Acting Up Again


During the June 3 march on Washington to mark the 20th anniversary of AIDS, John Maritim showed up after he saw the demonstration on television. The Kenyan theology student at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University asked a pair of white gay men how he could participate in an upcoming demo, the “Stop Global AIDS Now” march and rally, which will happen in New York this Saturday. “The nature and urgency of this disease call for a united front in fighting it,” Maritim, a heterosexual, says. “We must shelve away our differences.”

On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control reported the first cases of a mysterious disease among “five men, all active homosexuals” in New York and Los Angeles. Today HIV infects more than 36 million people worldwide, more than two-thirds of them in African countries like Kenya. Despite the existence of life-saving AIDS drugs, 95 percent of people with HIV lack access to effective treatments, according to the Nobel Prize–winning organization Doctors Without Borders.

AIDS activism, like the epidemic itself, has gone global. Unprecedented alliances have sprung up, bringing new faces and forces into the movement. For Saturday’s event, ACT UP joined forces with organizations as diverse as Africa Action, Jubilee USA, and the American Jewish World Service, as well as overseas activist groups like South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign. Two days before the UN convenes its first ever session on a disease, demonstrators will call for the U.S. and other wealthy countries to provide drugs, dollars, and debt cancellation to the developing nations hit hardest by HIV.

“Morally it’s a cut-and-dried issue,” says Sharonann Lynch, a member of ACT UP and the Health GAP Coalition, an alliance active in the demonstration. “Millions of people are infected, and we have the capability to help them. What’s great is we’re in a position to stop this in its tracks.” Earlier this year a Harvard study put an actual price tag on a comprehensive worldwide AIDS program that would include treatment as well as prevention. In April, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called for $7 billion to $10 billion over five years to fund a global AIDS war chest.

Last month, the Bush administration pledged $200 million, only one-tenth of what the UN is requesting from the U.S. “Sub-Saharan Africa repays $200 million every week to its creditors,” says Jamie Drummond of Drop the Debt. “Zambia, where one adult in five has HIV, spends more repaying debts to the IMF than it does on health care.” Along with other anti-globalization protesters, the London-based debt-cancellation advocates will travel to the G-8 July summit in Genoa, where AIDS funding is on the agenda. Meanwhile, the U.S. has earmarked its UN donation for AIDS prevention, not treatment.

Yet access to treatment has been the movement’s driving force since the early days. “Fear was a motivator in the late ’80s,” says Eric Sawyer, who helped found ACT UP in 1987. “We were ill, and our friends were dying like flies, ” Heeding Larry Kramer’s call to arms, the grassroots group fought both the Reagan administration’s inaction and record-high pharmaceutical prices for AZT. ACT UP relied on direct action to draw public attention to the AIDS crisis, disrupting trading on the New York Stock Exchange and storming the National Institutes of Health.

Ten years ago. ACT UP meetings attracted up to 1000 people, mostly white gay men. Two weeks ago, the group’s planning session drew only a dozen people, but two-thirds of them were women, and several were people of color. Some of them represent organizations like the African Services Committee, while others participate in groups as varied as the National Organization for Women and the Direct Action Network.

Scores of the early AIDS activists died, and some became insiders in the AIDS infrastructure the movement helped to create, but other factors also account for the changes in ACT UP’s membership. Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 defused political outrage by bringing a more sympathetic administration to power. The pharmaceutical dimension also changed dramatically after 1995, as new life-extending drugs became available, lessening the fear and urgency that had fueled massive actions like ACT UP’s Day of Desperation.

“There is a real misconception that activism is dead and the old kind of activism is passé,” Sawyer argues. “Exactly the opposite is true.” ACT UP Philadelphia is a prime example. Last summer the group disrupted the Republican convention. Its members suffered brutal police treatment, and were jailed on up to $1 million in bail. Nearly two-thirds of ACT UP Philly’s members are African American, reflecting how the epidemic has shifted gears in the U.S. While death rates have dropped dramatically, especially among whites, AIDS remains the number one killer among people of color aged 25 to 44 in the U.S.

ACT UP Philadelphia took to the streets in Washington earlier this month, and accounted for a large part of the march organized by AIDS Quilt founder Cleve Jones. En route from the White House to the Capitol, the demonstrators detoured to protest in front of the pharmaceutical industry’s lobbying offices. In contrast to the early AIDS marches on Washington, which framed the struggle in national terms, this event linked the local to the global. Carrying signs that read, “Stop medical apartheid from South Africa to Philadelphia,” ACT UP members chanted, “Medication for every nation!”

“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.