when the dust clears

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Archive for the ‘VOCAL’ Category

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.


99 Percent Spring in East Harlem

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VOCAL and Community Voices Heard held a training for the 99 Percent Spring at the Children’s Aid Society on 101st Street. By my count, 100+ people gathered in CAS’s auditorium. Many were members of established groups. Others found out through MoveOn.org.

A VOCAL member speaks at the 99 Percent Spring training at the Children's Aid Society, April 14, 2012

Spring kicked off with a letter released in February, signed by a who’s who of prominent progressives, union leaders, and community organizers. Its goals:

  1. Tell the story of our economy: how we got here, who’s responsible, what a different future could look like, and what we can do about it
  2. Learn the history of nonviolent direct action, and
  3. Get into action on our own campaigns to win change.

And that’s what I saw and heard: HIV/AIDS campaigners, advocates for domestic workers, immigrants, and low-income folks (many of whom ARE low-income folks), plus the unaffiliated of all races, ages, and orientations gathered to take the next Occupy Wall Street–inspired step.

Charles Young at Counterpunch, a left publication, calls 99 Percent Spring a “front group” for MoveOn and a Trojan horse for the Democratic Party. He claims that both aim to coopt and neuter the movement, suck all the radicalism of out it.

Young slams the effort based on an event he attended at the Goddard Riverside Community Center on the “Upper Left Side” of Manhattan.

“Inside the hall, it looked like an alumni reunion for the 1966 Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade. Almost all the 150 or so people were 55–80 years old. The ones I talked to expressed curiosity about Occupy Wall Street and enthusiasm about ‘nonviolent direct action’ but didn’t have the knees or the ears for full participation in OWS activities in the financial district,” he writes. Just a few weeks ago I attended a reading by author Fred Jerome at Goddard Riverside attended by several dozen people. At 47 years old, I was probably the youngest person in the room. Journalist Young might have considered that Goddard serves a heck of a lot of seniors, and they turn out, regardless of the event.

Will genuine direct action for social and economic justice grow out of the 99 Percent Spring? The proof will be on the streets. My bet is, after a year spent following VOCAL with camera and pen—witnessing arrests of its members at OWS demonstrations and its in-your-face protests against drug company execs—at least some of these Spring trainees will deliver.

Members of Adhikaar hold up a sketch of a model community @ 99 Percent Spring Training, April, 14, 2012

Civilly disobedient citizens, their friends, minders, and arresters, November 17, 2011

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Arrest of Felix Rivera-Pitre, VOCAL activist punched by senior NYPD officer on October 4