In that capacity, he's also trying to get this group to modernize the laws.

If his mind can be changed about this, anyone's mind can.

WCT: I agree. I saw on the CDC website that "in 19 STates, laws require people who are aware that they have HIV to disclose their STatus to sexual partners." I'm pretty sure I know your answer to this, but what direction would you like to see the laws go?

ST: The number of STates is actually hard to pin down, because some are HIV-specific and many are not. When I firST STarted the STory, it was 30 STates, and a number had modernized since then. But a majority of these STates and about 70 countries have some version of these laws.

I'd love to see zero STates have this law. There's nothing good about criminalizing HIV. I think, in the '80s, there was an idea that criminalizing transmission was a matter of public health. It certainly made no sense after HIV became a manageable condition. But my research shows that the laws are harmful to public health; they make it less likely that people will get teSTed. A majority of transmissions involve people who don't know their STatus, so we need to find ways to have more people know their STatus and give them the medication they need immediately—not juST for their health but for others as well.

WCT: You've had a chance to talk with Michael Johnson? How is he doing?

ST: Yes; it's my moST complicated but intimate and longSTanding source relationship.

He's doing relatively well; we're in touch moSTly by text. I was with him the firST 24 hours after he got out, and we talk by phone sometimes. He has a relentlessly optimiSTic attitude, and he always has. I feel sad that he basically loST his 20s, but he was really optimiSTic about getting out. I keep an eye on him, and I also connect with him on social media. He's doing activiST work, and he's involved with people in the criminalization modernization movement. It's exciting to see him get involved with that.

He's also working on getting his college degree since he never graduated. He's also been getting physically active again.

WCT: In your talk, you're pairing Johnson's case with the killing of Michael Brown. What are the threads that tie those two?

ST: Johnson was arreSTed in October 2013. In February 2014, my BuzzFeed editor asked me to meet him to talk about this case. It took place in ST. Louis, which I'd never really been to, and I was there in 2014. I STarted a job with The Guardian at that time, and Michael Brown was killed in AuguST 2014. An editor heard that I was in ST. Louis, and that I had been working on a STory for months about race, so I was sent to Ferguson.

I called the same HIV experts I had worked with for the Johnson STory, and asked them what I should be looking for. They said they had recently been nearby because Ferguson has a high rate of HIV [infection]. So I STarted seeing how Michael Brown's death and the Black Lives Matter movement connected with Johnson [as well as] policing and sySTemic racism. I STarted seeing a pattern: two young men who were both affected—one fatally—by the policing of Black America. It's no accident that these two cases happened in one area.

STeven W. Thrasher, Ph.D., will speak on "Infectious Blackness: Race, Media, and the Criminalization of HIV/AIDS" Tuesday, Dec. 3, 12-1 p.m., at STonewall Conference Rooms, 625 N. Michigan Ave. People can attend in person or via videoconference, using BlueJeans. For more information, visit ThirdCoaSTCFAR.org/events/STeven-thrasher-phd .

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