ACT UP’s struggle against power


The AIDS Holocaust took place from 1985-1995, and it saw the loss of many gay men who had spearheaded Stonewall and launched the gay liberation movement. But many continued with a new fight. Remembering that history will remind us of a time when gay men, together with lesbians and straight supporters, organized and led a militant struggle against some of the most powerful institutions of this nation.

In the early 1980s, young healthy gay men were dying and no one knew the cause of the epidemic. There was no treatment and certainly no cure. And no one cared. The government remained silent. It became the disease that dared not say its name—though sometimes labeled “the gay disease” in the media. The gay community was left to care for its own.

There was a community-based non-profit in New York City called Gay Men’s Health Crisis. But it proved to be ineffectual, and in 1987, the group’s founder, Larry Kramer, resigned from the board of directors. By that time, some 10,000 gay men in New York City had been diagnosed with AIDS, and half of them had died. Kramer said, “We have sat back and let ourselves be knocked off man by man without fighting back. … This is more than denial; it is a death wish.”

Soon after that speech, “Silence=Death” signs appeared on walls and scaffolding all over Lower Manhattan. In a couple of weeks at the first meeting 300 people met to form ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power).

Larry Kramer described the structure of the new group as “democratic to a fault.” Greg Bordowitz, an early member, said, “This is how grassroots, democratic politics works. You convince people of the validity of your ideas. You have to go out there and convince people.” There were committees and a coordinating committee that brought ideas to the floor. But any motion could be brought to a vote at any time.

It was to be in-your-face activism. Facing deaths in the thousands and a criminally indifferent government policy, they turned their anger, fear, and grief into action. They were fighting an enemy that seemed unbeatable, and they made activism a vital part of the gay movement.

The organizing focus was on the health insurance industry, pharmaceutical companies, Wall Street, National Institutes Of Health (NIH), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Catholic Church. Their demands started with a greater access to experimental AIDS drugs and a coordinated national policy to fight AIDS. The main slogans were: Fight Back—Fight AIDS! Silence=Death! Drugs Into Bodies!

The first action of the newly formed organization took place on March 24, 1987, and it was at the center of financial power—Wall Street. There were 250 protesters, and 17 were arrested. To prepare the press for this action, a day earlier Larry Kramer had an opinion piece printed in The New York Times, entitled, “The FDA’s Callous Response To AIDS.” He wrote that “the release of [the drug] AZT is just a sop to the gay community.” On March 24 one year later, there was another march, and more than 100 gay men were arrested.

Closing down the FDA

The next major action involved mixing in with crowds of people who were filing their tax returns. This was the beginning of ACT UP joining with the Silence=Death Project. It introduced what became the iconic symbol—a pink triangle on a black background.

The most successful action of the first two years was shutting down the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Rockville, Md., on Oct. 11, 1988. ACT UP joined other groups of gay men and lesbians and their supporters from around the country in building what was one of the largest U.S. demonstrations since the war in Vietnam. Many gay men had been active in that fight, and the slogan of the day echoed those mass demonstrations: “Hey, Hey, FDA. How many people have you killed today?”

Protesters blocked doors and walkways, and pasted posters on the walls of the building, chanting, “We’ll never be silent again!” The roads that workers took to get to work were blocked, and police turned them around and sent them home. The activists raised a banner, “Federal Death Administration.” Police officers wearing surgical gloves and helmets rounded up hundreds of protesters and put them in buses. But others blocked the buses for half an hour. This was all on the national news.

Demands included shortening the drug approval process, eliminating placebo drug trials, and compelling Medicaid and private insurance companies to pay for HIV-fighting drugs. This was the beginning of the national awareness of ACT UP and AIDS activism. They got their attention with the actions and then started the education component.

ACT UP members showed the press and the FDA that they had knowledge of every detail of the complex FDA approval process. Also, they prepared a well-organized campaign that showed the media how to communicate the treatment issues to the public. Before the siege of the FDA, they had prepared an FDA Action Handbook and conducted teach-ins for ACT UP activists so they would be prepared when they went on television and radio across the nation after their action at the FDA.

Afterwards, an ACT UP spokesperson talked of the success: “The success of the Seize Control Of The FDA can be best measured by what ensued in the year following the action. Government agencies dealing with AIDS, particularly the FDA and the NIH, began to listen to us in decision making, even to ask our input.”

On Sept.14, 1989, there were two separate actions by ACT UP activists who were protesting the high price of the only approved drug at the time, AZT. Seven activists invaded the New York Stock Exchange and chained themselves to the VIP balcony. They had dropped fake $100 bills onto the trading floor disrupting the opening bell for the first time in its history. They unfurled a banner directed at the stockbrokers, “Sell Wellcome.” This referred to the pharmaceutical sponsor of AZT, Burroughs Wellcome. The price had been set at $10,000 per patient per year for the drug.

There was also a noon rally of over 400 people outside the Stock Exchange. The protesters attacked companies who were profiteering from the AIDS epidemic and set off hundreds of fog horns, which echoed through the narrow streets of lower Manhattan. Several days later Burroughs Wellcome lowered the price of AZT to $6400.

Stop the Church

In New York City, Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor of the Roman Catholic Diocese took a public stand against safe sex education in the city’s public schools, railing against condom distribution and against homosexuality—as well as opposing abortion. This led to the Stop the Church protest on Dec. 10, 1989, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Over 5000 protesters were organized by ACT UP and Wham! (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization).

The protesters rallied outside the cathedral as mass was being celebrated inside. About 20 protesters broke away and went inside and interrupted the service, chanting slogans and lying down in the aisles. The demonstration was condemned by Mayor Koch and Governor Cuomo.

Some activists questioned the tactic of entering the church. In retrospect, ACT UP activists said, “The St. Patrick’s protest was seminal and changed the way many saw the Catholic Church. It was no longer untouchable.”

Jim Hubbard, an ACT UP member and maker of the documentary “United In Anger,” said, “I wasn’t clear about going inside the church, at the time. But now I think that the shock of going inside and confronting the Cardinal really worked. It brought ACT UP to national attention. It brought the crisis to a point where the government and the mainstream media really had to start dealing with it.”

Day Of Desperation

On Jan. 22,1991, during “Operation Desert Storm,O gay men entered the studio of CBS Evening News at the beginning of the broadcast. They shouted, “AIDS Is News, Fight AIDS Not Arabs.” The same night ACT UP also protested at the studios of the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. The next day, banners at Grand Central Station Terminal said, “Money For AIDS, Not For War” and “One AIDS Death Every 8 Minutes.”

ACT UP chapters were built around the country and internationally. The large San Francisco chapter was particularly active in building mass protests, “die-ins,” and marches. A demonstration was called outside the International AIDS Conference in San Francisco on June 22, 1990.

Many women took part in the action, which aimed to draw attention to the fact that AIDS was not just a men’s disease; women were also affected. However, since the disease often manifested itself differently among women, the symptoms were not always recognized as coming from AIDS, which caused women to be denied the Social Security benefits that men had won. The protesters also highlighted the AIDS epidemic among people of color and intravenous drug users—issues that they felt had not been sufficiently addressed.

This movement revolutionized everything, from the way drugs are researched to the way doctors interact with patients. They catalyzed development of drugs that since 1996 have helped patients live a near normal lifespan. They redrew the blueprint for activism in a new media world. They were relentless in their struggle.

The gay men and lesbians in ACT UP had confidence that a militant movement of struggle was the way change would happen because they had seen it in the last 20 years. Many of them had spearheaded the Stonewall Uprising. Before that they had joined millions in the streets building an antiwar movement that became massive.

A large number of gays and lesbians who were at the Stonewall Inn Uprising were homeless youth who kept the protests going for five more nights. Eventually, the uprising morphed into stable organizations like the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. This was the background of struggle that created ACT UP.

Mass struggle cannot arise out of academic theory with no background of solidarity or militancy. An LGBTQ movement stuck in neoliberal thought will have to find a way out of the bubble. Solidarity does not result from merely learning to accept our diversity, but from the political recognition that our futures are tied together.

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