Tuesday, March 13, 2012

ACT UP 25 ACTION APRIL 25: From Wall Street to Bridges and Tunnels and Memories of A25

On April 25th 2012 - ACT UP New York is observing the 25th anniversary of its first groundbreaking action on Wall Street, held March 24, 1987. 

For the anniversary action, ACT UP is returning to Wall Street and joining forces with the Occupy Wall Street movement to form a UNITED FRONT in demanding universal healthcare and the END OF AIDS. 

These goals are in reach if the U.S. would just pass the "Financial Speculation Tax" legislation before Congress right now. TAX WALL ST. END AIDS!


April 25th, the date of the action is also the seventeenth anniversary of the Bridges and Tunnels action organized by Housing Works, ACT UP, CUNY and the National Congress on Puerto Rican Rights.  While people often refer to the early ACT UP days during the movent’s first five years, but events such as Bridges and Tunnels, helped change the direction of the AIDS and direct action movement’s in New York City.  Housing Works would later win a settlement against the city, successfully claiming the city had retaliated against the organization for taking part in Bridges and Tunnels and actions like it.

In a 2005 interview with me, Jennifer Flynn recalled the days leading up to Bridges and Tunnels. 


In a 2005 interview, Jennifer Flynn recalled the days leading up to Bridges and Tunnels.
Then in 1994, when [Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani came into office, it was really interesting... It was the first time that social services across the board were cut. Straight up every single social service program was being cut. That led, in 1995, to this kind of unified cry out for attention to fight back those cuts. And that led to the 1995 Bridges and Tunnels action.  There were also a few high-profile police brutality cases. And people really thought that was result of the policies of the Republican mayor, which they were. It was also that he was talking about cutting welfare in a way that predated federal welfare reform. He talked about changing welfare. One of the first things he did when he came into office was try to shut down the city agency that provided welfare, including housing for PWAs, the Division of AIDS Services. And there was an enormous outpouring of anger, and he was stopped - because of the publicity. ACT UP had been doing a lot of organizing against Giuliani around his attempts to dismantle DASIS, which would have resulted in homeless PWAs going back to the shelters...

So some members of ACT UP made some calls to other organizers throughout the city. I think that the first call that they made was to Richie Perez, who was at the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. He'd been organizing this coalition of parents whose kids had been killed by the police and had looked at some changes in policing that were resulting in increased cases of police brutality in New York City. And also he had a history of doing sort of ACT UP type of direct action…Then they brought in some other groups.  CUNY students were organizing. In the months before April 25th, 1995, they had had ten thousand students just descending on City Hall.  

So there was a complete shut down of the East Side of Manhattan. ACT UP and Housing Works had about 145 people arrested at the midtown tunnel, the one that goes to Queens. And Community Against Anti-Asian Violence took Manhattan Bridge. And the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. The CUNY students took the Brooklyn Bridge. Coalition for the Homeless and Urban Justice Center actually had homeless people getting arrested on the Williamsburg Bridge. And the entire East Side was tied up for two or three hours as a result.

In 2001, Bridges and Tunnels organizers Esther Kaplan wrote an essay called, “This City Is Ours” recalling the action.  It was published in From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization.   In it she recalls some of the organizing which took place to pull off that action.   I have included the essay in its entirety.  Thank you for your advocacy Esther Kaplan. 


At 5 p.m. on Tuesday, April 25, 1995, in New York City, a little over a year into Rudy Giuliani's tenure as mayor and just five months into the Gingrich Revolution, hundreds of homeless activists marched across the Brooklyn Bridge for a rally at City Hall. As they neared the Manhattan-side ramp, twenty-five activists peeled off to block the bridge just as rush hour commuters headed their way. One of the activists, Lisa Daugaard, gleefully recalls that when police moved in to cuff them, a message came in over one officer's scanner. "Battery Tunnel??" she heard him say.

At that very moment, right across town, sixty City University of New York (CUNY) students had departed from another rally to block cars as they headed for that exit from Manhattan. A little farther uptown, twenty-five police-brutality activists dashed from a Chinatown movie house to seal off the Manhattan Bridge, the final artery to Brooklyn. And in Midtown, when a traffic light turned, seventy-five AIDS and disability activists, myself among them, briskly walked and wheeled our way deep into the entranceway of the Queens Midtown Tunnel for a traffic-stopping die-in. What The Village Voice dubbed the Rush Hour Revolt ultimately involved more than 2,000 demonstrators, four rallies and 185 planned arrests.[1] In fourteen years of activism, I've never been part of anything quite like it.
The action may be a faded chapter of '90s activist history by now, but what might today be referred to as "A25" is an early echo of the structure and style of the new direct action movement--interesting both for its strong parallels and for its distinct approach to some of the problems that plague the current movement. A25 was a large, multi-site, multi-issue action almost five years before the Battle in Seattle. It was a mass civil disobedience action at a time when no one but ACT UP had used that tactic in years. And it was a brash display of political unity--with majority participation by people of color--at a time when city progressives had never felt more divided.

A divided city
We all sensed that a storm was coming when Giuliani made cracking down on the city's "squeegee men" a centerpiece of his campaign for mayor. But we didn't realize how quickly. In his first week in office in January 1994, the former prosecutor, saying that windshield-wiping entrepreneurs "filled New Yorkers with dread," sent police officers out to round up and arrest them all. Two weeks later, the city posted signs in subway cars, urging riders not to give out pocket change to panhandlers, and arrests of the poor multiplied underground. Brutal sweeps of out-of-the-way homeless encampments followed, where the unhoused had their shelter and belongings bulldozed before being treated to three nights in jail. By March, the crackdown had extended to public urinators and marijuana tokers, and by April to the city's mostly immigrant squad of food vendors.
The deluge began in mid-February, when the mayor announced that he would sell off several of the city's public hospitals to private bidders and that he planned to eliminate the city's Division of AIDS Services as well. And it simply didn't let up. In early May, he proposed a city budget splattered with massive cutbacks to the public schools, public universities, and youth services; in October he pushed a package of midterm cuts that threatened to eliminate soup kitchens across the city. By year's end, police brutality complaints had risen by 38 percent.

            For activists, it was chaos. Looking back through my datebook from that year, I notice that in the space of a few months I appeared in court on disorderly conduct charges for an evening of staged squeegeeing; offered childcare for a day-long teach-in on the Division of AIDS Services; pulled a midnight shift as an observer at Penn Station, where reports of police beatings of the homeless were most severe; joined a demonstration protesting proposed tuition hikes at CUNY, and, like every other activist in the city, it seemed, went to meeting after meeting after meeting. Countless community coalitions sprang up--Youth Agenda to oppose the youth services cutbacks, the Harlem Coalition to Save Our Health Care to fight hospital privatization--each one a piecemeal attempt to limit the destruction.

            During the course of that year, there were a few victories. Faced down by ACT UP and other AIDS activists, the mayor backed down on his threat to eliminate the city's AIDS division. The Board of Education and the United Federation of Teachers staved off a portion of the public school cuts. The health care union, 1199, along with local community activists, saved Harlem and Bronx public hospitals from the auction block. But it was a zero-sum game: If you won, someone else lost, and privately, AIDS activists agonized that their victory came at the price of youth centers across the city shutting their doors.

            Many advocates were struggling to find a way out of the bind, and some came together to form broad, citywide umbrella organizations, most notably the Same Boat Coalition, composed heavily of social service providers under the budget knife, and Breaking Bread, composed mostly of left-wing academics and community activists, including myself. But with unions and nonprofits locked in struggles that could mean the death of institutions, Same Boat could rarely turn out more than one hundred demonstrators for the rallies they planned--and ended up functioning best as a pre-email information exchange. And while Breaking Bread did pull out about eight hundred people for a forum on social change with Bell Hooks and Cornel West in June 1994, only one hundred showed up four weeks later for a follow-up strategy session, and that coalition soon closed shop.

            The most significant things to come out of Breaking Bread were a few relationships among members of its racially and politically diverse steering committee, and a comment made by one of them, National Congress of Puerto Rican Rights chair Richard Perez, as he moderated that Hooks-West dialogue. He said, "I can imagine a time when we'd have a level of unity where we could close down bridges and highways around the city and stop business as usual! And we could do this without having to form a single organization." It was an image of intense political coordination that went way past the dominant, but ineffective, coalition model of the time.

            A week, two weeks, three months later, and the image was still rattling around in our heads. Really, when you think about it, why not?

            In early November, Daugaard and I (she a founder of the homeless advocacy group StreetWatch; me a longtime ACT UPer), nervously called up Perez and asked to meet about something we'd rather not discuss on the phone. The former Young Lord didn't ask any questions, but invited us over to his office the next afternoon. "Do you remember what you said back in July about all those bridges?" we asked. "What do you think about giving it a try?"

            Our first A25 planning meeting took place two weeks later in a noisy restaurant with about eight others. The meeting was contentious, even jittery, but almost everyone left ready to try what was then almost unthinkable.

Total coordination and total autonomy
William Broberg, a coordinator of the student arm of A25, now works as an attorney in Seattle--he was the one who finally got the WTO protesters there out of jail. Our post-Seattle conversations were my first exposure to the political structure behind these multifocal protests--the use of "spokescouncil" meetings to link independent acts of civil disobedience. Though our approach to organizing A25 was quite different from this Seattle model, the basic premise--balancing unity and autonomy--felt extremely familiar.

            Our goals for A25 were ambitious--to directly confront the disunity among New York City's activist communities and escalate the seriousness of the resistance--but our proposal was elegant in its simplicity: plan a militant, coordinated action that allowed maximum autonomy for each organization involved.

            In the late '80s and early '90s, with labor in a deep slumber, most active organizations were community-based (Harlem, Bed-Stuy), identity-based (Haitians, African Americans, lesbians), or issue-based (abortion, AIDS), and it was common to hear complaints about the "balkanization" of the left--in fact, by a few of the same people who are so taken by the current antiglobalization movement. Those of us who were building A25 were not among the bashers. We respected, and participated, in organizations like these--they'd been extremely effective at bringing our communities' issues into the public consciousness, whether AIDS discrimination or Puerto Rican independence--even as we wanted to push our own comrades to consider the potential for collective power on a grand scale. We also knew that part of what limited the effectiveness of coalitions like Breaking Bread was that none of us could really imagine a single organization that everyone could trust.

            Our coordinating committee was not composed, as in the standard coalition model, of organizational representatives who changed from week to week. It was made up of specific individuals. To pull off our concept, we needed to bring in seasoned activists who had strong credibility within their community--enough credibility to bring in their organization without giving out all the information. "Key to our success was everyone in the room had a constituency," says Perez. "We weren't six people who could mobilize twelve people." And they each had to be people who could work comfortably in an egalitarian, collective body. "The careful and intentional pace at which we expanded was very important to me," says Thoai Nguyen, then an organizer with the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV). "The importance placed on tactics and political principles over numbers was key."

            Over time, we made a handful of agreements, each with a specific goal in mind. Each civil disobedience (CD) site would have an above-board rally to accompany it, to allow us to create buzz about the day of action without exposing our real plans. To minimize the risk of an injunction, no one but coordinating committee members would know any information about the other actions. We'd create a single common mission statement--subject to review by the planners of each action--that would be distributed on the flip side of each site's issue-based statement or fact sheet. We'd design a common press strategy, to guard against one "hot" action drawing all the attention--a strategy we implemented by offering the story to reporters on the condition that they cover every site. (That's why the New York Times had four photographers and four reporters on the story.) And that was it.

Beyond that, each team planning an action was on its own: Did they want to define the action by community, such as the South Bronx, or by issue, such as police brutality? Did they want the Brooklyn Bridge or Battery Tunnel? Did they want to keep logistics secret from their recruits, or trust each CDer to keep it on the down low? Their call.

            We were searching for a form of unity that could lay the groundwork for taking control of the city back from Giuliani and the forces of reaction he represented, but which would ask communities to sacrifice as little autonomy as possible.

            On the coordinating committee, we asked much more of each other. No faxes, no e-mails, almost nothing in writing at all: every bit of outreach was one-on-one, face-to-face, and our meetings were long, intense, and frequent. At each successive meeting, if there was even one new person, we talked through and refined the politics and strategy of the action again--and again. "I thought its simplicity was its best feature," says Nguyen. "We worked closely and held each other accountable for successes and failures, and we didn't rely on clumsy structures like the spokescouncil or affinity groups."

The color question
From the first thrilling news footage that came out of Seattle, it was evident that, as Elizabeth Martinez wrote in ColorLines, the great battle was "overwhelmingly white."[2] After Martinez opened up the debate within the movement, a handful of activists began to respond, in small and large ways: the Mobilization for Global Justice paid for buses for some mostly black ACT UPers from Philadelphia for April 16, 2000, in Washington; CAAAV joined with other activists to form Third Force, a people of color contingent for A16 and the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia; Nguyen and others organized trainings and teach-ins for people of color from Philly and New York City interested in participating in the protest at Republican National Convention (R2K). But many activists remain fairly cynical about the rate of change.

            In contrast, race politics was fundamental to building April 25. It was, in part, our shared frustration with the creeping whiteness of coalitions like Same Boat that prompted us to explore this new model in the first place. In addition, "We came out of AIDS, CUNY, police brutality, homelessness, hospitals, all areas in which people of color were a tremendous component," recalls Perez, who spoke on a post-R2K panel about people of color and CD. "No one came out of an all-white milieu. Some of the antiglobalization activists are coming out of an all-white world."

            From the outset, we talked openly about which communities were being hardest hit by the Gingrich/Giuliani one-two punch, and which communities were engaged in active resistance. We needed the Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn; we needed the unions, the food vendors, the cabbies, and the homeless; we needed African Americans, Haitians, Asians, and Latinos; we needed students, gay men, and lesbians. And we strategized carefully about who we could reach out to in each world.

            Our vetting process consumed the first two and half months. Whenever the coordinating committee met, we'd each suggest a name or two and then have a lengthy debate about each person's ability to bring out a constituency, their political style, and who was best suited to make the approach. Sectarians were out; narrow nationalists, out; white activists without experience in multiracial organizing, out. If anyone felt that a candidate wasn't trustworthy, she was out. No one could come in unless everyone felt comfortable about them. I remember one meeting where the name of a certain respected '60s generation lawyer came up (we were toying with the idea of having an attorney present at each meeting to thwart potential conspiracy charges) and I mentioned, almost as an aside, that I'd noticed he couldn't listen to women. And that was it--his name was tossed. I was a little stunned.

            We had a few notable failures. Though we successfully recruited several black leaders--Shakoor Aljuwani of the Harlem Hospital Community Board, Brooklyn activist James Steele, Harlem priest Father Luis Barrios, Sabine Albert of the Haitian Women's Program--we never got full buy-in on the CD component from a black organization (Sharpton's operation was a near miss). Ultimately, says Perez, "we didn't find any militant organizations in the black community who bought into the multiracial paradigm." We were equally conscious of trying to bring labor in, and we approached nearly every prominent labor progressive in the city. "When you look at where labor was then, it was extremely underdeveloped," says Perez. "It still is." Still, labor did join the legal rallies, and there was a strong African American presence at the homeless and CUNY CD's.

            In the end, at planning meetings, there was a level of ease in the room. No one spoke out of turn, in a sense: each of us was juggling a longstanding relationship with our own organization, in my case, ACT UP, with our personal and political commitment to making this unified action work. Losing credibility on either end was a bit terrifying. I remember collapsing in tears one afternoon near the end, when I thought my ACT UP comrades, experiencing a crisis of faith about whether the other actions would come through, seemed on the verge of pulling out. Or the painful moment when Aljuwani said he didn't think he could deliver an action in Harlem—in great part because, late in the process, Harlem Hospital was saved from privatization. In this kind of intense environment, there was no room for posturing.

            "I felt a real and visible sense of racial, class, and gender unity with the other members of the coordinating committee," Nguyen recalls, "whereas the current movements think of those issues—especially race and class—as secondary, if they think of them at all."

Discipline and trust
In early March, I was in Philadelphia covering the trial of an old ACT UP comrade, Kate Sorensen, for POZ, the AIDS magazine where I now work. She'd been slapped with a $1 million bail after her arrest at R2K, plus ten felony conspiracy charges. (She ultimately stood trial for four.) Ten other felony trials came out of that week of action, and Sorensen is convinced that this is part of a national crackdown on activism. I suspect she's right, since the evidence of interagency coordination is so strong. But still, I kept wondering during the trial whether the loose structure of the direct action movement--undoubtedly a huge part of its size and appeal--had contributed to Sorensen standing trial for vandalism she'd had nothing to do with.

I asked Nguyen whether he'd had any fears with A25 that participants would do something to put others at risk, such as damaging property or physically confronting police. He said no, that he'd handpicked almost everyone in the police brutality CD, and "held each of them personally accountable to me, and vice versa. I also felt that the other coordinating committee members had the same m.o., and I trusted their confidence in the other participants."

April 25's direct action style came from two main sources: the tightly controlled, highly planned CDs of ACT UP/New York, whose members used to brag that the group, through hundreds of arrest scenarios, had never lost a single person in the system, and the security-conscious militancy of '70s-era radicals, like Perez, who'd experienced Cointelpro firsthand in the Young Lords.  Our legal team was tight and effective; we already knew, from our experience with ACT UP, which precincts people would be taken to, how many lawyers we'd need for this number of arrests, and what kind of time commitment they'd have to make; how to run a 24/7 legal center until arrestees were all released; and how to use pressure from local elected officials--who we'd already lined up--to expedite arraignment.

Many of our recruits--the CUNY students, young CAAAV members, homeless people--were fairly new to activism, and had never done CD before, so we committed to training them well and guaranteeing their safety. We created special segments of our CD trainings for minors, undocumented immigrants, and people with previous convictions, outlining clearly what the consequences might be and laying out important alternative roles they could play in the actions.

One of my favorite entries in our timeline for the action, adopted in early January was, "Week of action: Injunctions and restraining orders arrive."  As tight as our security was, we had carefully built infiltration, and the possibility of conspiracy charges, into the plan. Nguyen had been a student organizer in Indonesia, where breaches in security could mean jail time or death; Perez's years in the Young Lords weren't so far off; and Broberg and I had ourselves received an injunction a few years before, while planning a CD to protest Rust v. Sullivan, a Supreme Court decision restricting abortion funds (discussed in essay by Tracy Morgan in Section Two). These experiences set the tone.

We set very narrow restrictions on what any of us could reveal as we recruited for the coordinating committee. No unconfirmed CD participant knew where any action would take place; for two of the CDs, even the participants didn't know the locations until moments before. "If you handle secrecy right, people don't have to feel disempowered," says Broberg. "We had a very democratic process about which pieces of the tactical decisionmaking and information people were willing to relinquish knowing."

One of our final agreements was to use jail solidarity--that we would work together inside to assure everyone's prompt release. But our approach was different than that of, say, at R2K, where protesters all used noms de guerre and later fought every charge in court for nearly a year. We all gave the basic required information--legal name and permanent address only--and we agreed in court to accept ACDs (a kind of conditional dismissal that implies guilt), choosing as a group not to stand on ceremony so that we could be done with court and get back to our activist work. At a time when police response to activism was at least a bit more predictable, we made no major miscalculations of risk.

Speaking directly to activists
With our action on April 25, says Daugaard, "We targeted powerbrokers as a threat," but even more importantly, "we targeted activists with a call to action."

            This emphasis is clear as I read back over our deeply moral joint statement, "This City is Ours": "Every New Yorker is faced today with a historical choice, because our city is facing a degree of devastation that few of us have witnessed or expected in our lifetime," it read in part. "Our political leaders want us to turn on each other: to blame teen mothers for the budget crisis, to blame Asian, Latino or Caribbean immigrants for unemployment, to blame homeless people and drug addicts for crime; to blame people with AIDS and other illnesses and disabilities for the collapse of our health care system; to blame youth of color for the failure of our educational system. We are committed to resisting this pressure.... This year, as we take to the streets together before Mayor Giuliani releases his proposed budget, we refuse to fight each other for the same scraps from the budget table. Today we refuse to give divisiveness and cruelty our blessing.... This city is ours, and we do not want it left in ruins."

            As an effective challenge to the powers that be, our success was equivocal. Seven years later, Newt Gingrich may be a distant memory, but Giuliani’s legacy, Still, his legacy has been damaged. His repeated efforts to introduce privatization into the public schools, whether through vouchers or for-profit school management, have failed. We now know that he only managed to implement his workfare program because of an election rigged by a now-disgraced municipal election leader. And his crown jewel, the drop in crime, has been permanently tarnished by horrendous incidents of police brutality on his watch, from Anthony Baez to Abner Louima to Amadou Diallo.

            As a challenge to activists, it is possible to see the ripples of the action still. A25 cemented the relationship between CAAAV and the National Congress of Puerto Rican Rights, who had never before closely collaborated. The two groups not only went on to found the Coalition Against Police Brutality (CAPB), a people of color organization that now includes the black nationalist Malcolm X Grassroots Collective and the gay and lesbian Audre Lorde Project, but they formed the basis of Third Force, the people of color contingent that participated in A16 and R2K. The pressure exerted by the multiracial CAPB on Al Sharpton's narrow nationalism has slowly had its effect, too.  When police shot Amadou Diallo in early 1999, the Reverend issued a call for two weeks of multiracial CD. A25 was a sort of coming out party for SLAM!, the Hunter College-based Student Liberation Action Movement, which filled out the ranks of the CUNY protest that day According to Nguyen, SLAM! has become one of the few people of color-led organizations to do more than critique the race politics of the direct action movement; "it has taken on the responsibility to try to change it--despite a lot of resistance and denial."

During the thirty or forty hours we all spent together at Central Booking that spring in 1995, we experienced the kind of bonds that are by now familiar to veterans of the antiglobalization protests. "For a minute," Broberg recalls, "people gave themselves over to the vision of 'we'--a 'we' that was a whole lot bigger than we'd ever felt before." As Perez said to me recently, "It's important to create a tradition that speaks to these politics--that it's impossible to fight for your community without fighting homelessness and drug addiction; that it's impossible to fight for liberation and not fight homophobia. We were looking for a teaching experience, to show people what their power was." It wasn't a bad start.

This article was shaped by conversations and email exchanges with Richard Perez, chairman of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights; Thoai Nguyen, who is organizing Roma youth in the Balkans; Lisa Daugaard, who is now directing a project challenging racial bias by Seattle police; and William Broberg, a Seattle attorney. Thanks to Andrew Hsiao, who covered A25 for The Village Voice, for sharing his tapes from 1995 interviews.


[1] For coverage of the protest, see for example Andrew Hsiao with Karen Houppert, "Birth of a Movement?" The Village Voice, 9 May, 1995; Jessie Mangaliman and Rob Polner, "Budget Protest Traps Thousands," New York Newsday, 26 April, 1995; N. R. Kleinfield, "Rush Hour Protest Causes Gridlock," New York Times, 26 April, 1995; Elinor Tatum, "New York Police Break up Protest," Amsterdam News, 27 April, 1995.
[2] Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez, "Where Was the Color in Seattle," ColorLines, Spring 2000. For another influential article on race in the direct action movement, see Andrew Hsiao, "Color Blind," The Village Voice, 25 July, 2000.

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