On March 10, 1987 – ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was effectively formed at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York when Larry Kramer was asked to speak as part of a rotating speaker series. His well-attended speech focused on action to fight AIDS. Kramer spoke out against the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), which he perceived as politically impotent in the fight against AIDS. Kramer who had co-founded the GMHC had resigned from its board of directors in 1983.
ACT UP was organized as a leaderless. This was intentional on Larry Kramer’s part: he describes it as “democratic to a fault.” It followed a committee structure with each committee reporting to a coordinating committee meeting once a week. Actions and proposals were generally brought to the coordinating committee and then to the floor for a vote, but this wasn’t required – any motion could be brought to a vote at any time. Gregg Bordowitz, an early member, said of the process:
This is how grassroots, democratic politics work. To a certain extent, this is how democratic politics is supposed to work in general. You convince people of the validity of your ideas. You have to go out there and convince people.
Although Larry Kramer is often labeled the first “leader” of ACT UP, as the group matured, those people that regularly attended meetings and made their voice heard became conduits through which smaller “affinity groups” would present and organize their ideas. Leadership changed hands frequently and suddenly.
Below is a chronological account of some of New York ACT UP actions are drawn from Douglas Crimp’s history of ACT UP, the ACT UP Oral History Project, and the online Capsule History of ACT UP, New York
WALL STREET: On March 24, 1987, 250 ACT UP members demonstrated at Wall Street and Broadway to demand greater access to experimental AIDS drugs and for a coordinated national policy to fight the disease. An Op/Ed article by Larry Kramer published in the New York Times the previous day described some of the issues ACT UP was concerned with. Seventeen ACT UP members were arrested during this civil disobedience.
On March 24, 1988, ACT UP returned to Wall Street for a larger demonstration in which over 100 people were arrested.
On September 14, 1989, seven ACT UP members infiltrated the New York Stock Exchange and chained themselves to the VIP balcony to protest the high price of the only approved AIDS drug, AZT.
GENERAL POST OFFICE: ACT UP held their next action at the New York City General Post Office on the night of April 15, 1987, to an audience of people filing last minute tax returns. This event also marked the beginning of the conflation of ACT UP with the Silence=Death Project, which created a poster consisting of a right side up pink triangle (an upside-down pink triangle was used to mark gays in Nazi concentration camps) on a black background with the text “SILENCE = DEATH”.
FDA: On October 11, 1988, ACT UP had one of its most successful demonstrations (both in terms of size and in terms of national media coverage) when it successfully shut down the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for a day. Media reported that it was the largest such demonstration since demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
The AIDS activists shut down the large facility by blocking doors, walkways and a road as FDA workers reported to work. Police told some workers to go home rather than wade through the throng.
“Hey, hey, FDA, how many people have you killed today?” chanted the crowd, estimated by protest organizers at between 1,100 and 1,500. The protesters hoisted a black banner that read “Federal Death Administration”.
Police officers, wearing surgical gloves and helmets, started rounding up the hundreds of demonstrators and herding them into buses shortly after 8:30 a.m. Some protesters blocked the buses from leaving for 20 minutes.
Authorities arrested at least 120 protesters, and demonstration leaders said they were aiming for 300 arrests by day’s end.
COSMOPOLITAN MAGAZINE: In January 1988, Cosmopolitan magazine published an article by Robert E. Gould, a psychiatrist, entitled “Reassuring News About AIDS: A Doctor Tells Why You May Not Be At Risk.” The main contention of the article was that in unprotected vaginal sex between a man and a woman who both had “healthy genitals” the risk of HIV transmission was negligible, even if the male partner was infected. Women from ACT UP who had been having informal “dyke dinners” met with Dr. Gould in person, questioning him about several misleading facts (that penis to vagina transmission is impossible, for example) and questionable journalistic methods (no peer review, bibliographic information, failing to disclose that he was a psychiatrist and not a practitioner of internal medicine), and demanded a retraction and apology. When he refused, in the words of Maria Maggenti, they decided that they “had to shut down Cosmo.” According to those who were involved in organizing the action, it was significant in that it was the first time the women in ACT UP organized separately from the main body of the group. Additionally, filming the action itself, the preparation and the aftermath were all consciously planned and resulted in a video short directed by Jean Carlomusto and Maria Maggenti, titled, “Doctor, Liars, and Women: AIDS Activists Say No To Cosmo.” The action consisted of approximately 150 activists protesting in front of the Hearst building (parent company of Cosmopolitan) chanting “Say no to Cosmo!” and holding signs with slogans such as “Yes, the Cosmo Girl CAN get AIDS!
“STOP THE CHURCH”: ACT UP disagreed with Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor on the Roman Catholic Archdiocese’s public stand against safe sex education in New York City Public Schools, condom distribution, the Cardinal’s public views on homosexuality, as well as Catholic opposition to abortion. This led to the first Stop the Church protest on December 10, 1989, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. In December 1989, approximately 4,500 protesters mobilized by ACT-UP and WHAM! gathered outside a mass at the cathedral. A few dozen activists entered the cathedral, interrupted Mass, chanted slogans, or lay down in the aisles.] One protester broke a communion wafer and threw it to the floor. One-hundred and eleven protesters were arrested. Only minor charges were filed, punished primarily by community service sentences; some protestors who refused the sentences were tried, but did not serve jail time.
DAY OF DESPERATION: On January 22, 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, ACT UP activist John Weir and two other activists entered the studio of the CBS Evening News at the beginning of the broadcast. They shouted “AIDS is news. Fight AIDS, not Arabs!” and Weir stepped in front of the camera before the control room cut to a commercial break. The same night ACT UP demonstrated at the studios of the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. The next day activists displayed banners in Grand Central Terminal that said “Money for AIDS, not for war” and “One AIDS death every 8 minutes.” One of the banners was handheld and displayed across the train timetable and the other attached to bundles of balloons that lifted it up to the ceiling of the station’s enormous main room. These actions were part of a coordinated protest called and mass marches throughout America. Many demonstrators were arrested and, as they and their fellow activists would continue to be throughout the years, subjected to police brutality, as well as anti gay verbal and physical harassment.
ACT UP chapters still exists today. By the early 21st century ACT UP had more than 70 chapters around the world and had expanded its vision to include an end to the worldwide AIDS crisis. It has been argued that their efforts radically changed the way the world saw the AIDS crisis and the power of the gay rights movement.
Watch the videos below and look closely. THIS is what REAL activism looks like.