Monday, April 30, 2012

From the Haymarket to Occupy: Ruminations on May Day 2012

Just reading through Facebook.  My friend May Hem posted,5 military choppers circling new York city right now. Ray Kelly high terrorist alert my ass. How stupid do you think we are ?”  Listening out my windows, I hear the sound of helicopters in the distance.  Its usually like this in the city the day before a big convergence action.  In the days before Feb 15th, 2003 when thousands converged on the UN before Colin Powell’s infamous speech, the office of homeland security changed alert level terror codes almost daily.  Protesters dream for democratic expression in the face of expanding income inequalities while police strive for social control of the streets during days such as May Day, the Republican Convention.  Conflicting images of urban living clash in the corridors, sidewalks, parks, libraries, plazas, and anywhere else people gather.  These are days when the dialectics of the city turn the streets into a living, breathing work of art. 

These dialectics involve an interplay those seeking to express their concerns about restrictions on democracy and responses from the city which sees anything  but “permitted” (translate regulated and controlled) marches as “disruptive activities” which constitute a threat to social order and quite possibly terrorist activity.  Examples of potentially “disruptive” activities listed by the NYPD Counterterrorism Unit include the Wildcat March, Bike Block which would “attempt to tie up automotive activity”, and any unpermitted activities taking place on May 1.   In other words, first amendment protected expression is deemed potentially ‘terrorist activity’ by the NYPD.   Yet, for every restriction, a counter response takes shape.

Walking home from Occupy Town Square in Union Square on Saturday, someone passed me a copy of a broadsheet with the words: “STRIKE OCCUPY.”  

ha-ha, ho-ho!
Fly into the streets!

All who are still fresh and young and no dehumanized – to the streets!
The pot-bellied mortar of laughter strands in a square drunk with joy.   Laughter and Love, copulating with Melancholy and Hate, pressed together in the might convulsive passion…

Long list the psychology  of contrasts!  Intoxicated , burning spirits have raised the flaming banner….

The words, of course, are from the Anarcho Futurist Manifesto of 1919.  The passion they conjure still lingers in the air, in the contrasts of the city on the eve of a proposed general strike.  Of, course, a general strike implies workers propose to strike.  “Strikelujah” chimed in Gideon Oliver at tonight’s Reverend Billy “Night before May Day’ show and rally tonight.  Many at the show felt that way.  The inequalities we experience today will only continue unless more people fight back, express themselves, and reclaim democracy of and for the people.

My union, the PSC, has called for a labor rally tomorrow, not a strike.   By laws of the state, we are obliged not to strike (not that many of the members of our union were around when the Taylor Laws were signed, writing off our most useful tool, the general strike).   

The chapter chair of my chapter Robert Cermele notes:

This May Day will be historic in its dimension. The call for a "general strike" may be... rhetorical. But there will likely be tens of thousands of people or more in the streets. The Occupy Wall Street movement, Labor Unions, Immigrant Rights groups and others have been seriously organizing for this.
      The heart of the May Day holiday is directly relevant to the students and workers at CUNY. We are workers.
  Participating in the creative, militant, diverse May Day activities is an educational experience.  We all know that education is not just, or primarily, something acquired in the classroom. It is also gotten through real life experiences. 

            The labor sector of the May Day March and Rally endorsed the following statement:

Legalize! Organize! Unionize! 
We want to be heard! We need to be heard! We will be heard! 
We are here to celebrate our power as working people. We are here to assert our power as working people. We are here to declare our solidarity with working people the world over. 
We are here to declare our right to economic security, to health care, to public services, to safe and healthy communities, to quality education, and to civil liberties. We are here to demand all the popular, administrative and legislative initiatives required to secure these rights.  
We are here to decry the rampant growth of inequality. We want an end to tax breaks for the rich. We want an end to assaults on the right to organize. We want an end to the mass incarceration of people of color. We want an end to the demonization of the immigrant community. We want an end to war and the unaffordable militarization of foreign policy. We want an end to a political process bought and paid for by the 1%. 
We are here to emphasize our growing unity of purpose. We are Puerto Rico. We are Wisconsin. We are Ohio. We are New York. We are Los Angeles and Oakland and a multitude of cities across the country. We are the 99%! 

Of course, most everyone who has been through a round or two of convergence actions in the city is weary of these moments. Tonight, Reverend Billy talked about the reality that some would be arrested and spend the night in the tombs the following day.   We’ve all seen it before, as if from the ghosts of the Haymarket Martyr’s of labor’s pastThe police fear another bomb and react to signs of anarchists, the Black Bloc, or radicalism, seeking to sweep their images from the street and the public commons. I recall a friend being swept up by the police standing in Union Square with a black block mask.  Four years later, friends with the Rude Mechanical Orchestra had their instruments smashed by the NYPD on August31 2004 while standing in Union Square during the Republican National Convention, when the City of New York became a paramilitary zone; innocent people were swept off the streets for doing little more than occupying the sidewalk, liberals remained quiet, and the city fell further into the grips of an expanding  censorship zone.

Of course, these convergence days of action have produced amazing things over the years; but just as often, they culminate in arrests, criminalization of dissent, and lawsuits. This is part of why it is so important to have lawyers around to push back.  Just today, I received a press release declaring:

Elected Officials and Members of the Press File Civil Rights Suit Against
NYPD and JP Morgan Chase For Arrests Related to OWS

Federal lawsuit alleges civil rights violated by NYPD and private entities including
JP Morgan Chase and Brookfield Properties asks for federal independent monitor

New York, NY. April 30, 2012. Lawyers on behalf of 5 elected officials and over half a dozen members of the press filed a major lawsuit today in federal court alleging the City of New York, the MTA, the New York Police Department, Brookfield Properties, JP Morgan Chase and others are in violation of numerous civil rights, including First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.  The suit seeks redress for police misconduct in arrests made during the “Occupy Wall Street” protests and asks that a federal independent monitor be appointed to oversee the NYPD in order to safeguard the public.

The 143 page complaint submitted by a group of civil rights attorneys including Leo Glickman, Yetta G. Kurland and Wylie Stecklow, was filed today in United States District Court in the Southern District and includes a 24 minute video which highlights the use of excessive force and selective enforcement which many have claimed has become an issue over the past 6 months during the “Occupy” protests.

The suit also addresses the City’s relationship with JP Morgan Chase who donated $4.6 million to the NYPD during this time, as well as the fact that members of the press and elected officials have been arrested while observing and/or reporting on these protests.

One of the plaintiffs, New York City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who was bloodied and arrested on November 15, 2011 for attempting to observe the eviction of Zuccotti park stated “While my charges were dismissed, the bigger issue still remains, namely that the NYPD misused their power and did not respect my First Amendment or the NYC Charter which gave me the right to act as an observer."

New York City Councilmember Letitia James, another plaintiff in the suit, stated “this is about accountability but it is also about ensuring that we have a proper balance of powers in this City. People should not be afraid to suffer harm from the police when they express their First Amendment right to assemble.”

New York City Councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito has also joined the suit. She stated “Some of us in the City Council are looking to address these issues legislatively, in the meantime we will avail ourselves of the United States judicial branch to ask for its help to ensure our police properly protect the public they are entrusted to serve.”

Jumaane Williams, another New York City Councilmember made the point that this effects everyone not just OWS protestors. “We hope this suit will help all New Yorkers, as well as the NYPD. We believe officers should not be put in a situation where they are asked to act in a way which results in this type of misconduct or puts them at odds with the public.”

John Knefel, a journalist and radio show host, who was arrested while covering a protest in the publicly-accessible Winter Garden in lower Manhattan because he didn’t have NYPD issue press credentials, is one of the plaintiffs as well. “It is of course concerning that the public is arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights, but it is likewise concerning that members of the press are arrested when they try to cover this.”

Justin Sullivan, another plaintiff and citizen press journalist who assembled the video exhibit for the suit stated “I was arrested while covering someone else being arrested for complaining about someone else being arrested for doing a ‘mic check’. This is not how our police should act.”

While they rarely slow the NYPD, these lawsuits help those who have been swept from the streets feel like there is some recourse after experiencing the raw end of the often unconstitutional rule of force often exercised by the NYPD.  The City of New York is still paying out those swept from the streets during the Republican National Convention eight years ago.  A few years ago, a group of us swept from the streets and arrested protesting the Carlyle Group, were rewarded a settlement from the city.  While the city rarely admits guilt, the lawsuits help hold the city in check.  They help those arrested feel like the system is not completely stacked against them.

Days and Rage and Wildcat strikes.
For much of this year, activists involved with Occupy have engaged in a debate about a diversity of tactics.  Embracing direct action, OWS has not asked for permits for rallies.  Echoing the IWW before it, OWS does not seem to view those in power as sources of legitimate authority.
And asking for a permit for a right to peacable assembly which already exists strikes many as counterintuitive.   Yet, the NYPD sees things differently, sometimes violently attacking those engaging in first amendment protected activities.  As the arrests by the NYPD have escalated, some have debated other approaches to engagement.  Such debates are not unfamiliar.  The history of social movements is full of activists who have entertained a range of approaches.   Today, much of this debate has surrounded the unpermited May Day Wildcat Strike scheduled for May Day.

We were told by a bosses, by activists, by union leaders we couldn’t strike. Perhaps, they suggested, if we wanted to protest we could carry a sign and walk within police barricades, safely cordoned off in a free speech zone. On May 1st, we aren’t working and we aren’t protesting. We are striking.

We call on all fellow wildcat strikers to join us for a massive unpermitted march at 1pm at Sara D. Roosevelt Park (corner of 2nd and Houston). Along with striking rebels all over the world, we will show the bosses and cops of the world that we are many and we are only getting stronger.

Bring drums, banners, music, and an affinity group. See you on May Day.

Yesterday before the Times Up! Polar Bear ride, a friend approached me about the action, noting that journalists had been told not to attend the action.  Rumors about the action abounded and I was encouraged not to attend.  If May Day comes and goes and it's a peaceful demonstration, no one's going to remember it"”  noted a conservative source in the Wall Street Journal seeming to provoke a violent reaction from the movement, which to this date, has steered away from such approaches.  After all, when movement strays too far from the Ghardian repertoire of non-violence, the state usually steps in fast, crushing most everyone involved.  They did this with the Young Lords, Weather Underground, Earth Liberation Front and many others.  As it has done in other years, the NYPD seem to be demarking good protesters from bad, contrasting those engaging in unpermitted rallies in contrast with those, such as labor, who have applied for a  permit for their action.

 “I came here for community," noted Mark Adams, with the author overlooking to the top left.
Photo by Stacy Lanyon. 

In the meanwhile, others have simply committed themselves to building a more compelling image of democratic social relations. “We will dazzle with brilliance, not isolate with violence,” noted my friend Keegan on Facebook.  “I came here for community, solidarity, mutual aid, everything for everybody,” noted my friend Mark Adams.  For many, mutual aid networks are part of what make the Occupy experiment, just so vital. The street theatrics and community building are part of what make the movement feel so embodied, fun, and vital.

For the last six weeks, I have attended the Spring Training sessions taking place on Fridays at Zuccotti Park.  These are training sessions for May Day done with group exercises in which groups of hundreds of learn to move, supporting each other, while holding space.   Last Friday, the final session, was a great day at Spring training. Zaps of Chase Bank, Trinity Church and the MTA, and a gesture of civil disobedience in front of the Stock Exchange. A marching band accompanied us as we wondered from Zuccotti down through the labyrinth to Bowling Green. “Occupy and Shut it Down, New York is a working town!” and "Hey, Hey MTA, How many fair hikes did you have today?" some chanted. Others fell back to the vintage: "The system, its Broken, Hella Hella Occupy!" and "One, two, three four, lets have a class war, five, six, seven, eight, smash the rich, smash the state!" The Human Gong and civil disobedience at the closing bell was thrilling.   

The three pickets were samples of some of the 99 similar pickets called for for May Day.

The 1% crashed our economy, foreclosing on millions of homes,destroying jobs, and wrecking our city budget. Enough is Enough. As we approach May 1, we will be setting up 99 Picket Lines to expose, disrupt, and shut down the 1% who rule our city.

As we approach May 1,we will be setting up 99 Picket Lines to expose, disrupt, and shut down the 1% who rule our city.The 99 pickets will be an effective way for people to plug into the morning activities on May Day. A few other pickets will happen in the coming weeks to build for the May 1st, but the focus of this project is May 1st. This is an opportunity to fight back against austerity, union busting, the attacks on immigrant rights and the entire system of the 1% rule with a tactic and framework that is in solidarity with the May Day call to action. The recent General Strikes in Spain and Greece show us that when we all fight back together, against austerity we are stronger. The picket line is a tactic with a rich history. It can be diverse and does not have to be symbolic.

How will we get to 99 picket lines?
Good question- We are off to a great start. Right now, Unions, Worker Centers, community groups, and affinity groups are selecting and bottom lining targets. We already have over 20 locations. We have an outreach plan to encourage many more organizations to participate.

In order to get to 99, but we need more unions, community groups, OWS working groups, affinity groups, and workers to step up and pick a target.

Pick a target you want to picket, ideally at 8 am on May 1, in midtown. Can you get at least 20 people to join you in picketing? Great! (We can help by publicizing your target, if you want. There will also be some upcoming trainings on picketing and mobile tactics) If you do not have 20 people, no problem come to an OWS action spokes council to plug into existing pickets or just come at 8AM to Bryant Park on May 1st and recruit folks to join you. Either way, You are also strongly encouraged to participate in the affinity group spokes councils and existing May Day planning which happen every Wednesday at 6PM at 33 West 14th St. This tactic and project is in solidarity with the all of the exciting plans for May 1st. This action will be distinct but also compliment the amazing mass march from Union Square at 4pm.

If you would like to register a picket line and or have any questions or need support email:

San Francisco writers James Tracy and I had coffee today.   We talked about the ways Occupy has plugged into countless local campaigns, including struggles for workers at Sotheby’s or people losing their homes.  Staughton Lynd has argued movements thrive when they go local and join such campaigns over the long term.  Days of action are important ways of bringing people together, yet they lose their vitality when people lose the capacity to connect with changing everyday mechanisms of power.  May Day is tomorrow. See you tomorrow at Continental Army Plaza at 10:30 am.  From there, we move into the abyss, between protester ambition to take on corporate control on a march over the Manhattan Bridge to the Lower East Side, Madison Square Park, Bryant Park  and back to Union Square..  Along the way, we’ll probably end up trickling past the Wildcat Strike and encounter the Bike Block, already drawing  the attention of the NYPD and its Counter Terrorism Bureau, which equates democratic expression with Terrorism.  But what really matters is what we all do on May 2.

Its 11 AM, the night before May Day.  

May Day bat signal. Photo by Gideon Oliver.

I just got a text message declaring: 

“Occupy NYC: MAYDAY All Civilians Stand by for a General Strike at 8:00, No Work, School of Shopping.”  Looks like the game is on.  Time to enter the breach between the streets and history.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Polar Bear Earth Ride This Sunday


Environmental Activists dressed as polar bears on bikes search for rapidly disappearing ice while demanding clean renewable energy, conservation, and greener polices from banks and corporations

“Ride a Bike!  Save a Bear!” declare polar bears.
Benjamin Shepard – 917 586 7952
Monica Hunken 917-399-7563

What: Polar Bear Earth Ride  
When: Sunday, April 29th at Union Square
Starts: 1:30pm, Union Square Park south –Riders dressed as polar bears will dance and shout and ride and look for ice among the warm spring time.

New York, NY (April 29th, 2012)  This Sunday, April 29th, polar bear supporters --many dressed as bears themselves--will join a Polar Bear Earth Ride organized by Time’s Up!, a direct action environmental group. They will call attention to the need to protect the green community spaces that gardens provide and to alert New Yorkers of the dangers of the impending Spectra Pipeline in the West Village. 

"The polar bears aren't the only ones who will suffer from climate change, as the arctic warms the whole world will feel the disruptions in our weather; hurricanes, flooding, heat waves, earthquakes,” noted Times Up! volunteer Monica Hunken, the organizer for the ride. “ The Earth is sending us a strong message!  Ride a bike! Demand renewable energy and greener polices from banks and the rest of those climate-killing corporations!"

“In the midst of the warmest weather in memory, we are all left to wonder what happened to winter?” explained Benjamin Shepard, a Times Up volunteer who will dress like a polar bear this Sunday.  "We all have to do whatever we can to help raise awareness about climate change and the many species it is driving to extinction, including our beloved polar bears."

Group highlights six steps to save polar bears and humans: 1) take action, 2) buy organic and local, 3) use less packaging and no bottled water, 4) ditch fossil fuels, 5) energy proof your home, and 6) ride a bicycle.

 See last year's Times Up’s Polar Bear Ride.
TIMES UP! is a non-profit environmental group that has been using educational outreach and direct action for the last 20 years to promote a more sustainable, less toxic city.

Follow Up Press Release for ACT UP 25

ACT UP 25 was a tremendous success. I was tremendously proud of being able to help support the action as a member of Times Up! helping bring the Times Up! sound bike for the action.  I ran into friends from across the country to the action.  It was also the twentieth anniversary of my entry into activism with the Rodney King verdict.  I will never forget that day in the spring of 1992 when we heard the police who attacked King had been acquitted.  It was then that I learned there was something terribly wrong.  My point of entry after that was AIDS activism, where I have remained in one form or another for the last two decades.

photo by michael kink

Running into friends at the demo.  My old  writing buddy Liz Highleyman took this shot.
New Alternative director and ACT UP veteran Kate Barnhart and  myself at the  action.
Photo by  Robin Occupy Milim   

The Times Up! sound bike helped pump up the jam. It also helped  service as a  sound system.  Members of Times Up! were honored to be asked to help by members ACT UP!
Photo by Robin Occupy Milim

Follow up press release from yesterday:

CONTACT: Chip Duckett
For releases, fact sheets, and art, visit and

17 Confirmed Arrested in Acts of Civil Disobedience

April 25, New York - AIDS activists swarmed the streets of lower Manhattan today as they participated in a demonstration commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the founding of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). The crowd, estimated by organizers as numbering 1250-1500, listed among its demands the institution of a small tax on financial speculative trading on Wall Street, with the proceeds earmarked for HIV/AIDS and other health services.

The demonstrations began at 9:30 AM (as the Wall Street morning bell rang), when a band of nine ACT UP members, dressed in business attire with Robin Hood hats and masks, chained themselves to the lampposts at Wall Street and Broadway, forming a human chain and blocking traffic on Broadway in an act of civil disobedience to draw attention to the need for the financial speculation tax. After half an hour, police cut the chains and arrested all nine.

A second act of civil disobedience took place later in the morning, as members of the group Housing Works unloaded a truck load of furniture in the middle of Broadway, just west of City Hall Park. Traffic halted as protestors sat on the furniture, calling attention to the cuts in housing support for people with HIV/AIDS and the critical needs for these services. Throughout the day, there were a total confirmed 17 arrests for civil disobedience, with no reports of violence or any problems between police and protestors.

Crowds began gathering on the west side of City Hall at 11 AM, to hear a number of speakers talk about HIV/AIDS issues, including ACT-UP/GMHC founder Larry Kramer, Eric Sawyer (ACT UP and UNAIDS), and Annette Gaudino (Health Care for the 99%). (NOTE: Full list of speakers at the bottom of the release).

The throngs then marched down Broadway, detouring for a demonstration outside the 180 Worth Street offices of the Human Resources Administration, specifically directed at Commissioner Robert Doar and his attempts to institute controversial new policies (like mandatory drug testing and work requirements) in order to rapidly reduce the number of people eligible for government HIV/AIDS services in New York.

The demonstration ended shortly after 2:00 PM back at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, the site of the morning’s first protests and arrests. Longtime ACT UP member Andy Velez led a moving moment in which the hundreds of assembled AIDS activists called out names of friends and loved ones lost to AIDS.

A number of other organizations aligned themselves with ACT UP and participated alongside the group during the 25th Anniversary Protest, among them Housing Works, Vocal NY, National Nurses Union, and Occupy Wall Street – each adding their own flavor to the demands and the action, and many providing speakers (see list below). Hundreds of members from ACT UP chapters in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore were also bused in for the protest.


Larry Kramer, ACT UP/GMHC founder
Eric Sawyer, ACT UP and UNAIDS
Brent Nicholson Earle, ACT UP

Douglas Sanders, Housing Works

Wanda Hernandez, Vocal NY

Amanda Lugg, African Services Committee

Annette Gaudino, Health Care for the 99%/OWS
Sam Aldi, National Nurses United

Monday, April 23, 2012

From ACT UP to Occupy: Wall Street Still Controls the Country and Our Healthcare

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 they got pushed off of Wall Street earlier this week. The police had barricaded the steps and control access to what they officially refer to as the “first amendment rights area.” Seriously, they really call it that. In addition to the NYPD, there were counter terrorism, federal park police and SWAT.
As the crowd swelled the police began making arrests and clearing the sidewalk. The police pushed aggressively and isolated everyone who had just arrived from the group that had been occupying the steps to Federal Hall, arresting at least three. Tension was high, but the crowd calmed before the people’s gong—our response to the closing bell of the stock exchange. We mic checked to the people behind police lines on the barricaded steps and celebrated together before breaking into the familiar chant, “A – Anti – Anti-Capitialista,” this time in the very heart of capital. There were police barricades and lines of officers keeping us apart, but there were a few hundred of us dancing right across from one of the most potent symbols of power; the energy was high.

A mic check broke our chant.

Thank you to all the Occupy photographers.  Apologies for  missing the names of these. 

“Ten occupiers are laying down on the sidewalk right now, they know they will be arrested and wish to go peacefully!”

Two weeks ago a group began sleeping on the sidewalk, following the exact specifications for legally sleeping on the sidewalk as a form of protest from the 2000 U.S. district court decision Metropolitan Council V. Safir. The occupation grew larger each night until last week, when the police started arresting people. The occupation shifted half a block to Federal Hall, which as federal property was beyond the jurisdiction of the NYPD. This was where the “first amendment rights area” had been set up. Direct Action had video cameras in place to film the occupiers laying down in accordance with the law, then immediately getting arrested for it.

“Mic Check! Next week we are going to invite everyone to come lay down!”

It was powerful. The NYPD has tried very hard to prevent us from growing roots anywhere in the city. The last few weeks have been filled with arbitrary arrests, sleepless nights and scant media coverage, but for the first time in a while, it felt like the tide was turning today; it felt like we were winning.

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:

JOIN ACT UP's 25th Anniversary Demonstration 


April 25, 2012
At 11am
Massive demonstration and march
Starts at City Hall (Broadway and Murray Street)
Ends at Wall Street   

ACT UP New York is calling for a small tax (0.05%) on Wall Street transactions and speculative trades in order to raise the money needed to end the global AIDS epidemic and provide universal healthcare in the US.

More info: 212-966-4873 |
   | |

Twitter: @actupny | #taxwallst | #endaids

How can a Financial Speculation Tax help end AIDS? 

-   THE SCIENCE: The scientific community and AIDS activists agree: we now know how to break the back of the epidemic.  New evidence shows early HIV treatment can reduce sexual transmission of the virus by 96%.
 -    THE REALITY: HIV treatment is needed to save lives, prevent illness, and reduce new infections, but there is a huge TREATMENT GAP and WAITING LISTS are growing in the U.S. and abroad.
--> IN THE U.S.: 3,840 people who qualify for federal ADAP assistance to pay for HIV treatment are still on waiting lists. In addition, people with HIV and vulnerable communities in the U.S. need support and social services. Due to budget cuts, these essential services have been rolled back. Funding from the tax could also help pay for universal healthcare in the U.S.
--> WORLDWIDE: Only 44% of people who need HIV treatment have access – more than 8 million do not. Revenue from the FST could bail out the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, which cancelled its last round of grants to poor countries due to a lack of resources. Funding the Fund can help to make good on the global agreement – signed by the U.S. – to treat 15 million people by 2015, up from 6.6 million now. It will take around $22 billion a year between now and 2015 to finance the global HIV fight to save millions of lives and stop the HIV epidemic in its tracks. 
 -    WHAT'S AT STAKE: AIDS has already claimed over 30 million lives. ACT UP is calling for an FST to help raise the money needed to close the gap in access to life-saving HIV treatment, and to END THE AIDS CRISIS. 

The FST demonstration is linked to a global Robin Hood Tax campaign to fund global health, global public goods, jobs, and to tackle climate change.