“Could anyone have imagined six million Jews would be exterminated during World War II,” says Andrew Velez, Chair of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power Action Committee during the recent taping of our web TV series Reporting AIDS. “Nor did I think AIDS would become a world-wide epidemic killing millions of people.”
In 1981, recognized as the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, gay men mysteriously started getting sick and dying from rarely before seen forms of pneumonia and cancer. San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Key West — all gay-Meccas in the 1970′s, became paralyzed as thousands of men succumbed to the disease.
GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency), as it was called at the time, destroyed immune systems and left those afflicted powerless to fight the most minor infection.
Public health officials, doctors, nurses — those entrusted to help — retreated in fear, leaving the sick and suffering to die without basic care or dignity.
By 1987, when ACT-UP was formed, people were desperate.
I was fresh out college working in a restaurant on Market Street in San Francisco when I witnessed for the first time what AIDS was doing to people. There were scant ways to see the scope of the suffering from AIDS if you didn’t live in a city where people were dying.
Media attention and government information was sparce. Nothing had given me an understanding of the problem. Until I saw it.
A young man, maybe 35, walked into my restaurant around lunch-time. He seemed confused and slightly disheveled. It looked like he was unaware and unconcerned about being in the restaurant, but rather purposefully found a seat and waited for someone to approach him. He seemed to recognize the waiter helping him and somewhat acknowledge, though not warmly, what was happening. Nothing was said, but over a twenty minute interplay, he got food, ate, and left.
I asked a co-worker what was happening. I was told the man was suffering from Dementia, a symptom of AIDS much like the late stages of Alzheimer’s. It turned out the man had once been a waiter at the restaurant and knew it was a place where he could come to get food, no questions asked.
There it was, black and white, AIDS had the power to render a fully-engaged, ambitious, and hopeful human being down to the most basic level of human behavior, instinct. That’s what it was like when ACT-UP was formed.
“It’s amazing what desperate and dying people will do,” says Eric Sawyer, a co-founder of ACT-UP, during the show. Sawyer, along with the entire ACT-UP membership, turned rage and fear into targeted, effective political activism, taking non-violent demonstrations to entirely new levels. Their efforts changed the course of the AIDS epidemic and saved millions of lives.
To mark the 20th Anniversary of the first ACT-UP demonstration, March 24th, 1987, we invited Velez and Sawyer to talk on-camera about some of ACT-UP’s most important demonstrations; shutting down the FDA, protesting the Catholic Church and delivering political funerals.
After watching the show, we hope you’ll take a minute to share your thoughts on ACT-UP. The comments section below should provide enough room for you to be as concise or verbose as you’d like.
Tell us about your experience of ACT-UP, the impact they had on you personally, and how you think they changed our society.
John Mikytuck is a ScribeMedia.Org healthcare reporter. He’s hosting an ongoing series and dialog on HIV/AIDs.