“Federal, state, and local officials’ lack of response to the AIDS epidemic, as well as calls for routine mandatory testing of various segments of the population and quarantining people with AIDS, have generated protests by AIDS activists throughout the country.” – CCR Docket Report 1988-1989
For many in the LGBTQI community who survived the first decade of the AIDS crisis, they were the worst years of our lives. Identified almost exclusively as a “gay disease,” the onset of AIDS further stigmatized queer people, and our gay brothers were shunned, evicted, disowned, fired, and dying by the thousands. Within a few short years, infection rates and social stigma spread more broadly into communities of color, and particularly impacted women of color. With lack of funding or research or even government acknowledgement of the epidemic, entire populations were essentially left to die in a modern plague.
World AIDS Day was started in 1988, and in commemoration this year we wanted to look back at that era and our work on behalf of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) during it. Our aim in doing so is not primarily to remember how dark those days were, but to acknowledge the radical, disruptive, fierce work that ACT UP did that helped transform the response to AIDS and people with AIDS.
ACT UP was, in its own words at the time, “a diverse, nonpartisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” Their rallying cry was “Silence = Death,” and they refused to let business as usual happen, demanding research, treatment, funding, and visibility for those affected by HIV/AIDS. They shut down Wall Street on multiple occasions, including an April 1988 demonstration with over 1,000 people. Together with Lambda Legal, CCR represented the 103 people who were arrested at that protest.
At a July 1988 meeting with New York City’s health commissioner, ACT UP members refused to leave when the commissioner ask them to, and CCR served as a legal advisor to six people who were arrested and pursued their case pro se, and we assisted them in their appeal of their conviction.
Over 125 ACT UP activists were arrested at City Hall in a March 1989 demonstration and civil disobedience action by thousands of people. CCR, again working with Lambda Legal, represented 30 women who were illegally subjected to strip searches after their arrest.
It was these kinds of actions and disruptions that, together with other strategies, created the pressure for funding, education, and treatment. It was also what made ACT UP a target of FBI surveillance.
CCR and ACT UP exposed that surveillance in 1995 by publicly releasing files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showing that the FBI had kept files on AIDS activists since at least the early 1990s.
There are important lessons for our own times in this Throwback Thursday look at the early ACT UP years, and particularly for the post-Trumpocalypse world.
Vulnerable communities are once again under increased attack. In place of the threat of mandatory testing and quarantines, we have threats now of mass deportations and Muslim registries. And access to healthcare – which of course remains a life-or-death matter for people living with HIV, among many others – will be severely curtailed if Trump and Congress make good on the threat to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
ACT UP’s commitment to direct action was essential in the fight against government neglect and repression during the early AIDS crisis. Now, too, we must understand that disruptive protests – a refusal to normalize Trumpism – will be essential in our fight back.
CCR is proud to have stood with vulnerable communities and radical activists in its work with ACT UP in the 80s and 90s, and we are committed doing our part to defend civil rights and civil liberties by standing with all those threatened by the Trump agenda, and those committed to fighting it.
Our thoughts today, on this 29th World AIDS Day, are with all those we have lost who would be shoulder to shoulder with us now in this new fight. Rest in power; we will do our best to make you proud.