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What ACT UP Is Up To

HOST, DOMINIC HALL-THOMAS: The student-led protests for Columbia to divest from companies that do business with Israel have made headlines around the world. These protests have been loud, visually striking, and have disrupted student and faculty members’ daily lives. 

HOST, CLAIRE DAVENPORT: To some New Yorkers, the idea of activists using disruptive tactics to bring attention to a cause sounds…familiar. The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, otherwise known as ACT UP, is an activism group that formed in the late 1980s to combat the HIV/AIDS Crisis. ACT UP practically created the instruction manual for creative, confrontational protesting. 

HOST, DOMINIC HALL-THOMAS:  But what might be less well-known is that ACT UP is still around today, and it is evolving to encompass a broader range of causes, including Palestinian rights. Samuel Eli Shepherd reports on an activist group in evolution.

SAMUEL ELI SHEPHERD: In Bryant Park in early April, around a dozen activists gather by a fountain. Ariel Friedlander is handing out pink KN-95 masks and signs that say “Fund healthcare, not warfare.” They’re meeting up before they march to Times Square. On one of the activists’ backpacks is a pin with the icon of ACT UP: a pink triangle. It's the symbol Nazis used during the Holocaust to demarcate gay men, turned up-side-down as a sign of queer empowerment. Only this version looks like a slice of watermelon with a green rind and black, triangular seeds: roughly the same colors as the Palestinian flag.

ARIEL FRIEDLANDER: At any action there's people wearing their ACT UP merch and wearing those watermelon tees and hats and buttons

SHEPHERD: The protestors arrive at an Al-Quds Day Demonstration - Al Quds being the Arabic name for Jerusalem - and the demonstration is for an end to the war and a future Palestinian state.

FRIEDLANDER: It’s really inspiring and it’s been really crazy to be a part of.

SHEPHERD: Six months ago, on December 1st, 2023, ACT UP posted a watermelon pink triangle on its Instagram with the caption, “This World AIDS Day, we cry out: “Fight AIDS! Not Palestinians.” A message that Friedlander says is “on brand”  for ACT UP…

FRIEDLANDER:  It was completely in line with ACT UP's history of protesting where we needed money for HIV treatment, housing, prevention, and it was going to warfare.

SHEPHERD: Since December, ACT UP has joined demonstrations for Palestine nearly every week. In January, ACT UP voted to endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, or BDS – it’s a movement to stop economically supporting Israel. Of course, not everyone sees the connection between HIV/AIDS and Palestinian activism as clearly.  Ivy-Kwan Arce has been a member of ACT UP since the 90s. 

IVY KWAN-ARCE: Well, the things that frustrate me about ACT UP today are in some ways very similar to the ones that have frustrated me since the moment I stepped in. 

SHEPHERD: Kwan-Arce supports the Palestinian cause…but she wants ACT UP to stay focused on its ultimate goal: Ending AIDS.

IVY KWAN-ARCE: A lot of people use ACT Up history and wins as a vehicle to ride that, and that’s kind of difficult for me…

SHEPHERD: Kwan-Arce is HIV-positive – something she says is a rarity in ACT UP nowadays. 

IVY KWAN-ARCE : If you read the room, you don't see a lot of like old timers here, because this kind of conversation is painful for us to see that. So they don't show up. 

SHEPHERD: But others say ACT UP has always been anti-war. 

SARAH SCHULMAN: For example, when the Gulf War first started, ACT UP organized the Day of Desperation, where they occupied Grand Central Station and their slogan was Fight AIDS, Not Arabs. 

SHEPHERD: Sarah Schulman is the author of Let The Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York. She joined in '87, the year ACT UP was founded. She says that in the early days, there was a desperate sense of urgency - people were dying by the tens of thousands. 

SCHULMAN: One thing that's consistent is that people who are endangered are often falsely depicted as dangerous.  So whether it's people with AIDS or Palestinians, people who actually desperately need our support and help are falsely presented as a threat. 

SHEPHERD: And just like today, not every demonstration that ACT UP did back then was popular. Ann Northrop has also been with the group since the early years. 

ANN NORTHROP: We tried to be provocative. We wanted to be provocative because we wanted attention to our issues.

SHEPHERD ACT UP protests were outrageous and in-your-face. They poured ashes on the White House lawn and staged die-ins outside Federal buildings. And then there was the Stop The Church protest in 1989, when ACT UP disrupted mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

NORTHROP: And one rogue member of ACT UP got up on a pew and started screaming, uh, you know, the Cardinal is a murderer. You're murdering us. The whole place went crazy.

SHEPHERD: Northrop remembers how a friend’s mother in the suburbs reacted to coverage of that protest .

NORTRHOP: She told him, You know,  before this, I used to think of gay people as, uh, sort of quiet and weak and wishy washy. But now I know they're strong and angry…mission accomplished! 

SHEPHERD: Anyone can attend an ACT UP meeting. Attend three, and you get to vote. On a Monday night meeting at the LGBT Centre. Seven people in person, ten more on Zoom. Victor Li facilitated.

VICTOR LI: It's not as if every single agenda item that we have has to be AIDS related. People submit what they submit, and that's what our agenda is. 

SHEPHERD: Over the two hour meeting, they covered pro-Palestine encampments and planned a protest against Moms for Liberty: an anti-LGBTQ group. The meetings always end with the same chant.  

 [AMBIENCE: ACT UP, Fight Back, Fight AIDS!]

SHEPHERD: Back at the Al-Quds day demonstration in Times Square, Scott Kantor wears a keffiyah. Their sign says “No Pride in Genocide.” Kantor’s one of ACT Up’s newer members. They joined in January.

SCOTT KANTOR: In Gaza, it's a public health crisis. Uh, there are people living there, With HIV, with AIDS, who are not getting the care that they need ... Everything is connected, and it would behoove us to view it as that.

SHEPHERD: Kantor’s 27. They came of age in an era when HIV/AIDS can be both prevented and treated, and where ACT UP is immortalized in documentaries, and musicals like RENT. 

SCOTT KANTOR: We have so much to thank for ACT UP. And their, their anger into action has been something that we can only hope to replicate today in AIDS activism and beyond

SHEPHERD:  The causes they are fighting for might be changing…but that ACT UP anger is as loud as ever. And if these activists ruffle a few feathers with their actions, well, hey, maybe that’s by design. Samuel Eli Shepherd. Columbia Radio News.


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