ACT UP, or the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power is an international, political group working to end the AIDS pandemic. The group defines themselves as working to improve the lives of people with AIDS through direct action, medical research, treatment and advocacy, and working to change legislation and public policies.
History of ACT UP
ACT UP was formed in March 1987 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City. Larry Kramer, who was an American playwright, author, public health advocate and LGBT rights activist, was asked to speak as part of a rotating speaker series. His well-attended speech focused on action to fight AIDS.
Kramer spoke out against the current state of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), which was is a New York City–based non-profit, volunteer-supported and community-based AIDS service whose mission statement is to “end the AIDS epidemic and uplift the lives of all affected”.Kramer had co-founded the GMHC but had resigned from its board of directors in 1983. As he didn’t agree with how it was being run, he perceived the organisation at the time as “politically impotent”.
According to Douglas Crimp, who was an American art historian, critic, curator, and AIDS activist Kramer posed the question: “Do we want to start a new organisation devoted to political action?” The answer was “a resounding yes”. Approximately 300 people then met two days later to form ACT UP.
ACT UP Actions
At the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, in October 1987, ACT UP New York made their debut on the national stage, as an active and visible presence in both the march, the main rally, and at the protest at the United States Supreme Court Building the next day.
Inspired by this new approach of radical, direct action, other activists returned home to multiple cities and formed local ACT UP chapters in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Rhode Island, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and other locations, first around the United States, and eventually internationally.
So here are some of the protests that ACT UP did.
Wall Street Protest
On 24th March 1987, 250 ACT UP members demonstrated at Wall Street and Broadway to demand greater access to experimental AIDS drugs and for a coordinated national policy to fight the disease.
An article by Larry Kramer published in The New York Times the previous day described some of the issues ACT UP was concerned with. 17 ACT UP members were arrested during the protest.
That didn’t stop them though. On 24th March 1988, ACT UP returned to Wall Street for a larger demonstration in which over 100 people were arrested.
Then on 14th September 1989, 7 ACT UP members infiltrated the New York Stock Exchange and chained themselves to the VIP balcony to protest the high price of the only approved AIDS drug, AZT.
The group displayed a banner that read, “SELL WELLCOME” referring to the pharmaceutical sponsor of AZT, Burroughs Wellcome, which had set the price of AZT to approximately $10,000 per patient per year for the drug, which was well out of reach of nearly all HIV positive people. Several days following this demonstration, Burroughs Wellcome lowered the price of AZT to $6,400 per patient per year.
So next up the General Post Office
ACT UP held a next protest at the New York City General Post Office on the night of 15th April 1987, to an audience of people filing last minute tax returns. This event also marked the beginning of the advertisement of ACT UP with the Silence=Death Project, which created a poster consisting of a right side up pink triangle (an upside-down pink triangle was previously used to mark gays in Nazi concentration camps) on a black background with the text “SILENCE = DEATH”.
Douglas Crimp said this demonstration showed the “media savvy” of ACT UP because the media “routinely do stories about down-to-the-wire tax return filers”. So, ACT UP was virtually guaranteed media coverage.
Then onto Cosmopolitan
In January 1988, Cosmopolitan magazine published an article by Robert E. Gould, a psychiatrist, entitled “Reassuring News About AIDS: A Doctor Tells Why You May Not Be At Risk.”
The main aim of the article was to say that in unprotected vaginal sex between a man and a woman who both had “healthy genitals” the risk of HIV transmission was not possible, even if the male partner was infected with AIDS.
After this article came out, Women from ACT UP met with Dr. Gould in person, questioning him about several misleading facts (that penis to vagina transmission is impossible, for example) and his questionable journalistic methods such as (no peer review, bibliographic information, failing to disclose that he was a psychiatrist and not a practitioner of internal medicine), and demanded a retraction and apology. Which he refused.
So they decided that they “had to shut down Cosmo.” According to those who were involved in organising the protest, it was significant in that it was the first time that the women in ACT UP organised separately from the main body of the group.
The preparation and the aftermath were all purposely planned and resulted in a video short directed by Jean Carlomusto and Maria Maggenti, titled, “Doctor, Liars, and Women: AIDS Activists Say No To Cosmo.” The action consisted of approximately 150 activists protesting in front of the Hearst building which was the parent company of Cosmopolitan, chanting “Say no to Cosmo!” and holding signs with slogans such as “Yes, the Cosmo Girl CAN get AIDS!”
Although the action did not result in any arrests, it brought significant television media attention to the controversy surrounding the article. Phil Donahue from the talkshow Nightline, and a local talk show called “People Are Talking” all hosted discussions of the article.
On the People Are Talking show two women, Chris Norwood and Denise Ribble took the stage in which the host, Richard Bey, cut Norwood off during an exchange about whether heterosexual women are at risk from AIDS. Footage from all of these media appearances was edited into “Doctors, Liars, and Women.” Cosmopolitan eventually issued a partial retraction of the contents of the article.
Then in October the same year they protested at the FDA
On 11th October 1988, ACT UP had one of its most successful demonstrations (both in terms of size and in terms of national media coverage) when it successfully shut down the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for the whole day. Media reported that it was the largest demonstration since demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
The AIDS activists shut down the large facility by blocking doors, walkways and a road as FDA workers tried to report to work. Police told some workers to just go home rather than wade through the protest.
“Hey, hey, FDA, how many people have you killed today?” chanted the crowd of between 1,100 and 1,500 people. The protesters also had a black banner that read “Federal Death Administration”.
Police officers, wearing surgical gloves and helmets, started rounding up the hundreds of demonstrators and herding them into buses shortly after 8:30 a.m. Some protesters blocked the buses from leaving for 20 minutes.
Authorities arrested at least 120 protesters, and demonstration leaders said they were aiming for 300 arrests by the end of the day.
At this protest, activists demonstrated their thorough knowledge of the FDA drug approval process. ACT UP presented precise demands for changes that would make experimental drugs available more quickly, and more fairly.
ACT UP were quoted saying “The success of SEIZE CONTROL OF THE FDA can perhaps best be measured by what happened in the year following the protest. Government agencies dealing with AIDS, particularly the FDA and NIH, began to listen to us, to include us in decision-making, even to ask for our input.”
Their next protest was “STOP THE CHURCH”
ACT UP disagreed with Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor on the Roman Catholic Archdiocese’s public stand against safe sex education in New York City Public Schools, condom distribution, the condemnation of homosexuality, as well as the Church’s opposition to abortion.
This led to the first Stop the Church protest on 10th December 1989, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York.
Originally, the plan was just to be a “die-in” during the service but it descended into “pandemonium.” A few dozen activists interrupted Mass, chanted slogans, blew whistles, “kept up a banshee screech,” chained themselves to pews, threw condoms in the air, waved their fists, and lay down in the aisles to stage the “die-in.”
While O’Connor went on with mass, activists stood up and announced why they were protesting. One protester, “in a gesture large enough for all to see,” Desecrated the Eucharist by spitting it out of his mouth, crumbling it into pieces, and dropping them to the floor.
111 protesters were arrested, including 43 inside the church. Some who refused to move had to be carried out of the church on stretchers. The protests were widely condemned by public and church officials, members of the public, the mainstream media, and some in the gay community.
This protest is also featured in the Season 2 premier of the Netflix series POSE.
The last protest we will discuss was called The Day of Desperation
On 22nd January 1991, during Operation Desert Storm (which was basically the combat stage of the Gulf War) ACT UP activist John Weir and two other activists entered the studio of the CBS Evening News at the beginning of the broadcast. Thy shouted “AIDS is news. Fight AIDS, not Arabs!” and Weir stepped in front of the camera before the control room cut to a commercial break.
The same night ACT UP demonstrated at the studios of the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour chanting and protesting the same thing.
The next day activists displayed banners in Grand Central Terminal that said “Money for AIDS, not for war” and “One AIDS death every 8 minutes.” One of the banners was displayed across the train timetable so people couldn’t see the train times and the other was attached to a bundle of balloons that lifted it up to the ceiling of the station’s enormous main room. These actions were part of a coordinated protest called “Day of Desperation”.
Other protests from ACT UP included:
- Saint Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center,
- Stormed the NIH and Seattle Schools.
Modern ACT UP
So, ACT UP, while extremely prolific and certainly effective at its peak, suffered from extreme internal pressures over the direction of the group and of the AIDS crisis. After the protests at NIH, these tensions resulted in an effective severing of the Action Committee and the Treatment and Data Committee, which later reformed itself as the Treatment Action Group (TAG). Several members describe this as a “severing of the dual nature of ACT UP”.
In 2000 ACT UP/Chicago was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.
ACT UP groups continue to meet and protest today, even if it is now a smaller membership. ACT UP/NY and ACT UP/Philadelphia are still particularly robust today though, along with some others around the world.
So that is the story of the ACT UP Organisation. Just to note: Larry Kramer sadly died this year in May.
If you like what you hear and want to be part of ACT UP you can go to their website actupny.com where they have plenty of information about their organisation and have merch for you to buy which goes towards charities and to their organisation.
Find out more about ACT UP and more on our podcast: