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The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP for short, is a political organization that was founded in March 1987 by Larry Kramer, Vito Russo, and Didier Lestrade to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic, while working to improve the lives of people with the disease through medical research, treatment, advocacy, and direct action. They also fought to change legislation and public policies that were directly affecting those with the disease.[1]

History

During the HIV/AIDS pandemic, many members of the LGBTQIA+ community felt the United States government was not doing enough to protect queer and non-queer people that were being infected with the disease. They felt a lack of research, resources, and awareness was contributing to the infection and later deaths of thousands of people.[2]

After leaving the 1980s group "Gay Men's Heath Crisis", activist Larry Kramer posed a question to his peers asking if they should create a new organization devoted to political action to create a better place for gay people. The answer was yes, and the next day over two-hundred people gathered to form ACT UP.[3]

In October 1987, they made their first national appearance during the Gay and Lesbian Rights March, where they participated in the marches, rallies, and civil disobedience at the United States Supreme Court.[4]

Regular meetings were held Monday nights starting at 7pm and often going until 11. They were held in Room 101 at the LGBT Center on 13th Street in Manhattan except for a brief period in 1990-1991 when they were moved to the Great Hall at Cooper Union because the membership overflowed the room at the center. Meetings were run using a modified version of Robert's Rules of Order, and led by two facilitators. This team of facilitators were chosen by election, which took place every six months. Meetings had an initial agenda set up by the Coordinating Committee, though this was often altered and expanded on both prior to and during the meetings. The agenda contained things such as announcements about upcoming actions, reports from various committees, and proposed actions and events. At the entrance to the meeting room, a long table contained flyers and copies of information relating to the AIDS crisis.[5]

New York

1987 Wall Street

On March 24, 1987, ACT UP met on Wall Street outside of Trinity Church at 7AM for a "massive AIDS demonstration". They posted flyers that advertised the seven things they demanded. Included in the demands were the immediate release of the FDA's drugs that could potentially save lives, and to abolish the study in which a placebo pill was given to some patients while other received the new medications. Most of their demands on the flyers were the organizations general goals that would not be achieved in the first demonstration. While most protesters stayed behind the police barricades, some crossed to sit in the middle of the street and block traffic. Seventeen people were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. All arrested people were released afterwards. Following this protest, the $10,000 price for one of the popular medications was reduced to $3,500. Additionally, the FDA announced it had shortened its drug approval process by two years. [6]

Northwest Orient Airlines

In June 1987, Northwest Orient Airlines barred people with AIDS from boarding their flights or traveling with their airline. The ACT UP group protested outside their New York City offices and brought two lawsuits against the airline. Because of these actions, the policy was reversed.[7]

Post Office

On April 15, 1987, ACT UP arrived at the New York City General Post Office in the evening to speak to people who were filing their taxes. This was the first appearance of the Silence=Death Project. The project reclaimed the right-side-up pink triangle as their primary symbol. Previously, an upside-down pink triangle had been used in Nazi camps to mark the deceased gays. Because the media often reported on the last-minute tax filers as a gimmick, ACT Up was successfully captured by a number of media outlets who were already in attendance.[7][8]

1988 Wall Street

To celebrate one-year of successful activism and the progressions made, ACT UP returned to their origins of Wall Street for an even larger protest. By this time, merchandise had circulated, allowing protesters to wear shirts that said ACT UP. The signs demonstrated included President Reagan's face. The media coverage surrounding this protest was immense, and many central issues surrounding the AIDS crisis were successfully reported on. Additionally, 100 protesters were arrested.[9]

Shutting Down the FDA

Hey, hey, FDA, how many people have you killed today?

A chant from the demonstration, quoted in the Los Angeles Times

On October 11, 1988, ACT UP united with the ACT NOW coalition for one of their largest demonstrations. They successfully shut down the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) for an entire day. Over 1,000 activists showed up to the protest, blocking doors, walkways, and an entire road that stopped FDA workers from entering the building. Police officers donned surgical gloves and helmets to arrest the protesters, though other protesters blocked the buses holding those arrested for over twenty minutes. Approximately 180 arrests were made. The international press coverage the demonstration earned made it an infamous event for the organization and allowed dozens of other chapters to either open or organize their own demonstrations.[10]

1997 Wall Street

Ten years later, hundreds of AIDS activists from ACT UP, and their supporters, converged onto Wall Street at the designated time of 7:30AM. They labeled it the, "Crash the Market" demonstration. They proceeded to stop traffic, which virtually suspend all activity in Lower Manhattan for approximately three hours. Seventy-three people, over half of which were women, were arrested for acts of Civil Disobedience since their protests were either inside of or near the New York Stock Exchange. Two of the arrested individuals suffered head injuries as a result of police using excessive force. The demonstration saw the alliance of multiple chapters, with over 500 activists arriving. They protested the pharmaceutical companies that charged outrageous prices for medication, the financial cutbacks by Medicaid, and demanded Congressional hearings for the drug prices. Demonstrators used creative means to capture media attention, such as elaborate costumes, giant fake caskets, and dumping thousands of pill bottles in the entrance of the New York Stock Exchange.[11]

Washington DC

On June 1, 1987, ACT UP joined forces with other United States activist groups on the White House lawn in Washington, DC. The largest headline within the community was the blatant acts of prejudice by police, as they wore rubber gloves while arresting the protesters, despite the disease not being transmissible via touch.[7]

On April 24 and April 25, ACT UP joined one million LGBTQIA+ individuals at the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation political rally. The event was co-organized by ACT UP/NY (ACT UP New York Chapter) with over a thousand activists from around the country meeting at the Pharmaceutical Manufacturer's Association, accusing the industry of multiple indiscretions and prejudice. ACT UP specifically organized the Hands Around the Capital event.[12]

Jesse Helms' House

On September 5, 1991, in one of their more iconic demonstrations, ACT UP (in partnership with affinity group Treatment Action Guerrillas aka Treatment Action Group) engulfed US Senator Jesse Helms's DC home in a 15-foot condom. They did so to protest his opposition to AIDS research, funding, and his role in passing laws stigmatizing the disease. Helms had also blocked federal funding for education on HIV and AIDS, federal research funding, and passed legislation that was overall harmful to the community. Some examples of these include laws banning inbound travelers who had AIDS from entering the country and blocking the CDC from spending money to combat the spread of AIDS among the gay community. The condom was inflated with a message that read, "a condom to protect unsafe politics. Helms is deadlier than a virus". It should be noted that the faux condom was pre-measured, so it only appeared to cover the entire house, but in actuality, was not as large as it appeared on television or from the streets. The event was captured on multiple media outlets and played live on television. The police were called but no one was arrested, charged, or harmed. Instead, the perpetrators received a parking ticket for illegally parking in the wrong direction. The group was permitted to remove the condom and keep it.[13]

In 2019, the event was reenacted on the FX television series POSE.[14]

Memorial Quilt

Maryland

Between March and May, ACT UP spread the word about "Storm the NIH" to its chapters across the country. The group took out full-page ads in The Washington Post advertising this. Chapters were divided into "affinity groups", each of which organized its own presentation, skit or protest focus.[15]

On May 21, 1990, approximately 1000 ACT UP members initiated a demonstration at the National Institute of Health. They were led by Mark Harrington and Peter Staley. The protest was the largest organized by the charter and they directed their rage at director Anthony Fauci for his slow progress on research and treatments. An Associated Press photo of screaming activists under a cloud of rainbow smoke, created by special-ordered smoke bombs, eventually made it onto the cover of newspapers across the country.[15]

Fauci was the younger medical professional working in the building and supported the cause by attempting to set up meetings. However, his slowness to implement change spurred the 1,000 protesters to march to his door as a sign they would not be ignored. Over 80 people were arrested. As a result of the protest, one-month later Fauci announced that activists, journalist, and people with AIDS would be let into the AIDS Clinical Trials Group. It has also expanded to include women of color, drugs users, and children, all of whom had been barred previously.[15]

International Charters

Trivia

  • In 2000 ACT UP/Chicago was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.[16]
  • The protest "stop the church" was part of the ACT UP movement and was a major effect for the organization.

Resources

References

  1. "About Act Up NY" (2021). actupny.com.
  2. Banales, Meliza: "Act-Up" (2022-02-14). britannica.com. Britannica.
  3. According to the anthology workings of Douglas Crimp, 1990, AIDS Demo graphics
  4. Williams, Lena: "Snapshot of the 1987 newspaper story" (1987-10-12). nytimes.com. New York Times.
  5. "ACT UP Meetings" (2021). actuporalhistory.org. ACT UP Oral History website.
  6. "The ACT UP Historical Archive: ACT UP 1987 Wall Street Action - List of Demands" (1987-03-24). actupny.org. ACT UP.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 "The ACT UP Historical Archive: ACT UP/NY Chronology 1987". actupny.org. ACT UP.
  8. Kohler, Will: "March 10, 1987: ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) Is Formed In NYC" (2021-03-11). back2stonewall.com. Back2Stonewall.
  9. "The ACT UP Historical Archive: ACT UP/NY Chronology 1988". actupny.org. ACT UP.
  10. Crimp, Douglas: "Before Occupy: How AIDS Activists Seized Control of the FDA in 1988" (2011-12-07). theatlantic.com. The Atlantic.
  11. "The ACT UP Historical Archive: ACT UP 1997 Wall Street Action Report". actupny.org. ACT UP.
  12. Alexander, Ethan: "A Brief History of the ACT UP Movement" (2019-04-10). medium.com. Medium.
  13. Staley, Peter: "The Condom on Jesse Helms' House" (1991-09-05). actipedia.org. Actipedia.
  14. Street, Mikelle: "Pose's 'Condom Over the House' Scene Actually Happened — Here's How" (2019-07-31). out.com. Out.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/05/20/fauci-aids-nih-coronavirus/
  16. "Way back machine - gay and lesbian hall of fame index". web.archive.org.
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