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Learning from Our Elder Activists



Michelle Goldberg explores a topic I have thought a good bit about, as have others–that ACT-UP is an important model for us to learn about in resisting Trump and that the veterans of that movement, born out of complete desperation in the face of massive death and institutional indifference, will play a very important role in the next 4 years.

ACT UP, however, offers lessons for moving forward in the face of powerlessness, grief, and horror. When ACT UP formed in March 1987, the AIDS epidemic was six years old and had killed 40,000 people, yet President Ronald Reagan hadn’t given a single speech about it. That year the Senate, by a vote of 94–2, passed an amendment banning the Centers for Disease Control from funding AIDS programs that “promote, encourage or condone homosexual activities.” Introducing the amendment, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms said, “We have got to call a spade a spade, and a perverted human being a perverted human being.”

It wasn’t just the government that treated gay people with hostile indifference. In 1987, the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome announced plans to charge $10,000 a year for AZT, the first AIDS drug approved for commercial production. As David France reported in How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS, anti-gay hate crimes tripled between 1985 and 1988. People with AIDS and those who loved them were a despised, exploited minority almost completely without political representation.

Through ceaseless protest and political pressure, ACT UP played a major role in forcing a government and scientific response to the AIDS crisis. It chipped away at the stigma that enshrouded victims and pushed gay rights into the mainstream. “Back in 1981 when HIV hit, it hit a community that was isolated and marginalized and criminalized—homosexuality was illegal in most states in the country,” France tells me. “Those of us today who are feeling just as disenfranchised, the lesson is the courage we should get from what happened. Even from that far away from power, it’s possible to effect social change.”

ACT UP was able to change policy because it was relentless, and at once radical and highly pragmatic. It chose its targets carefully and stayed on them consistently. When Reagan finally formed a presidential commission on HIV, there was an ACT UP person in the room at every meeting. ACT UP activists were willing to be hated, as when they invaded St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to protest the Catholic church’s implacable opposition to condom use. But they were also eager students of power and engaged closely with the bureaucracies where life-and-death decisions were made. “Things that actually made change took a long time,” says Maxine Wolfe, another ACT UP veteran involved with the new group. She points to the effort to expand the CDC’s definition of AIDS, which before 1993 excluded many women and intravenous drug users. “Changing the CDC definition was a four-year campaign in which we used every possible strategy and tactic, from sitting in people’s offices to marching in the rain in Atlanta,” she says.

“The model of activism that ACT UP innovated is a model that they called inside-outside,” France says. “They had these armies of bodies that could show up at the drop of a phone call and stand outside these institutions that needed to be addressed, and they could do that with enough numbers, force, and clever timing that it forced somebody inside those institutions to pay attention. They also had an inside group of people who trained themselves in the science of AIDS and AIDS research. Once their comrades got those doors open, they moved through.” The group was never that big—France says its largest demonstrations drew around 3,000 people. “But they were tireless, those 3,000 people,” he says.

The two critical things to learn are that a) it is going to take some sort of model like this to fight Trump and b) small groups of committed activists can accomplish a lot. Given that more than half of voters voted for Hillary Clinton, to say the least Donald Trump’s values are not the values of most Americans. Brave leaders motivating dispirited people on the left is so, so important.

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