Act Up

ACT UP—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power— came together in March 1987 out of the charismatic exhortations of author and playwright Larry Kramer. Already central to the creation of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Kramer had grown impatient with the responses by the government and pharmaceutical industry to the AIDS epidemic. No longer content simply to react to the crisis, ACT UP aspired to force change through direct action, confrontation, and media-savvy street theatre.

Central to the motivational ethos of the coalition was the conviction that persons living with AIDS (PWAs) were not passive victims of a disease, but individuals who must take control of their situations through self-empowerment, demanding that bureaucracies take the problem seriously. The Denver Principles announced this proactive stance. Framed in 1983, the Principles eschewed the labels ‘‘victim’’ and ‘‘patient’’ and enumerated the rights of PWAs along with recommendations and strategies to achieve those goals. ACT UP embraced the spirit of the Principles and gave flesh to what had been merely abstract ideas.

The group’s first demonstration took place on March 24, 1987, when it staged a protest on Wall Street over the monopoly and profiteering by Burroughs Wellcome, the manufacturer of AZT. Of the two hundred fifty participants, seventeen were arrested, launching an innovative model for activist organizing.

Although all facets of the AIDS crisis fell within the group’s mission, ACT UP came to be especially associated with three broad issues. First, it effectively pressured medical corporations to develop safe and effective drug treatments and offer them at affordable prices to those who needed them. Second, activists insisted that governmental agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, put new AIDS drugs on a fast-track for approval. Finally, any entity perceived to be complicating the lives and treatments of PWAs was singled out for public humiliation and embarrassing publicity.

Over the years ACT UP achieved astonishing successes. It shut down the FDA to international attention (October 11, 1988), convinced the government to adopt innovative drug testing procedures (June 4–9, 1989), and pressured Burroughs Wellcome to cut the price of AZT 20 percent by interfering with trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (September 14, 1989).

ACT UP’s singular success relied in part on its accurate sense of how to get its message out beyond its members. Its logo—the motto ‘‘Silence = Death’’ in front of a pink triangle—became one of the best known symbols of the period. From its inception the group valued praxis over theory. Going far beyond the traditional protest picket lines, its actions tended to be well-conceived, high-style mediagenic events designed for visual and symbolic impact, such as the ‘‘die in’’ on Wall Street.

A hallmark of an ACT UP action was an intrusion into ‘‘inappropriate’’ spaces. These actions were known as ‘‘zaps,’’ a term and strategy revived from earlier countercultural and gay liberationist campaigns. On the other hand, ACT UP rarely pursued its agenda in the courtroom. The few cases involving the organization more typically concerned its right to protest than AIDS issues per se.

At its height, ACT UP spawned more than seventy chapters around the country and the world. In addition, it spun off other, even more radical organizations such as Queer Nation, which fought against homophobia and assimilation of the gay community into heterosexual normalcy, and the Lesbian Avengers.

According to its own description, ACT UP is a group ‘‘united in anger.’’ Although that visceral drive accounts for its great intensity, such emotional intensity could not be sustained over an extended period. By the 1990s, ACT UP was in decline, and today comparatively few chapters remain active. AIDS claimed many of its early charismatic leaders, and others left to pursue AIDS-related causes in more professional roles. As better drugs made AIDS more manageable for many PWAs, there was less ‘‘anger’’ for ACT UP to draw upon. Finally, ACT UP chapters suffered internal dissensions over whether the organization should remain with its single focus or branch out into wider issues of social justice.

Whatever the fortunes of the organization, ACT UP has an enduring legacy in its achievements to improve the lives of PWAs—in terms of quantity, through the demand for new drugs made rapidly available at affordable prices, and quality, by confronting AIDS-negative policies wherever found. Its refreshingly uninhibited and creative protests have had an enduring impact on the way ordinary citizens come together to demand recognition of their civil liberties.

JAMES M. DONOVAN

References and Further Reading

  • ACT UP-New York. ACTUP Capsule History, www. actupny.org. 
  • Kramer, Larry. Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. 
  • Shepard, Benjamin, and Ronald Hayduk, eds. From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization. London: Verso, 2002. 

See also Demonstrations and Sit-ins; Gay and Lesbian Rights

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