Watching How to Survive a Plague:

Learning from the Passion, Fury, and Relentless Struggle of ACT UP

May 14, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


from a member of the New York City Steering Committee of Refuse Fascism

The New York City chapter hosted a movie night last night to show the film, How to Survive a Plague, a documentary about the AIDS epidemic and the activist group ACT UP-AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, followed by a discussion about the lessons we draw from their actions and how we can apply them to the crisis we are facing now, with a fascist regime in the White House. The movie focuses on both the bold activism of ACT UP and the deep scientific understanding of the disease and lack of treatment that was killing hundreds of thousands, then millions.

These sudden deaths were initially concentrated among gay men in New York, and even as the epidemic was spreading at an extremely alarming pace, treatment research was stagnant. The U.S. government, in large part due to widespread homophobia, was in no rush to test or approve safe drugs to treat AIDS. Hospitals were flooded, and amongst the fear, a sentiment of blame arose, as some explicit bigots asserted that gay men were dying because they had transgressed the anti-gay rules of most Christian churches, while many internalized this hatred and looked the other way while many died from this disease, and bodies were put in garbage bags. Most people involved in ACT UP were affected very deeply and immediately by AIDS, whether they themselves were sick or their friends and loved ones were. They acted with a sharp sense of urgency, with the understanding that this was a plague.

In the midst of this, they protested en masse at the National Institutes of Health, climbed on buildings to drop banners, draped a massive condom over the house of Jesse Helms, an outrageously homophobic senator who spoke out against AIDS treatment. They used creativity, humor, and drama to confront the horrors they were facing, and to break out of “protest as usual.” ACT UP was supportive of the massive quilt ceremony that took place in Washington honoring the victims of AIDS, but they recognized that there was no “beauty” in the crisis. They then organized a march to the White House, where they threw the ashes of their dead loved ones over the fence. The emotional power of this action cannot be overstated; their outrage and pain were channeled in a striking and confrontational way.

Another important element of the work of ACT UP was the extensive scientific learning and research they conducted themselves, in order to grasp exactly what they were facing and educate others, and with the goal of having their work actually acknowledged by the NIH and other major institutions that had the funding to search for a cure but were not taking any significant steps toward it. We discussed why their activism and scientific work were not in opposition to each other but rather closely intertwined. Prominent scientists from these government agencies read ACT UP’s treatment plan pamphlet and finally allowed them to attend meetings, but would they really ever have listened if the group hadn’t been shutting down business as usual? They demanded to be acknowledged, to be heard.

We posed several questions for discussion, people shared their own personal stories of how the AIDS epidemic affected them, and we explored how we should be acting now in the face of fascism. Where did the collective certitude of ACT UP come from? What made them so willing to lay in the streets, get brutalized and arrested by police, and stand up to powerful, oppressive institutions like the government and the Catholic Church?

While the visceral and immediate effects of AIDS moved many people on the frontlines of resistance to act, the strength and effectiveness of their actions were not inevitable. During our discussion, several pointed out that the masses of people dying so quickly instilled this sense of urgency, which is true, but the reality was that millions were not flooding the streets in anger, demanding change. ACT UP was a relatively small group at first, concentrated mostly in New York City. With the boldness of their actions, many had told them they were being too extreme. But they garnered the attention of millions of people by waking them up, not allowing anyone to look away, and shocking them into action. People were shocked, but also inspired, by their actions, and ACT UP grew and gained real influence. In our movement to drive out the Trump/Pence fascist regime, we can draw lessons from the ways they moved decisively and effectively.

As we have learned in the outreach we’ve done on the streets, on campuses, and throughout the country on our national organizing tour, there are many out there who approach us as they had approached ACT UP, arguing that our analysis of the regime as fascist is “too extreme.” We concluded, though, that maybe we should be acting in even more extreme manifestations of our anger toward the misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and outright hatred embodied in the Trump/Pence administration. Right now, there isn’t continuous, massive resistance. We don’t have the thousands of leaders we need to drive this regime from power. Yet, as one person in our discussion pointed out, ACT UP did not determine what they would do based on popular opinion at the time; they did what was right based on the truth. The truth is, the rhetoric and policies of the Trump/Pence regime have genocidal implications. They are taking major steps to consolidate fascism in America and to enact their white supremacist vision. With the firing of James Comey and the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences by KKK-supporter/Attorney General Jeff Sessions, fear is prevalent and growing throughout society.

During the height of the AIDS crisis, there was pain, anguish, and serious anger, but there was also widespread fear. Many died in isolation, shame, and silence. We cannot allow this to happen now; we need to set the terms. Right now, there are not nearly as many flooding the streets as there need to be, but it would be a mistake to think that we don’t have an audience. By sounding the alarm, we can move many more people to act. There is a relationship we can form between education and fierce action, between deep knowledge of the problem and resistance. As we cause commotion and shock, we will also welcome people broadly to join with us and to channel their fear and outrage into mass resistance, focused toward driving out the Trump/Pence Regime.

In response to the opposition toward condom use in the midst of a deadly epidemic, ACT UP staged a die-in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where activists fell to the ground while others screamed, “Why are you killing us?” Openly and actively opposing the Catholic Church in this bold way was controversial and unprecedented, but it had an outsized impact. It is time for us now to do things we’ve never done before because the stakes are too high to look the other way.

The emotionally heavy yet inspiring movie and our subsequent discussion led to a lively brainstorming session, followed by concrete planning for actions inspired by the fearlessness of ACT UP. We are working on brand new ideas, like visually impactful street theater and dance in the subways, in town hall meetings, and in symbolic locations. Stay tuned to find out more about upcoming NYC actions! And join our organizing meetings, Wednesdays at 6:30 pm at the LGBT Center, to contribute your own creative ideas and work with us toward driving the Trump/Pence regime out of power!




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