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30 years of ACT UP

This year marks the 30th anniversary of ACT UP. And as Dominic Brookes reports, many of today’s long-term survivors were yesterday’s front-line activists.

“Do we want to start a new organisation devoted solely to political action?” It was that question and the resounding “Yes!” of an answer that gave birth to a worldwide protest movement — ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). The call to arms was initiated by Larry Kramer. He was speaking to a crowd of mainly gay men gathered at a community centre in New York City. Kramer warned them that if they didn’t organise and mobilise, two-thirds of them would be dead within five years. “If what you’re hearing doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage — and action — gay men will have no future here on earth,” he said.

It was March 1987. AIDS was ravaging the gay community and the response from the US government was next to nothing. “Larry called us together and asked us to help him take to the streets to sound the alarm,” says former activist and long-term survivor Eric Sawyer. And take to the streets they did. Two weeks later, around 250 ACT UP members hit Wall Street to demand access to experimental drugs; 17 people were arrested. Such incendiary tactics were deemed necessary: people were, literally, fighting for their lives. “The response was triggered by an awareness that we were in danger,” says former ACT UP member Loring McAlpin. “Friends, lovers, people we knew, were dying.”

By boycotting, marching and demonstrating, ACT UP borrowed from the civil rights movement. “The group operated in a way Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated,” says former activist Sarah Schulman: “make a demand that’s reasonable and doable, present that demand to the powers that be who can enact it, and when they refuse, you do civil disobedience until they are forced by pressure to take action.”

For many ACT UP members, this was the first time they had become politicised. “Some of them were everything from brokers, to party boys, to quiet men living at home — they didn’t know anything about politics,” says Schulman. “I’ve never been an aggressive person before I joined ACT UP,” says former member Virg Parks. “But I liked the idea of a nonviolent organisation that still said we’re going to be strong and powerful and angry, and let them know that we are pissed off.”

And there was much to be pissed off about. Not least of all, the indifference shown to the plight of the afflicted. Government, health authorities, the pharmaceutical industry, the media — all twiddled thumbs while thousands died. As anger grew, so did the size and nature of ACT UP’s protests. And in 1989, 4,500 protestors gathered outside New York’s St Patrick’s Cathedral to demonstrate against the Church’s stance on safe-sex education, condom distribution and homosexuality. During the protest a couple of dozen of activists entered the church, disrupting mass. This time, more than 100 activists were arrested.

Another memorable protest occurred in Washington DC, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “People had ashes of their fathers, their boyfriends, their friends, and threw the ashes on the lawn of the White House,” recalls Schulman. Such dramatic action, says former activist and long-term survivor Jim Hubbard, helped bring ACT UP to mainstream attention. “It brought the crisis to a point where the government and the media really had to start dealing with it.”

At its height, ACT UP had more than 50 chapters across America, plus satellite orgs around the world — including Australia. ACT UP Sydney was the first Aussie offshoot to form. The group’s initial target was the Australian Drug Evaluation Committee, responsible for drug licensing. It was the first of many protests designed to draw attention to delays in the approval process of potentially life-saving drugs.

“The public demonstrations were loud and furious,” says Lyle Chan, co-founder of ACT UP Sydney. “We used whistles as we marched down the streets to sound bigger than we were, so a few hundred people can sound like thousands and could be heard from city blocks away.” At the same time, remembers Chan: “We were lobbying to make ddC available on a compassionate basis and we were lobbying governments to expedite approval of this drug."

Other Australian ACT UP chapters soon emerged: in Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Perth. “It was like we were in a war, almost a secret war,” says Chan. By 1993, the ‘war’ had taken its toll on members and emotional exhaustion had set in. Others were incapacitated by ill-health, or had died. But ACT UP in Australia had achieved its main aim: to fast-track access to medication for people living with HIV.

The movement was as equally successful in the States. “There’s no doubt [ACT UP] had an enormous effect. We changed the way we make drugs available,” says Dr Stephen C. Joseph, a former New York City health commissioner. “We achieved so much and we have a great deal to be proud of. ACT UP created a great amount of energy and got results,” says Kramer. “Those people,” says Hubbard, “were genuine heroes.”

The original chapter of ACT UP still meets at the community centre at 208 West 13th Street New York every Monday evening at 7pm. And with the Trump administration slashing health spending — a move that will see HIV/AIDS funding cut by around US$300 million — ACT UP still has plenty to rail against. At a recent 30th anniversary event, long-time survivor and ACT UP member Jim Eigo issued the following battle cry: “We have to continue fighting for the very basic protections for the most vulnerable among us because, my god, they are more vulnerable than ever.”


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