Commentary

4 lessons from ACT UP you can use against the Trump administration today

Know Your Message and Make It Clear

From the beginning, ACT UP realized they had to become as knowledgeable as those they were going up against, if not more so. They researched the issues thoroughly, built and maintained impressive networks of experts, and had their talking points down solid. It was impossible to deny that the activists knew what they were talking about and once they had the ear of the establishment and the authorities to whom they were appealing, they were able to not only articulate the problems facing them but also offer concrete and actionable solutions.

They also understood the importance of boiling down their message to memorable slogans and chants, such as “Silence Equals Death” and “ACT Up, Fight Back, Fight AIDS!” That, mixed with their theatrical demonstrations, made for perfect sound bites and video clips that were made for TV and allowed the messages to spread far and wide.

Direct Action Works

ACT UP protest at the FDA. Bil Browning

ACT UP displayed bravery by going big early and often. Some of their most notable actions include shutting down the New York Stock Exchange for the first time, in 1989, interrupting then governor Mario Cuomo’s State of the Union Address in Albany, in 1990, and disrupting the CBS Evening News live broadcast, in 1991, to name but a few.

Their righteous audacity got the attention of the press, and thereby the wider public, without their even having to resort to property damage.

While riots have had their place in the history of the LGBTQ rights struggle, such as at Compton Cafeteria and Stonewall riots, it is often felt that those actions can be used to disparage and dismiss a movement. Trump’s response to violent protests during his inauguration and at UC Berkeley, in response to a speech to be delivered by Milo Yiannopoulous, give some credence to this concern.

Direct Democracy Is Powerful

The group was organized as a leaderless, direct democracy, with working committees reporting to coordinating committees. While leaders did emerge over time, they often changed and everyone’s voice was valued. Not only did this make it harder to attack and dismantle the group, it meant everyone was able to find a place that best suited their abilities and interests.

This form of organization can also help to ensure that the least powerful voices are heard, although that is certainly no guarantee. Those most used to speaking and being heard should check that privilege and center the voices of the transgender and people of color communities.

Remain Focused and Check Your Ego

May 1990 ACT UP protest at the National Institute of Health. archive

In order to make a big enough statement to bring about real results, numbers are needed.

Disagreements and egos can get in the way of the larger picture and can halt the progress of any movement in its tracks. While ACT UP remains an active organization, disputes over the group’s direction took much of the wind from its sails around the late ’90s. The Trump administration provides enough of a fight all on its own, as did and does the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Adding infighting into the equation is a surefire recipe for failure. Remember that we are all in this together.

Do not let this administration divide us. Let it unite us in resistance and still, somehow, in hope.

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