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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