31 Years Of ACT UP: The Movement Is As Relevant Now As Ever

Three decades of bold action and activism.

It’s fitting that March 24—a day when a half million protesters are expected to descend upon Washington, D.C., for the March For Our Lives rally against gun violence—also marks the anniversary of another grassroots movement: It was 31 years ago that ACT UP launched its first direct action in response to government administration’s inaction in the face of the AIDS crisis.

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Founded by Larry Kramer, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power began at the LGBT Center in downtown Manhattan as a non-violent direct-action group responding to the AIDS epidemic and President Reagan’s grossly negligent mishandling of the growing health crisis. Eventually chapters popped up in Paris, London and elsewhere around the world.

ACT UP’s rallying cry, “Silence = Death,” is still synonymous with the war on HIV/AIDS.

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On March 24, 1987, some 250 activists blocked rush-hour traffic in front of the FDA’s Wall Street offices, protesting the agency’s slow progress on approving effective medications. Ultimately 17 people were arrested.

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The following October, ACT UP succeeded in closing down FDA headquarters outside D.C., where more more than 1,000 activists picketed. (That action resulted in 180 arrests). Later that same year, protesters gathered outside Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan to object to tax breaks for wealthy real estate developers at a time when people with AIDS were being denied housing.

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In December 1989, ACT UP and the Women’s Health Action and Mobilization (WHAM!) gathered 4,500 protesters for a “Stop the Church” rally outside of NYC’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral to denounce the Church’s stance against safer sex education, abortion, and LGBT rights. The incident became one of the group’s most famous—and controversial—when a member stomped on a communion wafer in an act of personal protest.

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Three years later, activists converged in Houston to march outside of a hotel where homophobic televangelist Jerry Falwell was staying. Seven people were arrested for interrupting his speech to the Christian Action Network with the chant, “Your family values are killing us.”

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Then, in September 1991, Pete Staley and activists from TAG (Treatment Action Group, an ACT UP off-shoot) wrapped a giant yellow condom over Jesse Helms’ home in Arlington, Virginia. In addition to a stream of anti-LGBT rhetoric, Helms was responsible for an amendment that prohibited the CDC from funding AIDS programs that “promote, encourage or condone homosexual activities.”

The giant prophylactic, which had the words “A CONDOM TO STOP UNSAFE POLITICS: HELMS IS DEADLIER THAN A VIRUS” printed on the front, covered the house for about an hour before police arrived and ordered it removed. There was no damage to the residence and Helms opted not to press charges.

In 1994 thousands of ACT UP members took to Fifth Avenue for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

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Then in 2003, protesters congregated in front of the White House with a giant puppet of President Bush, calling for an increase in funding for AIDS drugs.

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A year later, members stripped their clothes off outside Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention was being held a few days later.

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In 2017, the group honored its 30th anniversary with a rally in New York’s West Village. Demonstrators gathered with signs and chanted “Act up! Fight back! Fight AIDS!” as they had done for decades.

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Today, ACT UP remains active with thousands of members in hundreds of chapters around the globe who continue to protest the ongoing global AIDS crisis, as well as homophobia, gun violence, and other urgent issues.

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Bryan van Gorder usually writes about the places he's been or the famous people forced to talk to him.