Occupy AIDS: ACT UP Celebrates 25 Years by Marching On Wall Street
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Cruel ironies abound in the AIDS epidemic, not the least of which is its historical timing. The first cases of a baffling new disease began striking gay men on both coasts in 1981 -- three years after the assassination of Harvey Milk, 13 years after the Stonewall riots and one year into the “Reagan Revolution,” a conservative backlash against free love, protest and joyful experimentation in music, politics, gender, drugs, design, and thought. Greed had become good again, to borrow a phrase from Wall Street ’s Gordon Gekko.
A more perfect storm cannot be imagined. The main affected group, gay men (along with people of color and intravenous drug users), was already marginalized, kept in the shadows by the new administration and society at large. This new disease, nameless for the time being, was inevitably deadly; no treatment was known, and its cause -- the underlying Human Immunodeficiency Virus -- wasn’t even conclusively identified until 1984. As the deaths cascaded from a trickle into a flood, Washington remained silent, turning grief first into despair, then rage.
“Over and over, these men cry out against the weight of so many losses -- not just a lover dead, but friends and friends of friends, dozens of them, until it seems that AIDS is all there is and all there ever will be.” – Jane Gross
That rage boiled over in March of 1987 in New York City -- ground zero of the AIDS epidemic in the United States and the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement. At a raucous meeting held at the LGBT Center, hundreds of activists agreed that the time for direct action had come. The result was ACT UP.
It’s difficult to be patient when your life is crumbling away from under you. That lack of patience fueled a frontal assault against the institutions that governed amidst -- and/or profited from -- the crisis: the White House, Wall Street, New York City Hall, the Food and Drug Administration, Albany, the media, pharmaceutical companies. Susan Sontag said, perceptively, that “AIDS is more than a disease; it’s a metaphor” -- for the callousness of a society perfectly content to let those on its margins suffer. It is only when this suffering is no longer silent that things begin to change.
In the years to come, as ACT UP expanded nationally and beyond, that is precisely what happened. Drug approval protocols were drastically revised and speeded up. The FDA was occupied, and the trading floor of the NYSE shut down for the first time in history. Activists penetrated the grounds of the White House, scattering ashes on the lawn. Drug trials were opened to women and people of color. New York City schools began distributing condoms and safer-sex materials to students.
As his party’s 1992 presidential nominee, Bill Clinton invited people with HIV and AIDS to address the Democratic National Convention. In stunning, intensely memorable graphics, some of which have since found their way into private collections and public museums, those people in the shadows crafted a message that could not be ignored.
The face of the AIDS epidemic in 2012 has changed beyond recognition from the dark days of 1987. There is still, obviously, no cure; but there are treatments that work, research that is being done, institutions that serve the 1.2 million affected Americans, and at the national level, something unprecedented, a National AIDS Strategy.
The high point of ACT UP’s in-your-face style may have been the Day of Desperation on January 23, 1991.
This action, designed to target every aspect of City life, demands that everyone realize that every day is a day of desperation for those in the AIDS community. Day of Desperation begins when activists invaded PBS and CBS Evening News broadcasts on the night of the 22nd. On the 23rd a morning demo begins on Wall St. and more than 2000 protesters marched with coffins that were delivered to City, State & Federal officials responsible for perpetuating the AIDS epidemic. An action at the State Office building in Harlem demands an end to the City homeless shelter system. The housing Committee joins Stand Up Harlem, Emmaus House and various Harlem religious leaders in protesting the lack of housing and services for people with HIV. The march goes down Martin Luther King Blvd. to the State office Bldg, carrying coffins with a demonstration at the plaza. Several people are arrested. The Latino/a Caucus invaded the Bronx Borough President's office; the Alternative and Holistic Committee videotapes Dr. Emilio Carillos as he promises to add immuno-enhancing nutritional programs and acupuncture to City hospitals. At 5:07 pm, Grand Central Station was the setting for a spectacular and massive act of civil disobedience as ACT UP took over the station. A banner announcing "One AIDS Death Every Eight Minutes" was hung over the arrivals board. 263 people are later arrested as the group attempted to march to the United Nations. [Spelling as in original]