The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA

The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA
Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s
by Benita Roth
Cambridge University Press

Reviewed by Alina Oswald

This summer we celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the Silence = Death poster, a symbol of AIDS activism in general, and ACT UP activism in particular. Oftentimes, when we think of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, we unquestionably think of ACT UP/NY. While it’s true that ACT UP started in New York, ACT UP activism took place well beyond the city.

In her new book, The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA, Benita Roth—author and Professor of Sociology, History, and Women’s Studies at Binghamton University, State University of New York—takes an in-depth look at “Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s,” as mentioned in the subtitle, while capturing the ACT UP/LA movement through an expert, academic lens.

Roth tells the story of ACT UP/LA from the first meeting, in 1987, to the “last gasps” of the movement during the mid-nineties, and “the real end[s]” of ACT UP/LA a few years later, in 1999. Several elements come together to bring into focus the ACT UP/LA movement—militant, political, medical, and, also, the human element.

What makes Roth’s book unique is that it touches on the feminist element that helped shape the movement. “[Mark] Kostopoulos’s favorable reaction to women organizing as women within ACT UP/LA was not universally shared,” Roth writes about the ACT UP/LA co-founder.

ACT UP/LA was just one chapter in ACT UP activism and in AIDS activism in general, but we can all learn from its story. And we can use Roth’s book as a guide to help us achieve a deeper understanding of the role of activism, in particular AIDS activism nowadays. That’s because, as Roth concludes, “As HIV/AIDS disease continues to threaten the lives and well-being of so many, it should not be forgotten that the model of activism that anti-AIDS protestors fashioned in the 1980s and 1990s produced results.” The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA shows how they did it, and why, and helps us keep “alive the history of how social change is made by people who desperately need change to survive.”

Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.