ACT UP–the grassroots organization that shut down the New York Stock Exchange and picketed St. Patrick’s Cathedral–is back, and it’s gone global. Over a decade ago, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) pioneered many of the direct action tactics currently used by antiglobalization protesters, including activist video, corporate- and government-office takeovers, and high-profile media demonstrations. Today, ACT UP signs at demonstrations bearing such slogans as Stop Medical Apartheid: From Botswana to the Bronx are reminiscent of earlier protests calling for development and fast-track approval of AIDS medications.
When ACT UP was first formed in New York in the late 1980s, its weekly meetings regularly attracted up to a thousand members–largely drawn from white, middle-class gay and lesbian communities. But during the mid-1990s many chapters faced extinction. With the introduction of life-extending triple-therapy antiretroviral cocktails to the US market in 1996, what had been a devastating disease suddenly appeared to be a manageable illness–at least to a certain population of white, middle-class gay men. Media outlets like the New York Times proclaimed the “end” of the plague, and AIDS activism no longer occupied a central place in gay and lesbian politics, which, following national trends, drifted to the right. Asia Russell of ACT UP Philadelphia says the success and availability of these AIDS drugs were only part of the picture. When asked for an explanation, she puts it bluntly: “death and neoliberalism.”
But as the demographics of AIDS in the United States changed, so too did ACT UP’s constituency. While ACT UP had always been attentive to issues of racism and poverty–working, for example, to diversify clinical drug trials and forcing homelessness and intravenous drug use onto the AIDS agenda–it has now rededicated itself to these causes, both in local and global contexts, and is part of an international antiglobalization alliance that concentrates on access to healthcare.
This is particularly true for ACT UP Philadelphia, half of whose current members are people of color and people with AIDS. ACT UP Philadelphia rarely does outreach to traditional gay and lesbian communities, instead using teach-ins at drug treatment clinics, housing organizations and needle exchange programs. Its tactics still draw from a queer consciousness, and many of its members are queer, but they’re also from minority and low-income communities.
ACT UP’s redrawn constituency has also led to a shift in priorities. While it continues to work on domestic AIDS issues, particularly housing needs, medical care in prisons and such privacy issues as names reporting, ACT UP has come to focus on the global AIDS epidemic, applying constant pressure on the US government and pharmaceutical companies to facilitate generic drug manufacturing, and on international policy-makers to enact immediate debt relief for developing nations. As Julie Davids of ACT UP Philadelphia says, “Our members feel passionate about these issues because they realize that it’s the same life-threatening forms of racism and economic injustice that impact their lives here in the United States.”