30 years ago, regular people took on the government?—?and won.
Protests against President-Elect Donald Trump continue in Washington and at his New York apartment buildings. Washington state senator Doug Ericksen is even drafting a bill to criminalize them. With Republicans soon set to control all three branches of government, some are asking how effective loosely organized, peaceful rallies will be in preventing his polices from being enacted when he’s president.
The ineffectiveness of Occupy
My friend James and I recently reflected on one of America’s latest bursts of activism, the Occupy movement. Occupy sprang up spontaneously as a reaction to the 2008 financial crisis. As it broadened to encompass wide dissatisfaction with all of our country’s institutions, including the media, professional NGOs and the government, it remained an ad hoc movement.
“It lacked effective leadership,” James argued. “It was too loose and anarchical.” Indeed, Occupy had no official platform. When 60s civil rights activists and other leaders approached with offers to work them into the governmental process, Occupiers resisted. Refusing to be “co-opted,” Occupy simply fizzled out.
“It seemed almost too passive to me,” said James. “The anger was there but not the urgency.”
James, who is gay, instead suggested looking to the anti-AIDS campaigns for ideas, specifically the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), founded in 1987.
An alternate model: ACT UP
“Gay people in the 70s and 80s had to be the most marginalized group of people in America at the time,” James said. “They suddenly were dropping like flies and nobody seemed to care. I think those afflicted at the time assumed the majority of the American people were probably happy there would ultimately be fewer ‘fags’ in this world.”
“If you are bullied and ostracized your whole life and then nobody gives a fuck if you and everyone you know is dying?—?a deep wellspring of anger at what is going on has to come out,” James said. “I think ACT UP channeled the anger in an effective way.”
“You are going to die and you are going to die very, very soon unless you get up off your fucking tushies and fight back!”
—ACT UP Founder Larry Kramer, speech at 1987 Boston Gay Pride
Making activism active
Fight back they did, and with media savvy. ACT UP demonstrated at the New York City General Post Office on April 15, 1987, knowing TV news crews would be there to cover the droves of last-minute tax filers.
In October 1987, the organization helped bring half a million people to the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, the biggest gay rally ever. The next day, more than 600 activists were arrested on the steps of the Supreme Court, in the largest civil disobedience action since the Vietnam War.
ACT UP protested at the New York Stock Exchange that year, and again in 1988. In 1989 they chained themselves to the exchange’s balcony in protest against drugmaker Burroughs Wellcome, which had priced anti-AIDS drugs at $10,000 per patient per year. Just days later, Burroughs Wellcome reduced the price to $6,400.
The following year, on October 11, ACT UP demonstrators shut down the Food and Drug Administration in Washington for a day to protest the FDA’s alleged slow and unethical handling of AIDS research. As historian Douglas Crimp recalled in The Atlantic, they were armed with “every detail of the complex FDA drug approval process” and a professional, coordinated marketing campaign “sold in advance to the media almost like a Hollywood movie.” The campaign included a press kit, hundreds of phone calls to journalists and activist appearances on TV and radio talk shows nationwide.
“When the demonstration took place, the media were not only there to get the story, they knew what that story was, and they reported it with a degree of accuracy and sympathy that is, to say the least, unusual.”
Importantly, protesters also arrived expecting to be arrested, knowing the detentions and court cases would draw media attention. Ultimately, 176 of them were.
A year after the protest, ACT UP’s AIDS-fighting proposals were accepted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the FDA.
“Government agencies dealing with AIDS, particularly the FDA and NIH, began to listen to us, to include us in decision-making, even to ask for our input,” Crimp wrote.
Implementing ACT UP’s practices today
The people who stand to lose the most in the next four years will probably not be middle-class, heterosexual white males. Trump and his supporters deny hate crimes are spiking. But in the five days after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center received 437 such reports, or about a year’s worth.
“Most of the reports involved anti-immigrant incidents (136), followed by anti-black (89) and anti-LGBT (43),” the group said.
“Organize, disrupt, be unrelenting and banish fear.”
Demographics are against Trump and his policies: This country is going to get less white, less Christian and less straight. But his government has promised to lash back. We who oppose his policies can’t simply return to our normal lives. We have a lot of work to do to preserve the rights of all Americans.
My friend James believes ACT UP has shown us the way. His takeaways are: “Organize, disrupt, be unrelenting and banish fear. I think for the ACT UP people, fear was less of an issue for some of them, because what did they have to lose? If the world wants you and all your friends dead, you don’t go down without a fight.” Vulnerable groups targeted by Trump are finding themselves in a similar position.
Personally, I’ve decided to look at the “Trump revolution” as the last gasp of white, male, hetero supremacy. I feel privileged to be living through it, and I’ll see you on the other side.