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HEALTH : New Fronts in the AIDS War : An Activist Group for the '80s Aims to 'Shame People Into Action'

April 04, 1989|VICTOR F. ZONANA | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Peter Staley, a $200,000-a-year bond trader, was on his way to work on Wall Street one morning when he ran across a group of boisterous demonstrators.

Many carried black signs bearing pink triangles--the symbol of Nazi oppression of homosexuals--and the words "SILENCE = DEATH." Others dramatized their rage at the slow testing of potential drugs for acquired immune deficiency syndrome by "hanging" an effigy of U. S. Food and Drug Administration chief Dr. Frank Young. A handful blocked traffic on lower Broadway and were arrested.

"ACT UP! FIGHT BACK! FIGHT AIDS!" the 250 men and women shouted. "ACT UP! FIGHT BACK! FIGHT AIDS!"

"That night, when I turned on the TV, I was blown away by how they were able to transmit their anger to an entire nation," said Staley, diagnosed with an AIDS-related condition in 1985. "I decided that these were my people."

That was two years ago. Staley, 28, since has left Wall Street to become the unpaid fund-raising chairman of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a burgeoning alliance of elite professionals and street activists "united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis."

The group includes art directors who design eye-catching posters, television producers who teach demonstrators to talk in "sound bites" and lawyers who defend group members arrested for acts of civil disobedience. There is even a pharmaceutical chemist, Dr. Iris Long, who critically analyzes research protocols for clinical trials of experimental drugs.

Taking Fight to Streets

At a time when other AIDS groups lobby quietly behind the scenes or tend to dying patients, ACT UP is taking the AIDS battle into the streets. Its members say they are fed up with a system they are convinced is not doing all it can to prevent the carnage.

Its activities range from guerrilla theater--tossing condoms at officials who oppose safe-sex education, say, or staging "die-ins" at offices of companies making exorbitant priced drugs--to elaborately choreographed acts of civil disobedience like last week's siege of New York's City Hall, where 200 were arrested.

ACT UP has supporters and detractors among other AIDS activist groups and the public. Critics say its tactics may do as much harm as good by alienating people.

"We are not out to make friends," Staley said. "We are out to shame people into action."

As the movement has grown, it has come to encompass women, blacks and Latinos, as well as the gay white men who launched the group two years ago. "We have tapped into the fear, anger and grief surrounding the epidemic, and have turned it into action," said Avram Finkelstein, the art director who designed ACT UP's SILENCE = DEATH logo.

Life-and-Death Stakes

It is as if the passion and activism of the '60s have been updated for the careerist and entrepreneurial decade of the '80s. And it all comes with an intensity of energy that could only be justified by the life-or-death stakes.

"I am getting tired of candlelight vigils when, in fact, blow torches may be necessary," said Mark Sikorowski, 37, a managing partner of a New York design firm. Actually, while ACT UP members court arrest, the group eschews violence, preferring nonviolent civil disobedience in the Gandhi tradition.

Before last week's demonstration in New York, its biggest action occurred in October, when demonstrators surrounded and shut the FDA headquarters in Rockville, Md., and 187 people were arrested.

Born, appropriately, in New York City, ACT UP now has chapters in two dozen cities and perhaps 5,000 adherents who regularly attend meetings and take part in its actions.

Trying to Change System

"We come from the system that we are trying to change," explained Ken Woodard, an art director for DDB Needham Worldwide who designs advertisements for Volkswagen and Seagrams by day and for ACT UP by night.

Though of the system, ACT UP's members work within and outside the system to achieve group goals. ACT UP's initial goal was to increase availability of experimental treatments to people with AIDS and those infected with the virus. More recently, the group has sought better prevention and treatment services from cities like New York.

Woodard's latest creation for ACT UP, which ran as a full-page ad in last week's Village Voice, is an arresting portrait of New York Mayor Edward I. Koch in front of a sea of graves. "What does Koch plan to do about AIDS?" the ad asks. "Invest in marble and granite."

Koch has drawn the activists' ire for refusing to meet with them in the epidemic's early years and for presiding over a crumbling health-care system in which patients must sometimes wait days for a bed in overcrowded hospitals.

Impact of the Group

While ACT UP has been unable to bring forth a cure for AIDS, whose death toll is approaching 50,000 in this country, some of its chapters around the country have started to have an impact:

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