Acting Up Again

AIDS Activism Goes Global

"There was no focus on international issues before the Gore campaign," says Anne Northrop, a longtime ACT UP New York member. Access to pharmaceuticals was a fundamental issue for Al Gore, who campaigned on providing prescription access for seniors. However, the vice president also backed trade sanctions against South Africa, which fell afoul of U.S. patent regulations in permitting less costly, generic AIDS drugs. Having founded ACT UP’s Global Access Campaign to press for AZT and Bactrim access for Africa in 1990, Eric Sawyer and other ACT UP members seized on Gore's duplicity in the summer of 1999.

Relying on guerrilla tactics rather than massive demonstrations, ACT UP members hounded Gore, individually and in small groups. The organization, in Northrop’s words, has "more and more become a lean machine." In Carthage, Tennessee, they disrupted the launch of Gore’s presidential bid. AIDS activists trailed him at New Hampshire whistle-stops, infiltrated his New York fundraisers, and blocked his Washington campaign headquarters. In the early doldrums of the campaign, the vocal AIDS protesters provided fodder for a restless media, and also raised public awareness of the sheer scale of HIV in Africa. During the election year, Clinton issued an executive order ending the U.S. government’s actions against South Africa.

The battle lines then shifted to the pharmaceutical industry, which had launched a lawsuit in South Africa’s highest court over intellectual-property violations. The country’s Treatment Action Campaign, which had cosponsored a massive rally with ACT UP during last summer’s AIDS conference in Durban, put out a worldwide call for solidarity. As the case opened in Pretoria on March 5, ACT UP demonstrated outside Pfizer’s headquarters in New York. At the same time, protests erupted outside pharmaceutical industry offices and U.S embassies in dozens of cities across five continents. Anxious to burnish its image and catching heat over prescription drug prices in the U.S., Big Pharma beat a retreat that energized AIDS activists around the world.

"We’re becoming more and more a network of allies who communicate by e-mails, teleconferencing, and listservs," says Katie Krauss, an ACT UP Philadelphia member involved in both local and global AIDS activism. While ACT UP has relied on innovative communications technology since the fax zaps of the 1980s, the Internet has changed both the speed and scale of protests. When a call went out on the Web after Matthew Shepard’s death, thousands of people suddenly converged for a march on Fifth Avenue, and AIDS activists took notice. "It’s a wonderful democratizing tool with a powerful ability to communicate immediately with larger numbers of people," Northrop says of the Internet’s role. As activism becomes increasingly virtual, getting people from the Web to the streets becomes the new challenge.

"The legacy of direct action is incontrovertible," says Lynch, "It got people what they got in the U.S." However, as coalitions have grown, activists have had to expand tactics to accommodate broader groups of people, she notes. The organizers are planning peaceful events for Saturday. The "line of safety," which protects nonparticipants during civil disobedience, has grown thicker. In the 1980s, hordes of middle-class gay men got themselves arrested in ACT UP demonstrations. Today the majority of Africans with HIV in New York are undocumented aliens who shy away from demonstrations, says Amanda Lugg of the African Services Committee.

AIDS activists have hit up against other international obstacles. South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign coalesced over President Thabo Mbeki’s refusal to give pregnant women critical AIDS drugs. While ACT UP has denounced U.S. presidents from Reagan onward, the group felt skittish about attacking Mbeki. "We don’t have a right to criticize the South African government," says Eric Sawyer. "We’re not there to bear the brunt. We’re trying not to be colonial."

Ever since people with AIDS stormed the stage at a Denver conference in 1983 and demanded self-determination, grassroots AIDS activism has taken its lead from the people most affected. PWAs will lead Saturday’s march. At the rally, AIDS activists from as far away as South Africa, Uganda, Brazil, and Thailand will discuss solutions from developing countries.

"Everyone is looking at AIDS on a global level, forcing them to look in their own countries, " says Lynch. Melvin White, a gay black HIV-positive member of ACT UP Philly who used his experience at home to help organize demonstrations at the Durban conference in South Africa, embodies much of the disease’s complexity, but also the give-and-take of global AIDS activism. South Africans emerged from the struggle against apartheid with a highly engaged civil society. "All they wanted to talk about was politics," he says, grinning. "They believe government works."

When White returned from South Africa to North Philadelphia, his activist work deepened. In addition to his grassroots work with local PWAs, he decided to help with voter-registration campaigns. Sitting on the Capitol steps, White frames the logic for action against a global epidemic in terms of ethics that transcend sexual, racial, and national boundaries: "When we become sympathetic, it’s they, but when we become empathetic, it’s us."

"Stop Global Aids Now" kicks off June 23 at 11, with a march from Washington Square up Sixth Avenue to Bryant Park, where a rally begins at 1:30.

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