Occupy AIDS: ACT UP Celebrates 25 Years by Marching 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.

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]

Today, 25 years after a group of desperate people banded together in the West Village to change history, Americans of any persuasion, color or creed likely have a fresh understanding of what it means, what it feels like, to be pushed too far. And once again, we are facing a perfect storm -- of injustice, of casual cruelty, of a school of thought that holds that there are people who don’t matter. Today, we call them the 99 percent. Needless to say, there are dead bodies; there always are. To cynically paraphrase Matthew 26:11, the poor will always be with us -- as, seemingly, will be those who exploit them.

Maybe that is the lesson ACT UP holds for all of us today: that every generation of Americans is going to fight some version of the same battle. I don’t think it’s much of an accident that Occupy Wall Street is doing just that, or that it’s employing precisely the toolbox that activists used two and a half decades ago, albeit sexed up with smartphones and online tools. Nor is it likely a coincidence that the shift in the national conversation that OWS ushered in is the proximate result of good old-fashioned direct action, leaderless and self-organized.

ACT UP is still going strong, still meeting every week in the very place it was first born. As the American Spring unfolds, look for the group to be on the front lines once again.

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