In the winter of 1989, thousands of activists from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) disrupted a St. Patrick’s Cathedral mass as part of a controversial “Stop the Church” demonstration. Protesters distributed condoms and safe-sex information to teens and passersby at the church because, the group claimed, individuals were being denied access to such information and materials in schools due to church interference.
Two years later, during Operation Desert Storm, ACT UP activist John Weir and two other protesters entered the CBS Evening News studio at the beginning of the broadcast and shouted, “AIDS is news. Fight AIDS, not Arabs!” The following day, as part of the “Day of Desperation,” activists unfurled a banner at Grand Central Terminal that read: “Money for AIDS, not war” and “One AIDS death every 8 minutes.”
For twenty-five years, ACT UP has been at the forefront of creative direct action protest. The organization is famous for its die-ins to protest the government’s abandonment of AIDS victims and the exploiting of those infected with the disease by powerful Wall Street pharmaceutical companies.
In the early eighties, President Reagan consciously ignored what was clearly a national health crisis, his response described as “halting and ineffective” by his biographer, Lou Cannon. The religious right rushed to Reagan’s defense, and groups like the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority used AIDS as a tool to target gay men “for the politics of fear, hate, and discrimination.”
By Feb. 1, 1983, 1,025 AIDS cases were reported, and at least 394 had died in the United States. Reagan said nothing.
Imagine the scene: a strange new pleague threatens to wipe you, your loved ones and your entire community from the face of the earth, and no one—no doctor, pharmaceutical company, church, not even the president—is capable of or willing to help you.
This is the environment in which ACT UP carved its legacy: loud, aggressive (“rude,” according to the New York Times), creative and devoted to acts of direct action civil disobedience because, let’s be honest, the LGBT community realized no one was coming to save them.
Quite literally, they were fighting for their lives.