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May Day isn’t even here yet, and it’s already becoming clear that a season of protest and politics in the street is upon us.
Yesterday morning saw a substantial demonstration by ACT UP!, other AIDS activists, and Occupiers, marching from City Hall into the Financial District to call for a financial speculation tax to fund treatment and services for people with HIV.
The event marked the 25th anniversary of ACT UP!, the protest and advocacy movement that pushed AIDS out of the shadows and radicalized a generation of activists.
“I’m here to say the job isn’t over,” said Jim Eigo, an early member of ACT UP! “We changed some of the immediate conditions of the plague, but we didn’t succeed in changing the underlying issues.”
Eigo conceded that things have changed since the days of his activism. “Back then, we plopped our bodies down in the street, and made ourselves impossible to ignore. It was so physical. With AIDS, you can’t get away from the physical because it’s in the body. But now, public space has shrunk incredibly. Everything, even activism, seems to happen online. That’s why a lot of us are so excited by Occupy Wall Street: It’s revivfying the public space. You need that physicality. We couldn’t have crashed through the policy barriers that we did, couldn’t have moved a very staid bureaucracy, if they didn’t know we could muster 1,000 people at the drop of a hat.”
Bill Dobbs, another veteran of ACT UP! who has been closely involved with Occupy Wall Street, said the movement of 25 years ago was about more than just public demonstration.
“ACT UP! got real changes in federal drug approval policy and other progress not just from street demos, but from strategic thinking and what you could call homework,” Dobbs said. “These days act up is mostly following rather than leading, and it needs to be revived as an independent truth-telling force which it once was.”
Dobbs sees parallels between the combination of elements that made ACT UP! successful a quarter century ago and what Occupiers are attempting today.
“ACT UP! did very important work that combined anger, cruising, fun, and strategic thinking,” he said. “It was an open, democratic group which drew hundreds and hundreds of people into spending time to dealing with AIDS. There are many lessons in ACT UP’s success for Occupy. Occupy has many of those ingredients: It has anger, it has fun. But Occupy has a much broader sweep. So far it has been wildly successful at waking people up about economic conditions and class in this country. But the bigger challenge for occupy is to inspire more people to get angry, learn as much as possible, and take loud visible action and push all the players for change.”
A few hours after the ACT UP march ended in police barricades outside Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, many of the same faces were on hand uptown, in Union Square, for a series of demonstrations meant to call attention to skyrocketing student debt.
Billed as the 1TDay — so named because student loans are expected to surpass $1 Trillion this year — the protests began with a rally in Union Square and continued with a march south into the Financial District.
(We wrote about NYU’s share of the student debt problem in our cover story Debt and Debtor last fall.)
In Union Square, students and graduates shared their experience of going deep into debt to fund their education. Artist Lopi Laroe told the crowd she had taken a radical step: “I shredded my debt,” she said. “Now I’m free. They threaten us with credit ratings, but my credit is already fucked. What are they going to do, foreclose on my brain?”
Indeed, mass student debt default — a so-called debt strike — was the message of the day at the protest. Ubiquitous radical preacherman Billy Talen and his Stop Shopping Choir staged some conceptually and sartorially elaborate street theater meant to explain the relationship between rising tuitions, rising student debt, Sallie May, and the banks, and the morality play resolved with evil monacled bankers defeated by the people’s refusal to pay their debts.
On its way south, the march passed by a related but separate demonstration being held by students of Cooper Union who are protesting the announcement yesterday that the institution will abandon it’s century-old tradition of free education and start charging tuition to graduate students.
One recent alumnus, who fellow students identified as Jesse Cruzer, a former member of the school’s rock-climbing club, mounted the monument dedicated to the school’s founder, Peter Cooper, around 9 this morning, and stayed, more or less unmolested, until the passing student-debt march drew the attention of police. (James King wrote about the scene earlier in the afternoon).
Following up on that account: police quickly flooded the area, taping off access to the park, and by 6:30 had an NYPD cherry picker in position to bring the student down. He went willingly, and as the basket descended and Cruzer was handcuffed and put into a waiting police truck, he was cheered and applauded by Cooper Union students watching from the school’s portico.