ACT UP is at it again

Practitioner: 

Date: 

Apr 26 2012

Location: 

New York City

Long before the red ribbon became an innocuous symbol of AIDS
“awareness” and celebrity philanthropy, there was the pink triangle and
there was ACT UP and there were thousands of people taking to the
streets for their lives. Once a symbol used to mark suspected queers for
death in the Holocaust, ACT UP appropriated the pink triangle for
themselves, now flipped on its base, pointing upward on a black field, away from the grave, signed with the call to arms, “SILENCE = DEATH. 
Death didn’t just come in the form of a virus, even and maybe
especially in the early days of AIDS, when ACT UP (an acronym for AIDS
Coalition to Unleash Power) was founded in New York. Government neglect
and corporate greed made AIDS an epidemic, and they also gave birth to a
raucous and creative network of direct action activists. For ACT UP,
death was the drug maker, and the drug profiteer, and the drug
regulatory bodies who refused to release them. When ACT UP’s members
first laid down their bodies in protest, therefore, it was against the
already-booming business of AIDS, and for their debut action in 1987,
they brought their rage and their grief straight to Wall Street.
On the morning of April 25, 2012, ACT UP
took back those same streets, alongside activists from the Occupy
movement, itself aspiring to be the kind of umbrella that can gather and
propel young queers and allies to work together. Hundreds of people
carried those trademark ACT UP banners (with some homemade signs for
that Occupy touch) in a march down from City Hall to the New York
Housing Administration to Trinity Church. A break-out action took the
intersection at Park Street, where activists set up house with sofas and
chairs, chaining themselves together with the cry, “Housing saves lives!” Another group dressed in Robin Hood green locked down an intersection at Wall Street,
demanding a 0.05 percent tax on financial transactions to funnel to
AIDS relief. I imagined each person I saw in a fading ACT UP shirt — the
seriously garish image of Ronald Reagan in neon branded AIDSGATE, and
countless pink triangles now on a field of soft grey — to be a surviving
elder, or standing in the garment of a lover or friend who should have
lived to walk alongside them.
Reclaiming that story — of greed and neglect, and also of resistance
and loss — is what drove Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard to produce their
film United In Anger, using footage drawn from their joint archive, The ACT UP Oral History Project. Schulman recalls
that the film’s origins were in her visceral response to an NPR story
on the 20th anniversary of AIDS that she heard while driving a rental
car through Los Angeles:

“At first America had trouble with people with AIDS,” the
announcer says in that falsely conversational tone, intended to be
reassuring about apocalyptic things. “But then, they came around.”
I almost crashed the car.

She didn’t crash. She did call up Hubbard, though, and their work
began. The film premiered this February at the Museum of Modern Art in
New York, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of ACT UP.

Now, just a few months after the birth of another direct action protest movement on Wall Street, it is difficult not
to connect these familiar images through a quarter-century-long
struggle. Here are the throngs of young people linking arms along
Broadway, the high sheen of cop uniforms as police push their way into
crowds, locked arms being wrenched apart in the grip of twice as many
cops as there ever are activists, and the way — as he’s being loaded
into a cop wagon — one of the activists turns his head to call back to
the others, to the cameras. It’s a performance, and a sincere one,
that’s become part of so much protest, and it’s captured here well
before the YouTube age.
ACT UP hit the streets just as cheap consumer video did, defining the
visual and tactical conventions of activist video. Through the late
1980s, ACT UP spawned several activist video crews, like DIVA TV, or Damned Interfering Video Activists.
In addition to serving as witnesses at actions, DIVA produced
compilation tapes to educate and inspire ACT UP activists around the
country and the world, who then shared them with each other at parties,
bars or through the mail.
Captured in all that glorious 80s footage is a raw, life-affirming
anger. For all the comparisons drawn between Occupy and ACT UP,  Occupy
has yet to fully embody this urgency, or this rage, that transforms pain
into action and back again. The most moving sequences of United In Anger
are set to a funeral march, a low drumbeat that carries through
political funerals in Manhattan and Washington, culminating in a group
funeral procession to the White House, where several ACT UP members
requested their remains be delivered as a final demand.
As powerful as ACT UP’s tactics are to observe — banner drops at Shea
Stadium and Grand Central Station, storming the Centers for Disease
Control and the Food and Drug Administration — it’s the testimony of ACT
UP members that provides real depth, humor and contradiction to these
victories and contentious setbacks.
The most dramatic of these was ACT UP’s legendary Sunday-mass protest
at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which turned even some of their supporters
against them. For many in ACT UP, that was no failure. “We said for
years in ACT UP that our job was not to be liked,” said Ann Northrop,
an early member. “We were not doing what we were doing to get the
public to like us. We were doing what we were doing to accomplish
something about particular issues, and I think we did that, enormously
successfully.”
What cannot be ignored, in this film or in our attempts to make sense
of the early years of the epidemic, is the power of people to organize
in the face of death, to claim expertise, to lead. As the gatekeepers in
medicine and government struggled to catch up with the virus, ACT UP
took caring for their communities into their own hands and took their
fight to the doors of those in power. Through United In Anger,
we meet activists who worked to redefine AIDS, to take account of their
lives and what could be done to preserve them, and to hold those who
abandoned them to death accountable. “In my view as a witness, people
did not die of AIDS,” Shulman said in a recent interview. “They died of government neglect and indifference. These are political deaths.”

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