On the 14th of September 1989, seven members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power made chained themselves to the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange, where they hung the banner: SELL WELLCOME, a reference to the Burroughs Wellcome, the maker of AZT, the maker of the only promising AIDS drug at the time. Their message was clear: Wall Street was controlling the health care needs of people living with HIV/AIDS. Three days after the action, the drug company dropped the price of the drug by a third. It was ACT UP’s third major demonstration on Wall Street . Their first in 1987 targeted “Business, big business, and business as usual,” connecting campaigns to move drugs into bodies with a system of drug patents, privatization, and a global economy which favors profits over people. Their brand of street action combined with thoughtful media work would fuel a resurgence of both direct action and Situationist style street pranks and protest, connecting movements from 1968 through Gay Liberation, Women’s Health, No-Nukes, Anti Apartheid, Global Justice and Occupy movements taking place today. Wednesday, April 25, ACT UP will celebrate its 25th Anniversary with another trip to Wall Street.
The linkage between ACT UP and Occupy is not insubstantial. Occupy and ACT UP both ignited movements by targeting Wall Street. In doing so, both movements participated in a storied critique. “Wall Street owns the country,” noted Populist Mary Elizabeth Lease, of Kansas in 1890. “It is no longer government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, for Wall Street.” Both ACT UP and Occupy understood that Wall Street plays by its own rules, which favor its own interests, rather than those of regular people, the 99%.
Keith Cylar carried a sign with the words “Free AZT” to the 1989 ACT UP Wall Street zap on Wall Street. During an interview at the action, Cylar pointed out that Wall Street had made enough money with AZT. His argument was simple. The federal government had helped pay for the research to develop AZT. And that when they charged the Medicare and Medicaid for the drug, the US government was paying for it twice. While Burroughs Wellcome argued the research costs were their alone, federal research from the NIH helped support the process. So the government was paying twice. Burroughs Welcome’s approach was one a long history of examples of Wall Street privatizing profits and privatizing gains. This pattern was, of course, the reason Occupy Wall Street was born and seven months later still occupying Wall Street. And it is why ACT UP and Occupy will be joining forces the 25th anniversary of ACT UP’s first zap on Wall Street.
The story of ACT UP has been told in countless forms and fashions. In 1992, Sandra Elgear Robyn Hutt David Meieran’s 1992 film Voices from the Front told the story of the first five years of ACT UP. There have been other books on ACT UP, most notably by Douglas Crimp. In 2002, Ron Hayduck and I edited a collection linking ACT UP’s work with the ascendance of the global justice movement in the late 1990’s. James Wenzy has put together any number of films on the group. Unsatisfied with the often stilted approach to this history, in the mid-2000’s Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard started collecting oral histories of remaining members of the group. Their project culminates with Jim Hubbard’s film United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. The film covers much of the territory from the first five years of ACT UP covered in Voices from the Front. Yet, they frame the stories from the oral histories of those who took part in their oral history project, linking their memories with ACT UP’s historic zaps of the FDA, the NIH, City Hall and Wall Street. Much of the power and potency of ACT UP to challenge the roots of AIDS drug profiteering, as well as the systems of racism, sexism, and homophobia which fuel the epidemic. Activist struggles to challenges these forces make the film and the movement it represents, an unparalleled experience in social movement history. Watching these activists in action, one witnesses a group transforming social stigma through public education, research and direct action. To fight the victimization of people with HIV/AIDS, one witnesses a group of activists building on the lessons and tactics of movements ranging from Civil Rights to No Nukes to Women’s Health Movements. Voices from the Front features Vito Russo, Keith Cylar, Maxine Wolfe, and Ray Navarro linking struggles between women’s communities and communities of color to fight a system built on inequalities in health. Russo and Cylar aptly note how much ACT UP learned from the women’s movement in this struggle. United in Anger builds on this sentiment with Maxine Wolf, also featured in Voices from the Front, as well as Karen Ramspacher, who links notions of reproductive autonomy with HIV prevention in a thoughtful and compelling way.
For as long as I can remember, ACT UP has laid out the framework for a process of connecting direct up with effective movement strategy to move issues forward. United in Anger is not able to cover all of it. No film could. This is what Schulman’s oral histories are for. Yet, I certainly would love to see a film which endeavored to cover the innovative work of the ACT UP Housing and Syringe Exchange committees which helped ignite a harm reduction movement and have stayed active long after the first five golden years of ACT UP so effectively covered in Voices from the Front and United in Anger.
Thinking about this movement and the passions it helped ignite, the voices of the screams, so many in power could barely hear, reverberate through the past into our current moment:
“We die, they do nothing!”
“We’ll never be silent again, ACT UP!”
“Release the drugs!”
“Ten years, one billion dollars, one drug” screamed hundreds outside of the offices of the National Institute of Health offices in Bethesda MD, during ACT UP’s storm the NIH action of 1990. “Storm the NIH,” rapped Tony Malliaris. “Storm the NIH for the sick, Storm the NIH - for the poor.”. Reflecting on the action, Mark Harrington would later note: “Direct action can be more effective than ten years of lobbyists.” The point of the actions was create a dialog. With each zap, ACT UP furthered their effort to take the power away from the experts and put it in the hands of those most impacted by the epidemic, then contending with the inequalities of Wall Street, still controlling their health.
I came into ACT UP three years later in 1993. There I witnessed both the despair of years without treatment for the virus, which killed hundreds of the clients I came to know during my years as a social workers in San Francisco. If I did not hear about their passing at work, I heard while reading the Bay Area Reporter. Coping with those losses, ACT UP allowed us to laugh and take action, to care and to mourn. It also connected collective grief with a global movement, linking the then nascent struggles against Apartheid with gay liberation, as well as a distinct brand of San Francisco neighborhood politics. For me perhaps ACT UP’s most important lesson was that we could and should have an amazing time, while fighting the carnage. One could cry or scream, that all those expressions were legitimate. In other words, it was OK to be who you are, not who anyone else thought you should be. One could revel in the collective pleasure of watching friends build community, grieve for those whose health was eroding, and celebrate the Lazarous like phenomena of watching people regain their health with the advent of highly active antiretroviral therapy, a treatment which actually seemed to work, fifteen years into the epidemic. I would credit ACT UP with pushing to make this happen.
Yet even with HAART, HIV was not over. “Its not over till its over for everyone” Housing Works, an AIDS service and direct action organization born of ACT UP’s housing committee reminded everyone. Over the next fifteen years, wave after wave of new AIDS activist groups were born, some from ACT UP, many, such as SexPanic! Fed Up Queers, CitiWide Harm Reduction, Healthgap, Treatment Action Group, New York City AIDS Housing Network, and VOCAL, born directly from ACT UP. Moving to New York in the late-1990’s, I saw ACT UP dovetail with fights over HIV prevention, harm reduction, social services, crumbling safety provisions for the poor, and struggles over access to medications all over the world.
“AIDS opened up a lot of cans of worms,” noted Gay Liberation Front veteran and long time ACT UP supporter Bob Kohler before his death. Cleve Jones, founder of the Names Quilt, would point out that AIDS is spread by sexism, racism, homophobia and even capitalism itself. With this in mind, ACT UP dovetailed in multiple movements aimed at these systems of power, including Occupy Wall Street.
In its short six months, Occupy has joined neighborhood struggles against exploitation of workers and the environment. It has highlighted the ways banks favor profits over people, helping turn people’s homes into commodities to foreclose (translate rob) from the poor and resell to the highest bidder. In its campaigns to sleep in the streets, the movement has built on organizing work of both AIDS housing, squatter, and homeless groups in their battles against the criminalization of poverty and homelessness, connecting the dots, between gestures of direct action and movements, struggles against police abuse and larger structural campaigns to sweep the poor from New York’s contested public spaces.
Last Friday, a group of Occupiers challenged the NYPD restrictions on their legal right to sleep on the street as a form of protest. Citing a legal precedent set by housing activists over a decade ago (Met Council vs. Safir), members of Occupy lay down in front of the steps to the Federal Hall at Wall Street. The action took place during the weekly Occupy Wall Street Spring Training Actions in which activists literally Occupy the space in from the Stock Exchange. John Dennehy, an eyewitness wrote:
This week, when we began to arrive, there were many occupiers already there who have been occupying the steps to Federal Hall since . The police had barricaded the steps and control access to what they officially refer to as the “first amendment rights area.”. In addition to the NYPD, there were counter terrorism, federal park police and SWAT.
|Thank you to all the Occupy photographers. Apologies for missing the names of these.|
Such gestures build on the work of generations of activists, including Housing Works’ successful suit against the City of New York for blocking their access to City Hall during the Giuliani years.
Yet, the problems both ACT UP and Occupy face have yet to go away.
The prop making party for Wednesday’s action was held during the meeting of New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth a homeless services provider run by ACT UP veteran Kate Barnhart. Through her connection between street youth, AIDS and health care activism Barnhart reminds supporters of the unfinished legacy of Stonewall as well as queer activism. Many of the queer and trans youth who rioted in 1969 have yet to find a way off of the streets, now nearly a half century after the riots of 1969. Over the years, services for this group have yet to materialize. Many are considered too far off the periphery to deserve support. In response, health care, harm reduction and old style AIDS activists, such as Karen Ramspacher, Donald Grove, Laurie Wenn and this writer have joined Barnhart and the hard working board at New Alternatives to create a space for homeless GLBT youth still struggling for a place to find a home. The implicit link between ACT UP and Occupy takes shape in countless forms. Many of these youth joined Occupy from the very beginning, as did the trans and AIDS activists.
More than anything, ACTing UP is an ethos and practice, open for those who care about people rather than profits and are willing to use their bodies to connect their hope for a better world with direct action gestures of care, art, pranks, grief, anger, and even fun to move us a little closer to in that direction. This is a story linking affinity groups and friendship networks, as well as local and global movements into a story connecting the anti war activists and gay liberationists who joined ACT UP’s first actions a quarter century ago with the Occupiers and direct action veterans fueling today’s intersecting movements.
And don’t forget, this Wednesday: