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ACT UP  
 
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On March 24, 1987, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT UP, staged its first action in New York City on Wall Street, protesting the Food and Drug Administration and the drug company Burroughs Wellcome. Converging on the site in the hundreds, protesters passed out flyers, disrupted traffic, and drew considerable media attention. One activist even built an effigy of the head of the FDA that he hung outside a church during the protest.

Through this demonstration, ACT UP initiated its direct-action strategy in the fight against the AIDS epidemic. Using bold images and confrontational tactics, ACT UP worked to promote awareness of AIDS and challenge the complacency of politicians and government officials who had yet to respond adequately to the crisis.

Sponsor Message.

As its statement of purpose reads, "ACT UP is a diverse, non-partisan group united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis. We protest and demonstrate; we meet with government and public health officials; we research and distribute the latest medical information; we are not silent."

Targeting Wall Street allowed ACT UP to highlight one of the most pressing needs of those living with AIDS in the late 1980s--effective and affordable drug treatment. Because of FDA policies, Burroughs Wellcome was the only company that made and sold AZT. The high cost of the drug--anywhere from $10,000 to $13,000 a year for one patient--and the belief that it was the only treatment option available prompted New York City activists to target this monopoly.

According to writer Larry Kramer, one of the early organizers of ACT UP, the action was a monumental success and attracted national media attention. He commented, "some 250 men and women tied up traffic for several hours and passed out tens of thousands of fact sheets about the FDA horror show . . . It was a wonderful beginning."

Attempts to Energize and Transform Institutional Responses to the Epidemic

By all accounts, ACT UP's first action was successful. It served to inspire veteran and novice activists in their efforts to attract more attention to the disease and agitate for increased research and more effective treatments. Other actions soon followed, and during the next year, New York ACT UP held more than a dozen demonstrations, and chapters quickly spread to other American and European cities.

Many ACT UP members had been involved with earlier social protest movements, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the gay liberation movement of the 1970s. Members of ACT UP adapted the radical principles of these movements, including direct action, civil disobedience, and a commitment to democratic process within the organization, to their work in AIDS activism. They hoped to transform and energize the non-profit service organizations that had developed in the first few years of the epidemic, which many activists believed to have become complacent.

The problems associated with the Gay Men's Health Crisis in the early years of the epidemic illustrates the tensions within the gay community about how best to respond to AIDS. Founded by many of the community leaders who would eventually launch ACT UP--Larry Kramer among them--GMHC began providing services to people struggling with AIDS in 1982.

Yet, according to Kramer, it failed to live up to its political potential and had become co-opted by the political establishment. Frustrated with GMHC's social-service orientation and its involvement with slow moving governmental bureaucracies, he and others organized ACT UP to demand a more rapid response to the epidemic. In large part, they succeeded.

Confrontation and Negotiation

Although ACT UP is best known for its audacious direct-action tactics, including telephone and fax zaps, as well as marches, rallies, and "die-ins," it also achieved considerable success by meeting directly with governmental agencies and corporations. As Nancy Stoller notes, one of ACT UP's strengths was its expertise in negotiating "with leaders in government and the health fields using sophisticated technical analysis."

Steven Epstein has carefully documented how ACT UP's activities improved biomedical research practices and expedited the processes by which drugs were tested and approved for AIDS treatment. These successes undeniably improved the lives of people living with AIDS and empowered them to advocate for themselves in a political environment that had largely ignored them.

Problems and Limitations

In spite of the tremendous successes ACT UP achieved in the late 1980s, it could not attend comprehensively to the needs of the entire AIDS community. In many ways, the strengths of its initial organizers also reflected serious weaknesses as they tried to build a more inclusive organization and movement.

The tendency of some ACT UP leaders, especially Kramer, to hector other gay men over relatively minor disagreements proved in many cases counter-productive. It alienated people who were eager to help in the AIDS crisis.

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