Founded in New York in 1987, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) is a direct action network that seeks to end the AIDS crisis.
In the 1980s and 1990s, ACT UP successfully pushed companies and government agencies to accelerate the release of effective AIDS treatment. The group employed an “inside-outside approach” combining intense pressure and tactical collaboration.
ACT UP member Peter Staley credits the group with making possible the release of life-saving “triple drug therapy”:
Triple drug therapy in 1996 saved my life. And those therapies came about because the government spent a billion dollars on research, starting in 1989, 1990. And that all came about because of pressure from advocacy. So I’m alive because of that activism.
According to New York Magazine, “ACT UP revolutionized everything from the way drugs are researched to the way doctors interact with patients. Ultimately it played a key role in catalyzing the development of the drugs that since 1996 have helped keep patients alive for a near-normal life span.”
ACT UP influenced many radical queer groups such as FIERCE. ACT UP continues to organize today, and their website is https://actupny.org/.
Within a local ACT UP chapter, people organized into project-based committees including an Action Committee, a Finance Committee, and a Treatment and Data Committee. Many people also organized affinity groups within these committees.
The pamphlet Anarchism and AIDS Activism reported, "ACT UP and similar AIDS direct action groups follow an anarchist model in many ways, although their overall attitude toward the state was ambiguous." ACT UP had "no formal leadership, either within or among chapters," and was "[d]irect-action oriented."
ACT UP founder Larry Kramer contrasted the group's horizontal structure with the vertical orientation of the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), which he had previously co-founded:
[In GMHC, e]verything had to have a job description and approval by this, and approval by that. And I didn’t want that. So we went the other way. I often describe it as democratic to a fault. And when people came and said, we want to start this, or we want to start that – fine. Because I remember – GHMC, when I tried to get different groups started, different people who came and said, I can do epidemiology, I can do – it was forever until we could get a lawyer in there and do legal services. People came to ACT UP and said, we want to start – there was – we were allowed to do it.
Kramer argues that ACT UP began to decline once the technically-minded people in the Treatment and Data Committee, who were typically the members who negotiated with scientists and government bureaucrats, left the group and started a moderate nonprofit organization called Treatment Action Group (TAG):
They were drunk on their power. They could sit down with the head of Bristol-Myers or the chief scientists. They could call all these people up and they could do it on their own from then on, and they didn’t need anyone fighting on the outside for them. And perhaps they became a little ashamed of us, I don’t know. But I will never forgive them for it.
On 14 September 1989, ACT UP infiltrated the New York Stock Exchange and chained themselves to a balcony. They unfurled a banner criticizing the company Burroughs Wellcome’s obscene prices for the AIDS medication known as AZT. Four days later, the company lowered AZT’s price by twenty percent.
On 10 December 1989, ACT UP and Women’s Health Action and Mobilization (WHAM!) brought 4,500 to 7,000 protesters outside New York’s St. Patrick Cathedral, in protest of the Catholic Church’s anti-contraception, heterosexist, and anti-abortion policies. Dozens entered the church and loudly disrupted the mass with shouts, chants, and whistles. Overall, 111 people were arrested. The action sparked public debate about the Church’s conservative positions.
In 1991, ACT UP inflated a giant condom, nearly thirty-five feet high, over the entire house of the homophobic Senator Jesse Helms in Arlington, Virginia.
In 1992, ACT UP members including Bob Rafsky heckled the candidate and future president Bill Clinton, bringing the AIDS issue to the center of the election cycle.
By the early 2000s, ACT UP chapters had largely shifted focus away from middle-class, white gay and lesbian activists and toward projects relevant to queer folks in poor communities of color, locally and globally. ‘’The Nation’’ summarized:
This is particularly true for ACT UP Philadelphia, half of whose current members are people of color and people with AIDS. ACT UP Philadelphia rarely does outreach to traditional gay and lesbian communities, instead using teach-ins at drug treatment clinics, housing organizations and needle exchange programs. Its tactics still draw from a queer consciousness, and many of its members are queer, but they’re also from minority and low-income communities[…]
Both ACT UP Philadelphia and ACT UP New York are part of the Health GAP Coalition, a network of AIDS and trade activists formed in 1999 when its members realized that no organization existed within the United States focusing exclusively on the global AIDS epidemic. Health GAP’s first direct actions included a disruption of the Gore campaign kickoff in Carthage, Tennessee, to protest Gore’s position against compulsory licensing and his threats of trade sanctions against South Africa. Within a month, Gore shifted his stance, endorsing the use of compulsory licensing and parallel imports of drugs to South Africa.
- Amy Goodman, “’How to Survive a Plague’: As ACT UP Turns 25, New Film Chronicles History of AIDS Activism in U.S.,” ‘’Democracy Now!’’, 23 March 2012, https://www.democracynow.org/2012/3/23/how_to_survive_a_plague_as.
- Goodman, “’How to Survive a Plague’.
- David France, “Pictures From a Battlefield: The Men and Women Who Started ACT UP,” ‘’New York’’, 25 March 2012, http://nymag.com/news/features/act-up-2012-4/.
- “ACT UP,” ‘’Wikipedia’’, Accessed 20 October 2017, wikipedia.org/wiki/ACT_UP. http://www.actuporalhistory.org/interviews/images/kramer.pdf.
- "Anarchism and AIDS Activism," Libcom, accessed 20 October 2017, https://libcom.org/files/Anarchism_and_AIDS_Activism_Reduced.pdf.
- "Anarchism and AIDS Activism."
- Sarah Schulman, "Interview With Larry Kramer,” ‘’ACT UP Oral History Project’’, http://www.actuporalhistory.org/interviews/images/kramer.pdf.
- ”Schulman, “Interview With Larry Kramer.”
- “ACTUP Capsule History 1989,” http://www.actupny.org/documents/cron-89.html.
- “ACTUP Capsule History 1989.” Daisy Sindelar, "Decades Before Pussy Riot, U.S. Group Protested Catholic Church -- With Results," RadioFreeEurope, 6 August 2012, https://www.rferl.org/a/before-pussy-riot-act-up-confronted-church-and-won/24668230.html.
- Sean Strub, "Condomizing Jesse Helms' House," Huffington Post, 25 July 2008, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/sean-strub/condomizing-jesse-helms-h_b_113329.html.
- Goodman, “’How to Survive a Plague’. “ACTUP Capsule History 1992,” http://www.actupny.org/documents/cron-92.html.
- Richard Kim, "ACT UP Goes Global," The Nation, 21 June 2001, https://www.thenation.com/article/act-goes-global/.