16 Things You Can Learn About Activism from AIDS Activists

In the acclaimed documentary, HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, it chronicles the story of AIDS activists in the 80’s and 90’s. They championed equality and justice, and took actions that compelled those in power to treat AIDS as their serious concern it was. Their actions and tactics allowed them to demand changes in corporate policies, changes in government regulation, and changes in government spending priorities.

Here now are a few lessons learned from their tactics.

1. Have Something for People To Do

When people get involved in activism, they do it because they are compelled to. They have a desire to fulfill, an anger to quench, and a story to tell.

Activists need to put that energy somewhere, and it’s up to you to help direct that energy.

There are too many Activist groups that don’t do anything. They meet once a month at a Denny’s, or a Dupar’s, but nothing ever happens.

Here is a list of things they can do, immediately:

⁃ Letter Writing Campaigns

⁃ Postcards to Voters

⁃ Social Media Posting

⁃ Record them Telling Their Story, and why This Issue matters

⁃ Recruit more volunteers

⁃ Do research

2. Have A Research Group

Evey activist group must be based on facts. If the activist group is not based on facts, but only on vague ideas and emotions, then it is very unlikely that it will get anywhere.

For ACT UP, it was science and biology that became Science Club. For the Black Panthers, it was the Sickle Cell Anemia research project. They reviewed research, and sometimes conducted their own experiments.

You will need to become experts, and that will take time, patience, and study.

Now, I’m not saying to start doing Biology experiments. For your group, it might be statistics, anthropology, psychology, or other forms of science.

You need a group, and need to recruit an expert to lead it, so that you can evaluate what real solutions are to your issues. It doesn’t need to be large, just a handful of people is enough. But your arguments must be based in research and fact.

3. Share the Information You Uncover

Whatever you find in your research group must be shared with your community, and those allies you recruit. ACT UP shared a list of terms which was an AIDS Treatment Glossary.

Today, sharing that information can be in the form of blog posts, and info graphics shared on social media.

4. Commit To Direct Action

Many activist groups do indirect action. They focus on the ceremonial, and the ineffective, because while it may not solve the problem, it makes them feel better. The TSA has a saying (discussed in ADAM RUINS EVERYTHING) called security theatre. Well, activism theatre also exists.

For example, after the 2016 election of Donald Trump, many people joined groups of Indivisible, which was focused on flipping the house and senate, or attending town halls of their local elected officials. The problem is, these groups didn’t fix the problem.

It did not stop thousands of people from being kidnapped by ICE and deported.

It did not stop the Muslim ban from going into affect, after being reviewed by the Supreme Court.

It did not stop hate crimes against LGBTQ, or people of color.

These groups focused on indirect action, based on the hope, that if they could flip elected offices, then they would change things. However, because the actions taken by the President were within the President’s authority, nothing they did mattered.

Most activists don’t like direct action because it is too “combative” but when families are being split apart, and people are dying in the streets from the alt-right (like Heather ____), then direct action must be taken.

5. Slogans

Good slogans are necessary. ACT Up’s main slogan was, “Act up! Fight back! Fight AIDS!”

Here are some other slogans that you can borrow/steal:

⁃ Act up! Stay calm! Tomorrow morning at city hall!

⁃ Healthcare is a right!

⁃ Act up! Fight back! Make love!

⁃ the whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!

⁃ 300,000 dead from AIDS! Where is George?

6. Have a Support Network

In your activist efforts, you may run risks. There is the risk of being arrested, and the risk of being injured by the police. Remember that you take these risks because you can, and are fighting for people who cannot.

While direct action activism is risky, you can still take steps to minimize risk.

Have everyone in your group fill out a support card that identifies clear information:

⁃ Who is your support person?

⁃ What is your support person’s contact info?

⁃ What group will you be part of?

⁃ Do you have any health conditions or allergies?

⁃ Do you have an attorney?

⁃ If you do not have an attorney, is their a legal advocacy group that you can contact?

⁃ What is the legal advocacy group’s phone number?

⁃ Do you have a doctor? If so, what is their information?

⁃ Do you have medical insurance? If so, what is the information?

Make sure there are at least 3 copies, 1 for you, 1 for your support person, and 1 for the organization leader.

7. Have Designated People to Speak to the Press

Speaking to the press can be a tricky thing. Make sure you have someone who is knowledgeable in the press, and all members engaged in the action can point to that person to talk to the press.

Sometimes an official “prop” is necessary, and one PR person brought their own podium. Having someone to designate the speaker power to is important, to command the press’s attention.

One hilarious example of this going awry is when the Bernie-or-Buster crowd tried to overtake the DNC. Two dozen Bernie Sanders supporters rushed into the press tent, with their mouths covered in tape, symbolizing their votes and voices being silenced by the nomination of Hillary Clinton. It was a good visual.

The problem was, all of their supporters just stood around with tape on their mouths, and when the press tried to ask them a question, none of them responded.

This pitiful attempt lasted for half an hour, until Jill Stein stumbled into the press tent, and used the moment to get on her soapbox.

Had the protesters had a designated PR person, or someone designated to speak wth the press, they could have made a much more powerful impact.

8. If You’re Gonna Speak To The Press, Be Prepared for the Asshole Questions

There are a number of people out there who won’t understand you because they are operating under a series of false assumptions.

Part of speaking out and advocacy is addressing these false assumptions head on. You cannot address them with anger, though you will want to. You cannot address them with contempt, though they deserve it. You must confront these false assumptions with the facts, so that you can plead the case of you and your community.

One of the ways to do this is to prepare 4 talking points beforehand, as pre-prepared sound bites that will be specific and understandable.

Another way of doing this is to practice a game called “Who’s The Asshole”. This entails someone standing in front of a panel, and each member of the panel asks the speaker an asshole question. the test then becomes, who appears to be the bigger asshole? The asshole who asked the question? Or the speaker who replies with anger, contempt, or snark.

Strategize meetings and talking points ahead of time. You may need to go so far that if someone cannot attend the strategy session, then they cannot attend the activist event. This may be essential, because if someone is not on board with the approach, they may prove to be more of a liability, than an asset.

9. Conduct Straw Polls

One of the things that both Act Up did then, Anonymous’ Scientology protests did after, and black Lives Matter does today is they conduct straw polls.

These straw polls are important for Activism, so that each member feels emotionally invested in the actions. In addition, these straw polls can be messy, but they can help bestow a mandate by using a bottom-up governing practice, rather than a top-down approach.

The only thing to be wary of is that too many choices can paralyze a group, and often the best approach is to provide two simple choices at a time. Otherwise, the group could descend into anarchy as they debate the nuances of large decisions.

10. Make Sure There are Cameras

If it wasn’t filmed, it didn’t exist.

11. Don’t Underestimate Sit-Ins

The power of showing up en masse can be surprisingly powerful. The most powerful form of protest of the civil rights era was nonviolent sit-ins at diner counters, because it helped galvanize the local community.

Similarly, ACT UP organized nonviolent “kiss-ins” to protest abuse by the police and hospital workers. They didn’t need signs or lawyers. They just showed up.

12. Document Your Struggle

Many people will never know you, but they need to. They need to know your names, your faces, your families, and your hopes & dreams. Document your life and your struggles. This could come in the form of books, but it may also come in the form of audio podcasts or video interviews. Documentarians, you must take the time to document these cultures, because they deserve to be brought out of the vulnerable shadows.

13. Go To Where The Enemies and the Beaurocracies Are, and Confront Them

ACT UP did not just do sit ins. They went to FDA headquarters, which was the #1 AIDS beaurocracy in the United States, slowing the development and approval AIDS drugs. They climbed the tower of the FDA, and hung their banner on the front of their building.

They did this time and again. They protested FDA commission hearings. They went to International AIDS medical conventions to advocate for better plans and better studies. They protested the New York cardinals who falsely said AIDS would be increased by the use of condoms. They literally stormed the National Institute of Health campus, where police beat them.

ACT UP even took it one step further, and went to the home of Jesse Helms, who was the biggest homophobe in the Senate. They went to Jesse Helms’ home, and wrapped it up in a giant condom, to raise awareness of how condoms can benefit people, and make sex safer.

Indivisible also advocated this approach, by having it’s members go to town halls organized by their congress people, in the age of Trump. they did this, and it worked.

14. Create Massive Events

ACT UP didn’t just do small local protests, they combined their efforts with other similar groups. They went to New Hampshire to force Bill Clinton to give a passionate answer about how he would do more for AIDS research.

ACT UP helped co-organize massive events like the AIDS quilt in Washington DC, where names of hundreds of thousands of people who dies from AIDS were read aloud. The National AIDS quilt helped realize a national dream, which was to surround the WHite House with people who cared about AIDS. Some protestors even went one step further, spreading the ashes of their deceased partners on the lawn of the White House.

On the eve of the election, they brought the coffins containing recently deceased AIDS activists to George W. Bush’s NYC campaign headquarters. They did this with the permission of the deceased, and their families.

Displaying the dead is a common sign of protest surrounding life or death issues. In the documentary, WINTER ON FIRE, protestors in Ukraine displayed the bodies of those murdered by Ukraine’s secret police before a crowd of tens of thousands. The impassioned plea helped galvanize the public, and caused the pro-Russian dictator of Ukraine to flee.

15. Find Unlikely Allies

ACT UP’s activism put them in the spotlight, and that attracted several groups to them. One such group was a pharmaceutical company, MERCK, which wanted to work with ACT UP on clinical trials. This alliance was unexpected, and caused political fallout amongst ACT UP’s members eventually, but it was critical in finding the drug cocktail that allowed AIDS patients to live longer, healthier lives, many years later.

They also forged alliances with researchers at various conferences, that allowed meetings on these trials to be public and open.

These unlikely alliances can make incredible inroads towards success.

16. Ask What Would A Decent Society do?

What does a decent society do to people who are in your position. Never forget that you are a decent person, and your friends and family are decent people who are deserving of decency, and protection.

And now, a final thought from the writer…

I don’t know who you are. You and your community will never be known to me, and yet I know you all too well.

As a descendent of Jews who survived the Holocaust, I know the oppression and violence that can be unleashed upon a vulnerable population. Whether you are Palestinians fighting for your own country, undocumented immigrants seeking happiness, or transgender activists fighting for a chance at stable employment. You are deserving of that oh so fine thing we call justice, and I hope that in your journeys, what has been written and done before you will help to fulfill your own life.

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