when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

ACT-UP’s 25th Anniversary in NYC

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The group may be a shadow of its 1980s, in-your-face self, but the march and demonstration marking the 25th anniversary of the first major action by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power in Lower Manhattan today had some of the energy of the early days of the movement.

NYPD officers cut chains locking an activist from Housing Works to a chair during a direct action in front of NYC's City Hall, April 25, 2012

Hundreds of people gathered in front of City Hall to recognize one of the most powerful and effective activist/advocacy/education organizations of the late 20th century. Stalwarts from the early days like Jim Eigo, Bill Dobbs, and Larry Kramer were there, but younger folks from groups like VOCAL and Housing Works actually ran the show.

VOCAL’s Jaron Benjamin led the march downtown, negotiating all the way with a coolheaded African American NYPD Deputy Inspector and his boss, Assistant Chief Thomas Purtell. Housing Works spearheaded a direct action in front of City Hall Park. Members erected a mock apartment in the middle of Broadway to dramatize what Housing Works says are policies and practices of HASA, New York City’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration, that turn people living with AIDS into homeless people living with AIDS.

VOCAL NY organizer Miguel Adams chants at demonstration marking the 25th anniversary of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, April 25, 2012

There was solidarity and tumult—the usual push and pull between marchers who want to take the street and the cops who want to keep it clear—but there was something lacking that ACT-UP had in spades: focus.

Last month Democracy Now ran a long piece on the AIDS activism documentary How to Survive a Plague with clips of heavy-duty actions against the likes of the Federal Drug Administration and multinational pharma giant Merck (a target of VOCAL not too long ago). In it, ACTers UP like the late Bob Rafsky and Garance Franke-Ruta speak with passion, a sense of urgency, and an absolute command of the issues. They knew what they needed—speeded up trials for specific drugs and lower cost meds—and they communicated it clearly, succinctly, forcefully. They were eloquent. And they fought like their lives and those of their friends depended on their actions, because they did.

Larry Kramer, author/playwright/pioneering AIDS and LGBT activist, before the march and protest, April 25, 2012

Today’s demo reminded me first, how much the original ACT-UP accomplished—its work and that of other AIDS, queer, and lesbian groups made powerful people accountable and saved people’s lives—and second, that today’s activists, Occupiers, and citizens need to learn that history, in all brilliance and messiness.

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