Lessons from the AIDS Movement

Why ACT UP meetings worked

JEN: We’ve actually been having some discussions about how we might try to replicate some of the benefits of that face-to-face interaction. I’ve been chatting a bit with Beth from HealClick about this and it seems like something to work towards, but if you were gonna name some of the core benefits of that “everyone shows up in one place at one time every Monday,” what should we learn from that, that we might be able to translate into online organizing?

PETER: It’s a very crucial part of what made ACT UP a success I think. And that’s just the ability to be creative and brainstorm for your movement in a face-to-face setting. Conference calls and online arguments, they don’t tend to get a…you don’t feel the room change. Let me put it this way, as you’re discussing, “What should we do about this issue?” “Who should be the target?” “OK That’s the target” “What should be the demonstration? What should we do to get it in the news and make that the issue?” People will raise their hand, somebody will give an idea, you can kind of hear a kind of sigh or groan to the ideas nobody’s excited about. And then somebody raises their hand and says, “Well what about this?” and it’s like oh you can just feel the excitement in the room, of yes that’s a brilliant idea, and then somebody jumps on that and says “oh yeah and we can add this to it,” and then you have this beautiful action from this think-tank environment of creativity and feeling in a group what excites everyone. I have yet to see an app that does that. Or an online forum that gets that sense of the room and builds that excitement to support an idea or to shoot down an idea. What happens online is people start proposing ideas, you have to be very diplomatic in how somebody takes the lead on shooting it down and then there’s animosity between those people and then arguments break out, and it’s very slow and painful and…

JEN: And it seems like it must be much easier to argue face-to-face when you have a real connection or a relationship when you’re gonna go out for a drink afterwards even when you’ve been arguing.

PETER: Exactly, so there really is nothing to replace it, but it’s not to say that movements can’t be done without it. And also that movements can’t be done on a much smaller scale with just a handful of people. I did a lot of activism around crystal meth in gay men in 2004 with just four or five other guys and we changed the politics in New York City on that issue. And we did some of that just with conference calls. So it can be done. It’s not a roadblock, but there is nothing to replace it.


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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