City Lit: Spreading Infection

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Nushawn williams apparently thinks of himself as a small-town version of the hip hop martyr Tupac Shakur, whose violent but tender “thug life” anthems made him an icon of social pariahs. Williams has penned his own conflicted odes to street life from an upstate prison. He’s serving up to 12 years after being accused–in the courts and the media–of passing the AIDS virus to 13 girls he bedded without telling them he was HIV positive. In one song, Williams imparts consciousness to a gang banger’s gun: It refuses to shoot because it’s tired of being used to kill black people. (Despite the gun’s good intentions, its black owner gets shot by a “newer me in better shape.”)

These are deep thoughts for a “boogeyman incarnate,” as USA Today called Williams during the media frenzy surrounding his trial. Monikers like boogeyman are in fact what separate Williams from the world’s Tupacs. While fratricidal ghetto thugs may be considered vile, they still exist in the human realm. Not Williams. His crimes moved him into the fantasy world of sub-humans that we conjure when groping to explain seemingly inexplicable threats. He’s a “devil,” a “one-man plague” with “no regard for human life”–a “monster.”

Ithaca College professor Thomas Shevory developed a close relationship with Williams based on prison correspondence. In Notorious HIV, a scattered but well-considered reexamination of the case, Shevory aims to convince us the guy is no beast. He lays out simple facts that got lost in the panic after public health officials publicized Williams’ name and photo, and urged anyone who had slept with him, or slept with anyone who slept with him, to rush in for an HIV test.

Williams was a 20-year-old, black Brooklynite who had relocated to economically depresssed, largely white Jamestown to exploit its wide-open crack market. He still commuted to New York City, and once, while in jail there on an auto theft charge, he tested HIV positive. Following the test, he readily gave health workers the names of the 20 or so women around the state whom he’d been with recently. As is routine, case workers tracked the women down over the course of a year, and four in Jamestown tested positive. Meanwhile, Williams was back in that town, and six women–whom he hadn’t named–tested positive when they went for exams without having been summoned by government workers. County health officials noticed that these women included Williams in their partner-notification lists. They declared an emergency, had confidentiality laws waived and put up posters.

The monster invaded the town square as the rhetoric of local health officials, statewide law enforcement and national media quickly outpaced reality. The public count of Williams’ alleged victims shot up to 100. Riffing on the media’s earlier labeling of ghetto youths as “super predators,” Ted Koppel called him a “super transmitter.” State legislatures around the country weighed new laws to criminalize “knowing” HIV transmission. Several such statutes didn’t even require the virus to have been passed to another person. (New York’s version never passed.)

When the dust settled, 13 people who’d slept with Williams tested positive. But they’d also slept with other people, including drug mainliners–and some, themselves, shot up. Further, Shevory argues that prosecutors never proved that Williams was aware he was putting his partners at risk. Though he still denies he’d been notified he was positive before he had the sex, there’s little doubt that he did know. Even so, it seems clear Williams denied his HIV status to himself. After all, he looked and felt healthy. So–as countless people who are living with HIV do–he went on with life as though he’d never gotten the bad news. Poignantly, one of the women who contracted the virus from Williams later gave birth to an HIV-positive baby–the result of her own denial of the need to stick with a drug regimen that would have kept the child negative.

All these public health issues aside, Shevory’s work is most interesting in its examination of how we make monsters. The Tupacs of the world are mere menaces, but Williams was a beast because he crossed boundaries–big city to small town, black to white. In so doing he became a Xanax prescription for America’s unease about the troubles its once-idyllic towns face as the industries that supported them close down or flee to other countries. For Ted Koppel and for the average Joe of Jamestown, the question du jour was, How could this happen here, in a place like this? Williams offered an easy answer: A diseased black monster imported everything from downstate.

The monster was particularly vicious, says Shevory, because he was living out a perverse version of the Jeffersonian dream, which America fantasizes still reigns in its little towns. Williams had moved to the boonies to launch a small business founded on close, local connections. But instead of growing crops or bottling maple syrup, he sold crack. He was a postindustrial yeoman.

So OK, he wasn’t a monster. Nonetheless, the story’s end was heinous: more than a dozen people infected with an incurable and deadly disease, Williams included. Yet the entire, horrific scenario could have been prevented if he’d been seen from the get-go as a human being. Had he been linked with good counseling after testing positive in custody, he might have re-entered society on more stable footing. Had the young women he slept with received more than one sex education class a year in Jamestown’s high schools, they may have used condoms.

And if we would stop conjuring goblins to explain the evil we do to ourselves, we might come up with a way to slow HIV’s spread–in rural and urban America.