Skip to content

AIDS and Activism Part III – ACT UP and the power of direct action

November 29, 2012

This is the third of a three part series that began earlier this week. In Part I, we posted the chapter on AIDS and the Gay Community in Grand Rapids from the film “A People’s History of the LGBTQ Community in Grand Rapids. In Part II, we focused on the silence of the US government in the 1980s and the homophobic response to AIDS by the Religious Right.

We left off in Part II of this series talking about the virulently homophobic responses from the Religious Right in the 1980s around the issue of AIDS. In Part III, we want to focus on the creation and work of the group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

ACT UP was founded in 1987, at a time when the US government was in some ways ignoring the AIDS crisis and at the same time blaming the gay community for this new deadly disease. ACT UP was both a response to the brutally homophobic climate of the 1980s and the lack of any real movement to challenge the systemic inadequacies of the US health care system.

ACT UP was not interested in charity, reform or working within the system, they used direct action and confrontation to demand health care rights and challenge the institutional homophobia of that permeated most of society.

One of the early ACT UP activists, Sarah Schulman, recounted years later what motivated the strategy of the new movement:

The group operated in a way Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated, which was to “educate yourself so you really understand the issue, make a demand that’s reasonable and doable, present that demand to the powers that be who can enact it, and when they refuse, you do civil disobedience until they are forced by pressure to take that action.”

Jerry Kramer, another one of the early leaders of ACT UP, during one meeting asked half of those in the room to stand up as a way of making a point about the urgency of this issue. He said, “you will all be dead from AIDS in a year, what are you gonna do about it?”

This is the kind of passion and rage that people brought to the movement in ACT UP and it manifested itself in the following ways:

  • Catholic Cardinal John O’Connor, was not only preaching against the gay community, he was on the Reagan appointed AIDS Commission and refused to acknowledge the crisis, which was taking the lives of thousands of people in New York City alone. In 1989, ACT UP members and the Women’s Health Action Network (WHAM!) held marches outside St. Patricks Cathedral in New York, once with a banner that read, “O’Connor Public Health Menace.” On one occasion the group did an action in the church during mass and held a die-in to dramatize the seriousness of AIDS. Some members yelled during the mass and said, “You are killing us, stop killing us, we’re not going to take it anymore.” Over 100 people were arrested for this action, known as the Stop the Church Campaign, which was later made into a 24 minute documentary.
  • In March of 1987, 250 members of ACT UP protested in front of Wall Street to demand greater access to HIV/AIDS drugs and a more coordinated national policy to deal with the crisis. The group chose Wall Street to confront large drug companies that were more interested in making money that providing drugs to fight AIDS. Seventeen members of ACT UP were arrested at this action.
  • In April of 1987, ACT UP held an action at the main post office on the last day to file income tax returns. The group knew that the news media always reports on late filers and would have to report on their action, plus the group began its Silence = Death campaign, with the now infamous logo.
  • In 1988, members of ACT Up took action against Cosmopolitan Magazine, because it had published misleading and harmful information about AIDS and sex. About 150 people protested outside the Hearst building, which is the parent company of Cosmo. People chanted, “Say no to Cosmo,” and ACT UP had a film team there to document the action and produce a new video for this campaign.
  • When the US War in the Gulf began in 1991, ACT UP took the opportunity to draw the connections between military spending and lack of funds for AIDS. One action involved getting into the studio of CBS and disrupting a live broadcast, where Dan Rather was reading the news. The very next day ACT UP members went to the Grand Central Terminal in New York and released banners that said, “Money for AIDS, not for war.” These actions were part of what ACT UP called Days of Desperation.

In essence, what ACT UP accomplished was to have a profound and lasting impact on HIV/AIDS, not just from the greater awareness their actions brought, but because they challenge systems of power that perpetuated violence, suffering and social exclusion against those who were and are HIV positive.

ACT UP did not play nice, they did not ask for marginal reforms, they did not create public/private partnerships and they didn’t rely on either the government or the so-called free market to solve the problem.

What we can learn from ACT UP

There were and still are numerous chapters of ACT UP all across the country, with sister organizations around the world that continue to fight against institutional violence, oppression and homophobia.

This fight continues today, despite the gains made by grassroots activism to address the class, gender and class disparities within HIV/AIDS. Corporations are motivated by profits rather than people, AIDS still disproportionately impacts poor communities, the LGBTQ community, communities of color and immigrant populations and the lack of adequate funding for resources is still a major part of the fight.

What we can learn from ACT UP about how we organize today is important. First, we have to take bold action, the kind of action that will challenge power systems in whatever form they take. We cannot allow government agencies, pharmaceutical companies, trade policies and religious institutions to prevent anyone from having access to HIV/AIDS testing & medication.

Second, our demands should not just be for access, it is about justice and part of that fight for justice today is to radically change social structures and power dynamics that perpetuate the spread of such diseases – classism, racism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism and imperialism.

Third, ACT UP understood the importance of an intersectional analysis, which is why they did not shy away from making the demand of money for AIDS, not for war. As of today, roughly $212 million has left Grand Rapids to fund the US occupation of Afghanistan. Imagine if just 1% of that much money, $2.1 million, was available to groups like The Red Project. Imagine what kind of work they could accomplish if money was never an issue. The Obama administration, like all previous administrations always puts its priority in military spending and not human rights issues like HIV/AIDS.

Fourth, we have to target those structures, which benefit from the current systems of oppression. Pharmaceutical companies still profit while people unnecessarily die. Governments still deny or avoid making HIV/AIDS a priority, within a larger context of public health justice. Religious institutions still marginalize and promote hate around the issue of HIV/AIDS. Commercial media still misinforms or minimally informs on the larger social and historical context of HIV/AIDS.

Lastly, we need to learn from ACT UP, in terms of their ability to a have creative and impacting media strategy. We must avoid doing things that are media friendly, instead do things that 1) provoke the media, and 2) we need to make more of our own media that both documents actions and challenges power. We must not be content to just make media that is symbolic, rather media that makes those in power feel terribly uncomfortable.

Films About ACT UP in West Michigan

In the next week, we highly recommend that people in West Michigan attend one of the screenings of two separate documentaries that deal with the history of ACT UP. The LGBT Resource Center at GVSU will be screening the film How to Survive A Plague, on Monday, December 3 at noon on the Allendale Campus (Grand River Room – Kirkhof Center) and at 6:00PM at the downtown campus (Loosemore auditorium). UICA will be screening the film United in Anger, on Wednesday, December 5 at 7:00PM.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2012 7:57 pm

    Wow… Where did the ANGER and the LOVE go in this struggle around HIV/AIDS, human rights and social justice? Nice article Jeff…

  2. December 10, 2012 10:30 pm

    Important question Steve…..something to think about and try to recapture. Would love to talk with you about this more.


  1. AIDS and Activism: A 3-Part Series | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: