Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

ACT UP turns 20


Members of the original ACT UP/SF march down Market Street on January 20, 1989 in a counter-inaugural demonstration against the first President Bush. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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This month marks the 20th anniversary of the birth of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, affording activists an opportunity to reflect on the group's legacy and attempt to rekindle some of the spirit that animated the movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Demonstrations are planned for March 29 in San Francisco and New York City.

ACT UP/New York was founded on March 10, 1987 by a group of activists inspired by a speech by author Larry Kramer, which drew an audience of more than 400 at the LGBT Community Center. Kramer asked two-thirds of the audience to stand up, and told them they could all be dead in five years. Attendees immediately booked a room for a follow-up meeting.

"AIDS was, and is, a terrible tragedy that need not have escalated into a worldwide plague," Kramer said at a March 13 talk at the same location to commemorate the anniversary. "There were 41 cases when I started. There are some 75 million now. It takes a lot of help from a lot of enemies to rack up a tally like that."

On March 24, 1987, two weeks after the initial meeting, ACT UP held its first demonstration, a die-in on Wall Street to protest the high price of AZT – then the sole AIDS drug – and the policies of the Food and Drug Administration. The protest garnered widespread media attention and put the fledgling group on the national radar. Before long, chapters sprang up in cities across the United States, including San Francisco, and eventually around the world.

ACT UP's greatest success was changing the relationship between people with AIDS and the research and pharmaceutical establishments, and ultimately transforming the traditional relationship between patients and their healthcare providers.

"ACT UP helped knock doctors and scientists off their pedestals," said former ACT UP/New York member Bill Dobbs.

The group successfully pressured the National Institutes of Health to fund more AIDS research and was instrumental in speeding the approval of drugs for people with life-threatening diseases.

"[S]ome of our members taught themselves so much about our illness and the science of it and the politics of it and the bureaucracy of it that we soon knew more than anyone else did," Kramer said last week. "Soon we were on the very committees we had picketed ... We redesigned the whole system of clinical trials that is in use to this day for every major illness."

ACT UP also challenged the political establishment – from the Reagan administration down to the local level – as well as recalcitrant media and homophobic religious leaders. Among the media-savvy group's most memorable actions were draping a giant condom over then-Senator Jesse Helms's (R-North Carolina) Virginia home and disrupting a CBS Evening News broadcast shouting "Fight AIDS, Not Arabs" to protest the first Gulf War in January 1991.

Changing epidemic, evolving activism

ACT UP was the product of several factors that came together in the late 1980s, primarily the desperation of people trying to save their own lives and those of their friends. Similarly, multiple factors contributed to the group's demise, not least of which was the death of so many members.

When ACT UP began, the marginally effective AZT was the only available AIDS medication. Thanks in part to the group's pressure, several new therapies were developed over the ensuing years, culminating in the advent of protease inhibitors and highly active antiretroviral therapy in the mid-1990s.

As HAART restored the health of many grievously ill gay men in developed countries – albeit often with myriad side effects such as unexplained metabolic complications – the emphasis of AIDS activism shifted to marginalized communities in the United States, including injection drug users and people of color, and to poor countries where people were dying in droves without treatment. One result was a growing separation between AIDS activism and gay activism, which had been all but indistinguishable in ACT UP's early days.

In San Francisco, ACT UP underwent a split in the early 1990s, and the name became associated with a small group of AIDS dissidents and animal rights activists; today, that group's primary activity is running a medical cannabis dispensary. Treatment activists from the original group then started ACT UP/Golden Gate, which in 2000 changed its name to Survive AIDS in order to avoid confusion with ACT UP/San Francisco.

Today, besides two groups that recently revived the ACT UP name to commemorate the anniversary, ACT UP/Philadelphia is the only U.S. chapter that continues to meet regularly; ACT UP/Paris also remains active.

But ACT UP's legacy lives on.

"ACT UP had no staff, no board of directors. Without a payroll, its work was a labor of love, a continual push for results," said Dobbs. "To me, one of the most important lessons is that activists can save the day while advocates are still gossiping at the water-cooler."

"ACT UP served as a catalyst and a bridge within, between, and out of some of the most important social movements of the last 40 years," said Benjamin Shepard, who studies the sociology of political activism. "Its influence extends far beyond itself, into spaces and cities and struggles around the world."

Protest next Thursday

Next week's action in San Francisco will focus on affordable housing and healthcare for all, calling attention to Ellis Act evictions of people with AIDS, seniors, and people on low or fixed incomes.

The protest is being organized by the newly formed ACT UP/Bay Area (not affiliated with ACT UP/SF), spearheaded by veteran activist and accountability gadfly Michael Petrelis, along with members of Gay Shame.

Activists will gather on March 29 at noon outside the Bank of America at the corner of Castro and 18th streets, and from there will march to the offices of one or more local real estate agencies, where die-ins are planned.

Across the bay, the small ACT UP/East Bay group will co-sponsor a dinner to raise funds for the Good Spirit Support and Action Center, an orphanage and school for children in rural Uganda who lost their parents to AIDS [See News briefs, page 4].

In New York, a newly reconstituted ACT UP will hold a protest on Wall Street – the site of the original chapter's first action – demanding universal health care, single-payer insurance, and drug price controls.

Despite the controversial history of ACT UP in San Francisco, Petrelis said that "ACT UP's legacy is something we have to honor by being in the streets again." Asked why the local organizers chose to focus on housing rather than a specific health-related target, he replied that "housing is healthcare."

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