NYC 1987: Mad as Hell

JMJ

This started with the idea that our current COVID crisis reminded me of the way we were dealing with AIDS in the 80s. In 1983 we were in denial in exactly the same way Americans were in early March 2020. In 1985 NYC was numb and scared. This time in 2020, it took America about two weeks to get here. The next stage is Anger. It took NYC two years to get to anger and, now, two weeks later in 2020 time, it’s 1987 all over again.

If you want to know the origins of our current idea of “political action” look to ACT-UP. It was founded in March of 1987, in the midst of the stunned silence created by the AIDS crisis. The essential attitude was “this is happening.” I admit the last thing I wanted to be reminded of (on most days) was AIDS. It was the silent elephant in the middle of every event, every party, every parade. But it was the last thing anyone wanted to do anything about, talk about, admit.

Although I had heard of ACT-UP already, my first exposure to them was when they disrupted a picnic. We had had a lovely political march up from Greenwich Village to Central Park for something or other. I seem to remember it was something to do with the UN. Anyway, we were all having a picnic in the big meadow in Central Park above Belvedere Castle. It was a nice afternoon when, through the trees on the western side of the park, came loud yelling and screaming. ACT-UP had gone up the West Side of the park, without a permit as was their wont, stopping traffic, getting arrested… and now had come bursting into our quiet event. And – to us, as it seemed at the time – acting out like petulant children. I and my friends – all NYU students – walked away. There were cops coming in, there was yelling and screaming.

For years after that event, I could not take ACT-UP seriously. We were doing the hard work – networking with politicians, civic leaders, etc. ACT-UP invaded St Patrick’s Cathedral and committed sacrilege. I got into a fight at NYU over that: I wasn’t even Catholic and I could see that was wrong. But petulant children always have parents that are spoiling them.

ACT-UP was driving social change – yes, sure. But they were doing it by using the tactics of bullies. And, point of fact, most of the things they were yelling about were not the real issue. 20 years later, we can see that some of their rallying points were – actually – not the right ones. Even John Cardinal O’Connor, whom they detested, was spending his night washing bedpans in AIDS hospices. But ACT-UP became the media’s accepted voice of gay politics in the same way that drag queens and leathermen were the media’s accepted image of gay pride parades. Ignoring thousands of women and men walking around in polo shirts, jeans, and comfortable shoes… it was the fringes that made the news. And, just as there were petition drives, phone trees, and even prayer vigils, it was the fringe that stopped traffic and chained themselves to traders on the stock market floor that made the news.

This is where we get politics today and is the real legacy of ACT-UP. This is the origin of that curious cross between Ghandi and Kent State that gives us shattered windows on main street in the name of peace. And it’s the source of streets filled with pink hats that do nothing more than fill streets with pink hats and feel smug about it. At one point, political action was seen as taking the high ground. MLK walking through the streets of and watching the walls of Jericho crumble in urban Alabama. ACT-UP taught us that taking the low ground got more press. And sometimes, that works. But it always made us feel good.

ACT-UP forced conversations that may sound familiar today: does someone die with AIDS or from complications arising from AIDS? How should we refer to AIDS patients? Can we refer to AIDS patients?

And, right on time two weeks after hitting the stunned silence of 1985, COVID has given us petulant children.

People are demanding we change the numbers because not everyone with. COVID is dying from COVID, as if mortality is that black and white. They are yammering about needing “herd immunity” when I don’t want to be exposed, do you? They demand we get to 15% exposure. (SF in lockdown, even so, seems to have gotten to 13% very easily.)

You know, we won’t know until 20 years from now how this new pack of petulant children has affected us. Will they commit sacrilege? They’ve been signing petitions for weeks demanding the bishops open up the churches again… will some flag waving harridan claiming to be an EM pry open the locked doors of a church and distribute communion in the hand to passers-by as an act of protest? Will a bunch of MAGA bros swarm out of the Marshal Vortext to bully bishops at the USCCB meeting or harass them online? We shall see.

We’re in the anger stage now. There’s no telling who will chain themselves to whom.

In two weeks it will be 1989. May 2020. What will happen then?

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.