Lessons from the AIDS Movement

How was ACT UP organized?

JEN: So that actually brings me to my next question, which is how ACT UP was organized and why it worked. It seems again from the film, and I know we as a community sometimes struggle with, people have differing ideas on what some of the best strategies are or even what the goal should be. And I’ve heard people describe ACT UP to me as a very democratic and decentralized organization. But what did that actually mean in practice?

PETER: Well it was. In practice it meant that we had to, in order to stay very democratic, almost all the major decisions were done by majority vote, whatever member was in the room. It meant that everybody had to show up in a room once a week. So what it meant in practice is that we had a general membership every Monday night at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in New York City and at our peak we had 900 people at a meeting and any decision that involved I think over a few thousand dollars of expenditure had to be voted on by the floor, any change of structure, any action, any demonstration, any press release, all of that was done by majority vote. We were not, thankfully we were not consensus or we would have never gotten anything done. And that’s one of the things that I think Occupy made a mistake trying to do from the beginning. But we were majority vote and very few of the votes were close. When people hit on good ideas everybody went and got excited about it and there were always very lopsided votes. And then we had various committees handling all the grunt work and handling all the inside work and devising the policies and the proposals that would come to the floor. There were committees on every issue within HIV/AIDS. There was a fundraising committee, there was an outreach committee, there was a media committee, which was brilliant, they constantly kept us in the news, and that’s how it worked. But it really depended on everybody being in a room. I haven’t been able to see, I haven’t found a model yet for a live democratic movement replicating that online but I’m sure the technology is doable but difficult.


For more, browse other short, 2-3 minute videos or watch the full, 70 minute interview with AIDS activist Peter Staley. You can also out the HMC case study of AIDS advocacy, as well as the documentary film How to Survive a Plague. 

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