Thursday, March 29, 2007

Reconstructing ACT UP

It would appear that reports of ACT UP's demise are premature. Today, hundreds of people joined in a protest at Manhattan's Wall Street to fight for healthcare.

New York's JoeMyGod has some nice pics of today's protest, as does Band of Thebes.

Andres Duque has photos and media links.

Michael Petrelis has coverage of the San Francisco protests.

POZ Magazine has a nice write-up, too.

There's even a video posted on YouTube.

Boy, this sure is a far cry from the days when we had to fax press releases, tape TV coverage on our VCRs and wait for news articles the next day like chorus boys and girls awaiting a theatre review.

Stalwart journo Rex Wockner dredged up some historic pics of early ACT UP demos, including pics and a write-up of the Dec. 1989 Stop the Church demo at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

You can read my (slightly) fictionalized account of being inside St. Pat's on that day in my third novel, Cyclizen, out, er, sometime in May. I'm finishing up copyediting and this weekend shooting the cover with the most perfect model, Patricio (named after St. Patrick; perfect again!).

Some people - younger ones, in particular - don't seem to understand what things were like then. Some even want to rewrite history, like naive self-promoting Cyd Zeigler, Jr. known more for his co-editing Cyd wrote a laughably gullible Young Republican lionization of Reagan specific to his - and Reagan's - massive ignorance about the epidemic, and Reagan's culpability (see link).

(On a side note, it's also typical that Zeigler so strongly defended the Outgames over the seventh Gay Games last summer, considering that Outgames literally stole the concept, sold out Outsports with a year's worth of banner ads, and eventually made history as the worst managed gay event in world history, with a $5 million deficit. But I wrote about that quite extensively in Sports Complex via a series of articles from 2003-2006.)

Anyway, back to ACT UP, and people who know what they're talking about when it comes to AIDS.

In more worthy written pros and cons, Larry Kramer's on the cover of POZ, with a lengthy interview inside. "Anger is a very wonderful and positive emotion," he says. "Why should I want to let it go?" Do read more.

Kramer responded to a New York Review of the Books article about the book Russell Baker's Reconstructing Reagan. Kramer wrote:

It is always distressing to read "upgradings" by academics and journalists more determined to recreate history in their own imaginings than in the facts that are available for honest consideration [Russell Baker, "Reconstructing Ronald Reagan," NYR, March 1].

Ronald Reagan may have done laudable things but he was also a monster and, in my estimation, responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler. He is one of the persons most responsible for allowing the plague of AIDS to grow from 41 cases in 1981 to over 70 million today.

He refused to even say the word out loud for the first seven years of his presidency and when he did speak about it, it was with disdain. He was, in the words of his domestic policy adviser, Gary Bauer, "irrevocably opposed to anything having to do with homosexuality."

Reagan's dead. Larry's not. Guess who gets the last word?

The Nation offers an inspirational wrap up of the group's history:

Twenty years ago, a furious speech by the playwright and activist Larry
Kramer at New York City's lesbian and gay community center birthed a new activist organization, ACT UP--the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.

Within a month, weekly planning meetings were attracting 200 people, a motley mix of gay men, lesbians, recovering addicts with AIDS and the newly diagnosed, a great many of them just in their 20s. Though barely noticed in the pages of this publication, ACT UP would revolutionize AIDS research and treatment, as well as inject new life into the gay movement and infuse the tactic of direct action with its own style of theatrical militancy.

At the time, six years and at least 30,000 American deaths into the epidemic, Ronald Reagan had yet to give a public address on AIDS. Not a single drug was available to treat HIV. Prevention efforts had been left to volunteers and struggling nonprofits. The right's solution was epitomized by William F. Buckley's modest proposal that gay men with HIV have their buttocks tattooed.

For its first action, in March 1987, ACT UP sent some 250 activists to descend on Wall Street. Armed with cardboard tombstones and anti-Reagan posters, they chanted, "Release those drugs," lighting a fire under the Food and Drug Administration and drugmakers to speed up research and approval. Two years later pharma giant Burroughs Wellcome was finally marketing an HIV treatment but had priced it (AZT) at an impossible $8,000 a year. So ACT UP returned to Wall Street, but this time activists
didn't just picket.

As former bond trader Peter Staley recalls, "We [had] sealed ourselves into one of their corporate offices using high-powered drills. They didn't back down, so we upped the ante by shutting down the New York Stock Exchange, sneaking past security and using foghorns to drown out the opening bell. The company finally lowered the price three days later."

During the years that followed, ACT UP stormed the National Institutes of Health, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control to protest their shortcomings. On the local level, Catholic dioceses and boards of education were targeted for blocking HIV information in public schools; city governments for failing to provide care and housing; jails and prisons for setting up segregation units. Some ACT UPers set up
guerrilla needle-exchange programs; others staked out the entrances to junior
highs to distribute condoms directly to students. Just as essentially, ACT UP
members became self-taught experts in such arcane fields as virology and patent law and in so doing rewrote the patient-doctor relationship and helped put the idea of universal healthcare--now favored by a majority of Americans--on the political map.

Along the way, ACT UP borrowed strategies from other radical movements: antinuke protesters for techniques on civil disobedience, antiapartheid campaigners for bringing political funerals to the streets. Many of its tactics--videotaping demonstrations as protection against police brutality, coordinated but autonomous affinity group actions--have become standard fare in the global justice movement, as has ACT UP's deeply democratic tradition.

ACT UP is now a shadow of its former self, but its alums have gone on to found Health Gap, a driving force for global treatment access; the Treatment Action Group, which continues to push the AIDS research agenda; and Housing Works, which has won housing for thousands of New York City's HIV-positive homeless. And true to form, the organization will mark its twentieth anniversary with a march on Wall Street March 29 to demand single-payer healthcare for all.

Today, anyone who gains access to an experimental drug before it's approved, or takes a life-saving medicine that was fast-tracked through the FDA--indeed, anyone engaged in the struggle for healthcare--is indebted to ACT UP's audacity and vision.

ACT UP ain't dead, but a lot of people are dead from AIDS, thanks to ignorance, silence, and dumbass Republicans like Zeigler, who were busy wanking off with their fellow closet cases while others were fighting AIDS.


Michael said...

hey jim,

thanks for the link to my report and pix, and the coverage of others from NYC. it was great to be back in the streets with dozens of old and new friends! sorry you missed it! join us next time, and there will be a next time in SF.


here is the link to liz's coverage:

Andrés Duque said...

Thanks so much for linking up to my blog post...

POZ said...

Meet other POZitive people on :)