YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Did AIDS Protest Go Too Far? : Conference: ACT UP draws fire and praise after activists shouted down a Cabinet official in San Francisco.


SAN FRANCISCO — For many, the final moment of the Sixth International Conference on AIDS here provided an outrageous sight: The conference's last speaker, Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan, stepped to the microphone and was drowned out by protesters shouting "Shame! Shame! Shame!" and blowing whistles and air horns.

When the din ended, the debate erupted: Had the protesters, members of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, gone too far by infringing upon Sullivan's right to speak and be heard? Or had they simply done what was necessary to call attention to and confront an inadequate government response to a disease that is killing one U.S. citizen every 12 minutes and shows no signs of abating?

Would the disruption alienate supporters of more funding for AIDS research and care, already the target of a backlash?

Sullivan lost no time in calling the protesters "un-American," adding in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle: "I will not in any way work with those individuals."

"ACT UP couldn't resist shouting down Sullivan, turning a faceless bureaucrat into a martyr," said David Kirp, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley.

"It was undoubtedly an act of personal integrity and authenticity, and I am sure that it made them feel better," Kirp added. "But sometimes, personal authenticity and political effectiveness are incompatible."

Even within the homosexual community, grieving and angry over the epidemic's mounting toll, there was criticism of ACT UP, which has emerged as the nation's dominant AIDS activist organization. "The protesters were wrong in their strategy," said Steve Morin, an openly gay aide to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). "It is a First Amendment issue, to let people speak and be heard.

"But the Administration was wrong as well," Morin added. "The message President Bush sent to the conference was: 'I am not going to exert any leadership to be with you during this time of national crisis. Instead, I am going to go to North Carolina to campaign for Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) and to call him a 'man of vision.' "

Bush, who declined an invitation to address the conference, appeared at a Helms fund-raiser in Charlotte on the day the conference opened. Gays and many scientists and public health experts consider Helms the U.S. Senate's biggest obstruction toward the enactment of sound AIDS policies.

It was Helms who led the fight against the type of explicit AIDS prevention materials that public health experts believe are necessary to stem transmission of the virus; it was also Helms who authored U.S. travel restrictions on foreigners infected with the AIDS virus that led to a boycott of the conference. Bush's embrace of Helms, said Morin, "was insensitive at best and, more likely, inflammatory."

Adding to the tension, the Bush Administration formally announced on the eve of the conference its opposition to the federal AIDS disaster-relief bill. The bill, which sailed through both houses of Congress, would provide funds to cities whose public health structures are sagging under the weight of the epidemic.

As a result, many who are fighting their own personal battles against AIDS thought the eruption against the Administration's highest-ranking official at the conference was right on target. "He talks, we die," read the banner unfurled by the protesters as the noise-making began.

"To have ended this conference with everybody arm in arm, grinning, would have misrepresented the direness of the situation," said Los Angeles writer Paul Monette, who chronicled the death of his lover, Roger Horwitz, in his book "Borrowed Time."

"We who are in the trenches know that the nightmare is absolutely continuing," said Monette, who is also infected with the human immunodeficiency virus. "This is not a time for good manners."

"People are offended? Well, let them join the club," added David Barr, a lawyer and member of ACT UP/New York. "I'm offended that there are 99 drugs that should be in clinical trials now but aren't, that there are thousands of homeless people with AIDS in New York, that 37 million Americans live without health insurance."

Mark Cloutier, executive director of the National Public Health Project on AIDS, said critics of ACT UP misunderstand its role: "ACT UP wouldn't be doing its job if it didn't stir things up. As long as they are not violent, they provide a steam valve for an incredibly volatile situation."

Since ACT UP was founded three years ago, the group's white-hot rage has drawn more attention than more polite forms of AIDS activism, such as the Names Project's AIDS Memorial Quilt. ACT UP boasts 50 chapters and thousands of members and is best known in Los Angeles for its frequent attacks on the county Board of Supervisors.

"You can think of the quilt as Martin Luther King and ACT UP as Malcolm X," said Thomas Watson, a Harvard student who is spending his senior year analyzing the divergent strains of AIDS activism.

Los Angeles Times Articles