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.
In 1987, ACT UP groups around the country protested the exorbitant cost of AZT drugs, which activists said were so pricey most people with HIV would be unable to afford them. The group staged a die-in outside a CVS store in Downtown Providence to make their point.
Additionally, seven ACT UP members infiltrated the New York Stock Exchange in the fall of 1989 and chained themselves to the VIP balcony to protest the high price of AZT. In response, the NYSE halted trading for the first and only moment except during wartime.
The group displayed a banner: “SELL WELCOME,” referencing Burroughs Wellcome, the pharmaceutical sponsor of AZT, which set the price of the drug at a whopping annual $10,000 per patient.
Mere days after the demonstration, Burroughs Wellcome dropped the price to $6,400.
Protesters started a tradition of “political funerals” to turn their private loss into public statements. Participants carried fake coffins and mock tombstones, splattered with red paint to represent HIV-positive blood.
“To turn out private grief for the loss of friends, family, lovers and strangers into something public would serve as another powerful dismantling tool. It would dispel the notion that this virus has a sexual orientation or a moral code. It would nullify the belief that the government and medical community has done very much to ease the spread or advancement of this disease,” said ACT UP member, David Wojnarowicz.
Now, a quarter century afters its founding, one of the original direct action pioneers is joining forces with the new kid on the block: Occupy Wall Street.
The partnership makes good sense. If any group understands the government failing to address specific grievances and the media vilifying their actions, it’s ACT UP.
To commemorate its twenty-fifth anniversary, the AIDS activist group will return to its roots and stage a massive demonstration and march on Wall Street this Wednesday, April 25, starting in the morning at City Hall and ending in the financial district. ACT UP is hoping the event will attract hundreds of protesters for what they describe as a “daylong siege in Lower Manhattan.”
Healthcare for the 99%, a working group of OWS, is working in solidarity with ACT UP to plan and promote their anniversary action.
“As Occupiers, our eyes lit up when we saw the potential for labor, AIDS activists and OWS to join together to fight for a tax on Wall Street to end AIDS. It’s the Occupy formula: attack the greed, meet the need,” says Annette Gaudino, a member of Healthcare for the 99%. “[A Financial Transaction Tax] is basically a sales tax on trades of stocks, bonds and currencies. You can’t evade it—make a trade, you pay the tax. And even a tiny 0.05% tax could raise $400 billion worldwide. That’s more than enough money to restore cuts made to the Global Fund on AIDS, TB and Malaria, and so much more.”
The Obama administration used aggressive language initially when expressing its intention to combat the AIDS crisis. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton late last year said an “AIDS-free generation” is possible. And yet, GlobalPost and the Kaiser Foundation report the Obama administration has now called for a $550 million reduction—an 11 percent cut—in its global AIDS program. The reason for the cut is the $1.5 billion “stuck in the pipeline for 18 months or more,” according to the GlobalPost.
Ambassador Eric Goosby, the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator, “said this week it will immediately start a consultation period with Congress, it’s partners across the U.S. government and AIDS advices to address a key question: what should they do with the $1.46 billion?”
Meanwhile, as Congress consults, AIDS activists and their allies continue to fight to keep their agenda on the front pages.
Brandon Cuicchi became a member of ACT UP after working with the Queer Occupy Wall Street working group, and he sees the alliance between the movements as a potentially powerful thing.
“Within ACT UP, there has been a recent infusion of new and younger members who are coming out of the Occupy movement. Through Occupy, they were given a platform to vent their frustrations primarily about the economy and Wall Street, and that energy is now spreading to other issues and other grassroots groups, like ACT UP,” says Cuicchi.
Furthermore, according to Cuicchi, it is ACT UP’s expertise that lends their involvement in this joint effort special significance.
“It’s very meaningful for the LGBT activists that ACT UP and Occupy intermingle. In the 80s and 90s, ACT UP was instrumental in changing the way this nation and our government talk about HIV/AIDS. In the past year, Occupy has been instrumental in changing how Americans feel about economic inequality,” says Cuicchi, “So there are definite similarities between the two movements and hopefully things both groups can learn from each other because the fight to end HIV/AIDS is not over and the fight against economic inequality is gaining momentum.”
Jennifer Walker has been an ACT UP member since 1994, and her first civil disobedience arrest was on April 25, 1995, for an action called “Bridges and Tunnels.” The entire east side of Manhattan was shut down by activists from a wide range of issues such as anti-police brutality, student tuition increases, homeless people and their advocates protesting budget cuts, and ACT UP.
“Here we are 17, or so, years later,” says Walker, adding that ACT UP has been protesting against corporate greed and occupying Wall Street “since the beginning.”
“Many of the leaders of VOCAL-NY and old ACT UPers like myself actually trained some of the activists who went on to form Occupy Wall Street as part of a week of actions targeting big banks that culminated in a huge mobilization on May 12th of last year. So, the connection with Occupy Wall Street is in part because of the shared vision that corporate greed is fueling our public policy decisions, paying off our politicians and actually keeping things that we need to survive out of our hands,” says Walker.
The top line demand for ACT UP’s twenty-fifth anniversary action is also a shared demand with the Occupy movement: a “Robin Hood Tax,” or the FTT tax, described by Gaudino above.
While it might not be entirely fair to say OWS would not exist without ACT UP laying the foundation of direct action resistance, it is probably accurate to state Occupiers would be less well-trained and less prepared for the long, slow slog of progress that is progressive reform without the roadmap drawn by their badass activist ancestors.
“OWS is fundamentally about amplifying people’s voices. We didn’t create these campaigns, but the message—we need money to end AIDS and we know who has the money—is precisely Occupy’s message,” says Guadino, adding “back in the day, ACT UP had the media’s attention. OWS has the media’s attention right now. This has potential to be a powerful combination. And I don’t think it’s going to be just one action. It’s going to take sustained effort to win.”