If we’re going to beat AIDS, we can’t afford to avoid sensitive conversations, and we can’t afford not to reach the people who are at the highest risk.
—Hillary Rodham Clinton
What AIDS revealed was not the problem of the virus. What AIDS revealed was the problems of our society. It was this fissure, through which everything, all the ways in which our society isn’t working, became really clear.
—Zoe Leonard, United in Anger
“They’re afraid of us now. That’s the best thing that could ever have happened to us.” It was December 1989, and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) had performed a die-in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Designed to protest John Cardinal O’Connor’s opposition to condom distribution as a means to prevent AIDS, the action included protestors lying down in the aisles, others distributing literature, and still others recording the hubbub with cameras. We have these last to thank for the wide-angle secret camera footage, shots of shocked parishioners’ faces, as well as footage of a young man standing up on a pew to yell out, “Stop killing us, stop killing us, we’re not going to take it anymore.”
Here the camera in United in Anger: A History of ACT UP cuts to the Cardinal, no longer speaking and holding his hand to his forehead, then to a wide shot outside the church, showing some 7,000 protestors, the biggest picket demonstration ACT UP had effected to that point. Some people, including some members of ACT UP, are visibly troubled by what they’re seeing, by the disrespect and noise of the protest. But the upset serves a purpose. To that purpose, ACT UP engaged in what the New York Times described then as an “unusual experiment in the politics of participation—a mixture of the shrill and the shrewd,” in order to produce reactions. As journalist Ann Northrup recalls, “Our job was not to be liked. It was to get attention to specific issues.”
This “job” is the focus of Jim Hubbard’s remarkable documentary. Comprised of current interviews as well as ACT UP’s recordings of its activities during the ‘80s and ‘90s, including planning meetings and actions, the film showcases the organization’s ingenious efforts to be seen and heard. In response to ignorance and fear, ACT UP and its multiple affinity groups elevated direct action to all kinds of art, making its mantra, “Silence = Death,” known and understood.
The protests drew connections with other movements of the day, making use of Civil Rights strategies and also anti-war protests. Northrup notes one reason for such association, in the way attitudes towards AIDS were functions of power. “It was the Vietnam war all over again,” she says, “It was about people in power not caring about the lives of people who didn’t have power, and being willing to accept a system of attrition where people would die.”
To fight back against the mounting losses, ACT UP engaged in raucous and innovative actions, campaign tactics and goals that resonate to this day. Much of this resonance concerns the persistence of AIDS. For all the progress that has been made regarding treatment, the virus continues to mutate and resist a cure. Thus, even as Washington DC is the site for the 2012 Keep the Promise March and the International AIDS Conference, starting Monday 23 July, significant gaps in treatment remain.
These gaps have to do with education and economics, still. Since the ‘90s, treatments have improved, and costs of treatment have been reduced. For these changes, we might all thank ACT UP, which right away targeted FDA drug trials and costs. (As unofficial “chant queen” Ron Goldberg put it then, the FDA’s “Testing takes years, and we don’t have years.”) The group found a particularly effective focus in numbers, and the documentary follows suit with the horrifying early title card: “Between 1981 and 1987, over 40,000 people died of AIDS in the United States.”
ACT UP made found all manner of ways to make numbers visible—in signs held up at demonstrations, in posters, in TV spots. The group also made the case that numbers mattered in repeated acts of civil disobedience, for which they trained and planned. It drew attention to death rates (“One AIDS death every eight minutes,” reads a banner at the Day of Desperation protest in 1991) as well as money. When AZT, the first AIDS drug, became available on 19 March 1987, its price tag was $10,000 a year. On 24 March, ACT UP staged its first demonstration on Wall Street, decrying AZT sponsor Burroughs Wellcome for profiteering. The protest appeared on TV news and on newspaper front pages: within days, the company lowered the drug’s price, to $6.400 per patient per year.
The organization’s effectiveness was premised in its media savvy, its use of mainstream-friendly images (ads used hiphop beats and slick edits) and some that were more innovative and aggressive. As Jim Eigo remembers, “We discovered in those first few years that if you could identify an obvious problem, if you could get the media on board about it, that if you could get ACT UP people sitting in at a very particular target, making it very, very uncomfortable for the powers that were, you could effect very, very quick change.”
The idea was always to get on TV, to make headlines, to shake up representational business as usual. In order to gain control over their images, ACT UP members began making them. As Catherine Gund, cofounder of the Third Wave Foundation, explains, for group members, “Cameras were an extension of themselves. Like people have their laptops today, we just had our cameras with us.” Fully aware of the damage that had been done by mainstream media, the demonizing homosexuals and AIDS victims alike, ACT UP came up with counter-programming.
Sometimes, group members inserted themselves into other discourses. In 1991, ACT UP staged zaps of CBS and PBS evening news broadcasts, ensuring coverage on TV, at least on stations not affiliated with CBS). ACT UP also challenged the representation of AIDS by official bodies: beginning in March 1989, it initiated a four-year campaign to change the definition of AIDS, that is, to get the CDC to include diseases specific to women and IV drug users in its accounting of the disease, in order to combat the story circulating in popular magazines that women “didn’t get AIDS.”
In order to mount such campaigns—sustained and complex—ACT UP depended on multiple populations and individuals. The organization made use of many approaches and “was brilliant because it was organic, everything came out of necessity,” says poet Anna Blume. “ACT UP always wanted the freshness of irreverence. And irreverence can’t come from consensus.” The “art arm” of ACT UP came up with posters and billboards (Ronald Reagan’s face alongside the word “AIDSGATE,” the proliferation of the slogan “AIDS Not Arabs” during the Gulf war, and colorful Keith Haring figures), while other members designed vivid actions. Filmmaker Maria Maggenti cites the theatricality of the actions as “one reason people wanted to be a part of it.” Activist Maxine Wolfe notes that it was the “combination of serious politics and joyous living that was so great about ACT UP.”
At the same time that it provided members with artistic, social, and political frameworks, ACT UP provided a forum to make these frameworks visible to an outside world, that is, a world that marginalized and rejected those it deemed “other.” As ACT UP embraced these others, they trained one another to fight back, to feel like a group “united in anger.” If they came from any number of backgrounds, if their losses were incalculable, and if their ideas about how to fight back were diverse, they found in each other a source of strength—in numbers, in reflections, and in shared energies.
If the film focuses on the group’s shared goals and unity in anger, it only suggests the ways ACT UP came apart. The “split had to do with those who were immediately concerned with saving their own lives and those who had a bigger vision of bigger issues or were interested in saving other people’s lives,” laments Northrup. “It was a complete misunderstanding to think that these were opposite and exclusive points of view.”
Among the bigger issues—again, issues that resonate to this day—ACT UP early on identified universal health care in the United States. ACT UP made the case that “health care is a human right,” says Jim Eigo, “The more that we could press that as a moral cause,” the more the rest of the world could take up that cause. Today, as HIV and AIDS have become known, as millions have died and millions more live with them, the fight that ACT UP started remains crucial. It’s a fight against the virus, it’s a fight for treatment, and it’s a fight for images.