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Occupy AIDS: ACT UP Celebrates 25 Years by Marching On Wall Street

ACT UP developed a model of direct action that is in many ways a template for Occupy--so it's not surprising that they're joining OWS for a march on Wall Street.

By 1987, almost 10,000 New Yorkers had died of AIDS: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The vast majority of them were gay men, already ostracized by society, and despite the agony of the epidemic, ignored by all the power centers of society; the government, big business, and most certainly the Catholic Church. The national response veered between sheer panic and the idea of internment camps for the infected. A schoolyard taunt at the time – I remember hearing it quite well – was that "gay" was an acronym that stood for "got AIDS yet?"

It’s against this background that a group of men and women, gay and straight, in many cases either infected with the disease or already dying of it, decided to try something new. The result was ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, a direct action group that challenged both a conservative society and the norms of a gay community still quite comfortably in the closet. In the process, they developed a model of direct action that in many ways is a direct template for today’s Occupy Wall Street movement. The group is marking its 25th anniversary this week on April 25, fittingly with a march on Wall Street. I would argue that it is likely the single most successful activist group in modern American history: ACT UP changed the self-image of the LGBTQ community, fashioned the nation’s response to a devastating disease, and saved untold lives. How many, I suppose we will never know; except I’m pretty sure that mine is one of them.

But what is ACT UP, and why does it still matter after all this time? Is this history, or is it a road map? Decide for yourself.

One of ACT UP’s first targets was the Catholic Church, then as now quite comfortable placing its dogma -– contraception bad, homosexuality an affront to God, condoms out of the question -– over the needs of its own flock, let alone a public health crisis spiraling out of control. And while the church was perfectly willing to care for the sick, it was –- and is -– equally willing to lend its power and moral authority in support of the homophobia and misogyny that were enfeebling the public response to the epidemic in the first place. In short, as far as the AIDS epidemic was concerned, the church was very much a central part of the problem, and needed to be shaken out of its complacency.

In 1987, the head of the church in North America was His Eminence, John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York and prince of the Church of Rome.

And he probably had no idea of what was about to happen. It was Sunday, December 10, 1989, around 10 in the morning. Four thousand angry queers were cordoned off on one side of Fifth Avenue, safely contained behind barricades, their chanting not quite loud enough to penetrate the heavy bronze doors and thick walls of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Over the next few minutes, those queers fought their way across Fifth Avenue and stormed the cathedral, disrupting the Mass and igniting a firestorm, both inside the building and on front pages and newscasts around the world. It was the largest demonstration against the church up to that date in recorded history, an epochal event in the truest sense of the word.

AIDS activism -- and LGBTQ activism in general -- would never be the same again. “People were afraid of us! That’s what made us. Drug companies did what we wanted them to do because we had gone into Saint Patrick’s. We were no longer limp-wristed or effeminate, we were men in boots and jeans who would infiltrate a Mass,” said a visibly delighted Larry Kramer, who is as close to a founder as the anarchic-by-design organization has.

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