Twenty years ago this month, one of the most powerful activist movements was born—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—better known as ACT UP. ACT UP has accomplished many things in 20 years but perhaps the most powerful is the lessons that it has to offer the reproductive justice movement in the current political climate.
ACT UP was born in New York on March 10, 1987 after activists at a meeting at the LGBT Community Center decided that political action needed to be taken to respond to AIDS. Two weeks later, ACT UP held its first demonstration to protest the high price of AZT—the sole AIDS drug at the time. Activists, made up of those living with HIV and their allies, held a "die-in" on Wall Street and disrupted the opening bell. ACT UP put the national spotlight on the high cost of AIDS drugs. Before long, ACT UP became known for their media-savvy political actions targeted at the pharmaceutical companies to lower drug prices.
In its heyday, there were likely hundreds of chapters around the country. Today, many are struggling or non-existent. But on the East Coast, Philadelphia and New York remain strong. The influence of ACT UP is clear in my mind. Last week at the REAL press event on the Hill, Sean Barry of the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP), and I were reflecting on the influence of ACT UP on our own lives. As student activists with both Advocates for Youth and the Student Global AIDS Campaign several years ago, we interacted with people from both ACT UP Philadelphia and ACT UP New York. We saw ACT UP Philly bring busloads of people with AIDS and their allies to Washington to protest for more money for domestic and international AIDS prevention and treatment. We were inspired by the activists we met, and they helped shape our perspective on putting the people served by the movement first, before the politics.
What can the lessons of ACT UP teach us today? The members of ACT UP held one agenda—to fight for people with AIDS. And they were unafraid to go after whoever they needed to hold them accountable. Republican or Democrat. It made no difference. The story that inspires me the most and shows the power of a small, committed group of activists is the action ACT UP took targeting Vice-President Gore. Gore? Isn't he progressive on everything? Unfortunately, while our new favorite climate change activist has increased his progressive credibility, he didn't always do the right thing.
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In the summer of 1999, the Clinton Administration, due to heavy pharmaceutical industry pressure, attempted to gut a South African national law that used legal World Trade Organization (WTO) policies to provide affordable, generic AIDS drugs to their citizens. That's right—the Clinton Administration tried to influence the national law of another country in favor of corporate interests, largely led by Gore. ACT UP decided to respond. In an extremely high profile campaign, ACT UP followed Gore from day one of his campaign announcement in Tennessee throughout the first months of his campaign to demand that he reverse his policy.
A protest several thousand persons strong greeted him at a major fundraising event in Philadelphia. To some, it may have been extreme. But it worked. On September 17, 1999, Gore directed the U.S. Trade Representation (USTR) to cease all action on South Africa. This eventually led to public statements by President Clinton to encourage efforts to increase access to low-cost, generic AIDS medications.
Democrats don't always do the right thing and it's an important lesson to keep in mind when thinking about the new Congress. First and foremost, our values and our commitment should be to the issues of reproductive justice and HIV/AIDS. These values must transcend political parties. ACT UP's legacy is to teach activists working on any issue that commitment to the people served by that movement is crucial to success and credibility. It's up to us to keep up the pressure and ensure that reproductive freedom and justice is available for every woman, man, and young person in this country, regardless of which party is in power.