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For this week’s Peace of History:
We share a brief history of ACT UP, the queer health advocacy group whose work helped save countless lives during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. In early March, 1987, as the Reagan administration continued to cruelly neglect the rising body count of the new deadly disease, activists from the NYC queer community formed the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP). From its beginning, ACT UP was decentralized and leaderless, diverse in race and gender, followed nonviolent principles, and performed radical direct action and civil disobedience. This generation of activists was inspired by and trained by members of the civil rights, feminist, and peace movements of the previous decades. Jamie Bauer, a nonviolence trainer with the War Resisters League (WRL), encouraged ACT UP to put members through trainings to prepare for actions, to take care of each other, and to "use their bodies as a force for change." Jamie was one of many who learned their training skills from WRL. Almost exactly 33 years ago on March 24, 1987, ACT UP held their first protest on Wall Street, demanding greater access and affordability of experimental HIV/AIDS medicine from the pharmaceutical industry. Within the year, more chapters began forming in other cities across the country.
In its heyday, the wholly grassroots organization took on the FDA’s excessive drug approval process for life-threatening conditions; the CDC for its narrow and inaccurate definition for AIDS; the NIH for its lack of urgency addressing the epidemic as well as its inaccurate reporting of cases; various presidents and other elected officials for their inaction, mismanagement, or divestment from life-saving programs; health insurance companies for discriminating against people with HIV/AIDS; the Catholic Church for its opposition to safe sex education in schools; and more. Even after ACT UP activity slowed elsewhere in the country, in 1996 ACT UP Philadelphia organized and applied enough pressure on Congress and the UN to force them to make HIV/AIDS medicine affordable worldwide as well. In this time of extreme uncertainty and federal ineptitude, let us take inspiration from the recent past: let us (virtually, or while practicing social distancing) join together, organize, give mutual aid, and demand justice from the powers that be in radical and creative ways. We are not powerless.
To read the full story of ACT UP, please check out the two articles linked below.
“ACT UP Was Unofficially Founded 33 Years Ago, Changing the Face of Queer Activism.” https://hornet.com/stories/act-up-history/
“Early AIDS Activism Was So Much More Diverse Than Media Depicts It.” https://www.out.com/…/early-aids-activism-was-so-much-more-…
“ACT UP ACCOMPLISHMENTS – 1987-2012.” https://actupny.com/actions/