As the AIDS crisis took hold in the 1980s, killing thousands of Americans and ravaging gay communities, the deadly epidemic went unrecognized by U.S. public health agencies – and unrecognized by the president Ronald Reagan – for years. In response, a political group called ACT UP emerged, deciding it had to do something shocking to bring attention to the crisis and push government agencies, drug companies and the mainstream media to act.
So he began to organize protest demonstrations where masses of people lay down in a public space, simulating death.
“The strongest thing we can do is something in silence,” writer, filmmaker and AIDS activist Robert Hilferty said at a November 1989 meeting of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). “A die-in. Massive death.
Founded in 1987, ACT UP eventually staged thousands of protests, with die-ins becoming an iconic tactic. And while AIDS activists were not the first to fake death to draw attention to deadly threats, the action became a powerful tool to show that, because the epidemic was stigmatized and ignored, bodies piled up. In the case of ACT UP, “they forced social and cultural institutions to take responsibility for AIDS deaths by physically moving the bodies of protesters,” says Matt Brim, professor of queer studies at City University of New York. York.
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The history of Die-Ins
AIDS victims grew out of a long history of activism that made bodies the focal point of protest, such as suffragists chaining themselves to gates and civil rights activists organizing sit-ins.
One of the earliest known references to the term “die-in” came nearly two decades before ACT UP, when environmentalists protested on Earth Day in 1970 in Boston to raise awareness of the deadly impact of pollution. atmospheric. About a month later, protesters in Seattle fell to the ground at a busy downtown intersection to oppose dangerous shipments of nerve gas.
Since then, public stunts have been used to expose everything from war and weapon testing to police violence and bicycle fatalities. To increase the visual drama, some protesters used fake blood and bandages. Others brought coffins.
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ACT UP: Fight for the life of homosexuals
When playwright and LGBTQ activist Larry Kramer took center stage at the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center on March 10, 1987 and delivered the rousing speech that helped launch ACT UP, the epidemic had entered its sixth year. The US government had yet to approve prescription sales of a single drug to treat AIDS, and the deaths were largely ignored by the media. “Unless we fight for our lives, we will die,” Kramer wrote that month for the New York Native, a bi-weekly magazine aimed at the city’s gay community. As a result, ACT UP worked urgently to train as many people as possible in civil disobedience tactics. As an activist unidentified in the documentary United in anger: an ACT UP story Put it on, “you don’t always know when it’s going to happen or when you’re going to want to do it.”
Die-ins became important for ACT UP, Michael Bronski, author of A queer story of the United States for young people and professor of media practice and activism at Harvard University, told HISTORY.com in an interview. This is because “there is a cultural reluctance to think about death – and the manifestation has made it physical.”
And AIDS activists knew their best chance to influence policy was to affect public opinion, making the media, rather than politicians or leaders, the main targets of addicts. In United in anger, one activist recalled how ACT UP clearly viewed civil disobedience, such as die-ins, as a “safe tactic to make a stronger statement and as a way to gain media attention.”
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From the death of an actor to the conduct of public funerals
During its first decade, ACT UP organized thousands of protests across the country and around the world. But not all die-ins have focused on the same problem.
On October 11, 1988, ACT UP held its first nationwide protest at the gates of the Food and Drug Administration, which activists viewed as slow to approve and release new drugs. In front of helmeted policemen guarding the entrances to the building, some activists staged a die-in, holding carved gravestones on which could be read “DEAD BY LACK OF DRUGS” and “VICTIM OF THE RED STRIP OF THE FDA”. Less than a year later, the FDA approved another drug and expanded access to another.
Outside of the Centers for Disease Control in Georgia, die-ins targeted the narrow definition of AIDS that encompassed diseases seen in gay men, but not those specific to women and intravenous drug addicts. “The CDC is killing women, redefining AIDS,” chanted activists in the midst of protesters slumped on the sidewalk. In 1993, the CDC offered AIDS activists a victory in their multi-year campaign by adding the number of CD4 + T lymphocytes (T cells) to the definition, a number the CDC considered to be of “clinical importance” in the definition. categorization of HIV-related conditions. The agency has also added invasive cervical cancer to its list of AIDS indicator diseases, a recognition of the impact of HIV on women.
There has also been a decline on Wall Street, targeting drug prices; at President George Bush’s vacation home, targeting national AIDS funding; at the National Institutes of Health; New York’s Grand Central Station; and Chicago and San Francisco, among other places and locations.
But in the fall of 1992, the theatricality of the die-ins gave way to veritable artefacts of death.
On October 11, at a protest known as Ashes Action, activists gathered in Washington, DC, some carrying the ashes and bone fragments of loved ones who have died of AIDS to disperse on the lawn of the White House. Others carried corpses that lay in open-faced coffins.
Literally bringing death to activism was the next logical thing to do, Bronski says. “It came from the frustration that things weren’t improving quickly, if at all. “
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Die-Ins: part of a larger strategy
ACT UP has used civil disobedience, like die-ins, not only to vent frustration, but to strategically draw attention to its own proposals and presentations. In the United in anger documentary, one of the group’s activists summed up the strategy succinctly: “When we are arrested we usually aim to hold a meeting or present a set of demands.
“Any political movement has to be multi-faceted, so aggressive and direct actions have to happen in tandem with people arguing with politicians,” Bronski explains.
Their aggressive actions at the FDA and CDC, for example, helped campaigners secure meetings that ultimately advanced their quest for a cure for AIDS.
“Before AIDS and before ACT UP, all experimental medical decisions were made by physicians,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health. New Yorker magazine in 2002. “Larry [Kramer, founder of ACT UP], by securing the consumer contribution to the FDA, put us on the defensive at the NIH. He put Congress on the defensive on credits. ACT UP puts medical treatment in the hands of patients. And that’s the way it should be. “
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