Commentary

Ronald Reagan’s legacy of poverty and death

The direct-action group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) formed in New York City in 1986 largely by young activists. A network of local chapters quickly grew in over 120 cities throughout the world. I contributed my efforts to the Boston chapter.

Though independently developed and run, the network connected efforts under the theme “Silence = Death” beneath an inverted pink triangle (turning upside down the insignia the Nazis forced men accused of homosexuality to wear in German concentration camps.) We reclaimed the pink triangle, signifying the ultimate stigmata of oppression, and turned it into a symbol of empowerment to lift people out of lethargy and denial and as a call to action to counter the crisis.

We in ACT UP conducted highly visible demonstrations, often involving acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in which we on occasion placed ourselves at risk for arrest and even injury. ACT UP/New York, for example, staged a “sit-in” on Wall Street in 1987 during rush hour to protest price gouging by pharmaceutical companies, particularly Burroughs-Wellcome’s high cost of AZT (an antiviral drug). Other actions included a national protest in 1988, which effectively closed down the Food and Drug Administration offices in Bethesda, Maryland; a 1990 action in which over 1000 people stormed the National Institutes of Health (NIH), also in Bethesda, Maryland, demanding wide-scale improvements including expanded access to government-sponsored HIV clinical trials; in 1991, a disruption of CBS and PBS evening news broadcasts to protest coverage of the Persian Gulf War and negligence in covering the AIDS pandemic; followed closely by a “Day of Desperation” demonstration at Grand Central Station; and visible actions at most of the annual International Conferences on AIDS including, most notably, the VI Conference held in San Francisco in 1990.

We not only challenged traditional means of scientific knowledge dissemination, but more importantly, questioned the very mechanisms by which scientists conducted research, and, therefore, we helped redefine the very meanings of “science.” AIDS activists — including members of direct-action groups like ACT UP, people with AIDS, AIDS educators, journalists and writers, workers in AIDS service organizations, and others — won important victories on a number of fronts, including assisting people become active participants in their own medical treatments, having greater input into drug trial protocols, expanding access to drug trials, and expediting approval for drug therapies. In addition, Community Advisory Boards now hold pharmaceutical companies more accountable for the prices they charge.

I am so very grateful to my comrades in ACT UP for the endless lessons they taught me during our times together. They showed me by example that anger, no matter how righteous, when unrestrained often turns into mistakes and deep regrets when acted out. (Oh, how I learned that one!) On the other hand, they proved that anger coupled with reason and a network of like-minded individuals giving expression to that anger sets the stage for unbounded possibilities.

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