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Lessons from the AIDS movement

What were ACT UP’s protest tactics?

JEN: I liked the language that you used when you were talking about, in particular, the importance of crafting a narrative and also creating an image for media. And one of the things that I noticed looking at some of that news footage was how at many of these demonstrations there were just, like really powerful images that seem to have been constructed intentionally for the media. How much organization was there behind what people brought to these demonstrations and how much of it was more self organized?

PETER: Well we had what we call affinity groups within the larger membership. This was a way for small groups of friends and likeminded individuals within the large membership to plan for what they were gonna do for these large demonstrations like the one we did at the FDA or the one that we did at the NIH.

And it kind of allowed a great deal of creativity so that there could be multiple visuals at the larger demonstrations, which might last half a day, or even a day, like the FDA did. I think all the affinity groups, it almost created a competitive thing of “Who’s gonna get the visual that ends up on the nightly news?”

But there were some actions that the larger group would discuss the primary visuals. For instance at the NIH demonstration, and you see quickly in How to Survive A Plague, you see all these multi-colored smoke grenades as we invade Building 1 of the NIH, as we march on it. And we debated that, and that visual, I take credit for it, it was from my affinity group called The Power Tools, and this was right when some newspapers around the country were just beginning to buy color printers. Prior to 1990 all newspapers were just black and white, printed in black and white. And then they all started getting color printers, but they were very expensive so they would only use them for the cover of the newspaper, or the cover of each section. Even the New York Times still does this you’ll see. You’ll see some internal pages are just black and white and they use color selectively. So all these newspapers around the country, if you gave them a picture that had lots of color in it, you had a chance of getting on the cover. So we said, have these military smoke grenades which we bought, which we got in one of those gun magazines, and they were Israeli Surplus smoke grenades, and we got one of each color, and we put them on the end of long poles and set them up and it was just a gorgeous visual. It looked very dramatic and dangerous, but it was very safe. And it was all just so we could get on the front covers of papers, and it worked. We got on the cover of the Baltimore Sun, it worked.

NEXT: HOW WAS ACT UP ORGANIZED?

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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