In Their Faces!
A New Film on ACT UP Traces Twenty-Five Years of Channeling Outrage into Action
by Larry Buhl
In April 1987, 300 members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) staged its first demonstration: marching on Wall Street to protest the high cost and lack of availability of HIV treatment medications.
In April 2012, ACT UP old-timers joined newer members and supporters of Occupy Wall Street in another march on Wall Street to celebrate twenty-five years of AIDS activism and make a new demand: a small tax on financial speculation that would go to healthcare and treatment of people with HIV or AIDS. Though police dragged away nineteen protestors, the event was a quiet echo of the rowdy early ACT UP demonstrations. And the tax proposal was less urgent than ACT UP’s first calls for fast FDA approval of drugs.
The latest protest underscored two facts: HIV/AIDS is still here, and people will keep pushing for new solutions to evolving challenges, even if they have to get in the faces of those in power to do so.
It may be hard to comprehend a time when half of Americans thought it would be a good idea to tattoo and quarantine people with AIDS. After five years and 40,000 deaths, many had moved past the shock and denial stages of grief and into the white-hot anger phase, stoked by writer-turned-organizer Larry Kramer, who, in March, 1987, led a rallying cry to 300 people to fight back against government indifference.
Within weeks the group, now with a name, had planned their first coordinated protest. What they wanted, at first, was faster approval of potentially life-saving drugs and affordable prices of the drugs. The strategy was to deep-six protocols and politeness—no more time for that—and do what it takes to change government and drug company foot-dragging. The tactics were loud civil disobedience, dramatic and well-orchestrated protests, complete with coordinated signage—the immediately iconic “Silence = Death” among others—and similar graphics to promote a sense of unity in message and purpose.
ACT UP had no formal organizing plan. “Committees,” such as media, graphics, and finance, were fluid and informal. The group also relied on affinity groups to assist in more complex political actions. Within a year of ACT UP-New York’s inauguration, active chapters had appeared in various cities throughout the country, including Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. Within three years ACT UP had spread throughout the United States and around the globe, with more than 100 chapters worldwide.
For a leaderless, anarchistic network, ACT UP was effective in bringing members together for big, in-your-face events. Members coordinated theatrical protests like storming New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral during Mass and scattering the White House lawn with ashes of people who had died from AIDS-related illnesses and staged a die-in at President George H.W. Bush’s vacation home. They broke into the CBS studios and hijacked the evening news. They chained themselves to the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange and halted trading and re-staged a rally in front of the FDA headquarters, which caused the agency to shut down for the day.
These shock tactics brought results, such as kick-starting moribund government agencies, drawing attention to pharmaceutical access and pricing, promoting needle exchange programs, including of women and minorities in clinical trials, lifting travel bans on HIV positive people, and reducing the misunderstanding and stigma surrounding the disease.
ACT UP Grows Up
As the scope of the AIDS crisis changed, the group adapted, changing its demands for action and awareness. The group disrupted Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign to demand that Clinton administration stop sanctioning poor nations that produced generic HIV and AIDS drugs. For its twentieth anniversary, ACT UP rallied for universal healthcare.
Andrew Velez, one of today’s few active members since the beginning, has traveled the world as an ACT UP member and activist. He’s now an administrator for Aidsmeds.com, and a liaison for the activist community in D.C. at AIDS2012.
“AIDS highlighted everything that has been broken in society, in a tragic and terrifying way,” Velez tells A&U magazine.
“At first it was about getting attention by getting out in the street. But over time the activities shifted to sitting down at the table and discussing matters clearly with scientists and policy makers and community leaders.”
As the face of AIDS became less white and wealthy in the U.S., ACT UP has focused its efforts on issues like including drug users and sex workers in prevention campaigns, and addressing the problem of homelessness and unstable housing, Velez says.
United in Anger: Documenting the Movement
Jim Hubbard, whose new documentary, United In Anger, details the history of ACT UP, says it’s no surprise that the group has come full circle to protesting on Wall Street twenty-five years later.
Hubbard started filming ACT UP in June of 1987 at New York’s Lesbian/Gay Pride March. He drew from that footage, as well as a collection of more than 1,000 hours from the AIDS Activist Video Collection of the New York Public Library, which Hubbard archived for the Library, to make United in Anger. The film premiered at MoMA in January, and is now screening at film festivals throughout North America.
One issue the documentary conveys is ACT UP’s media savvy. There were members from every region of the country using the same statistics and same talking points to explain the disease and public policy implications, in detail, for media outlets in even the smallest cities.
“This was long before Facebook or even e-mail,” Hubbard points out. “Phone trees and conference calls served as the means to get out the word and standardize messaging. Their aim was to talk through the media, rather than to the media.”
What do we want? Several things, very soon.
“In a sense ACT UP was a precursor to Occupy. Both movements were grassroots, radical reactions to a crisis, and dealing with something terribly wrong,” says Hubbard, who used footage from his own thirty year-long archive for United in Anger.
Though the Occupy movement may have DNA from ACT UP (and ACT UP took cues from previous movements), there are differences.
“ACT UP needed extreme specificity, immediately. Activists needed to know more than the FDA or the CDC, and needed to have plans for what those agencies should do. Occupy points out large systemic problems in our capitalist system,” says Hubbard.
Though there have been some policy recommendations the point of the Occupy protests so far have been to raise awareness of inequality and greed,” Hubbard adds. “But the mainstream media always says that activist groups are unfocused. Even during Vietnam anti-war rallies, the media were asking, ‘what do these protesters want?’ Well, duh.”
Larry Buhl interviewed playwright Tony Kushner for the June cover story.