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- The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was founded in March 1987 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in New York City's Greenwich Village as an organization devoted to direct action (demonstrations and civil disobedience) to call the attention of government officials, scientists, drug companies and other corporations, and the general public to the severity of the AIDS crisis and its impact on the lives of individuals. Records of the organization consist of administrative files, minutes, correspondence, records of demonstrations, financial documents, chapter and committee records, subject files, conference notes and programs, published and near-print materials, ephemera, fliers and handbills, photographs, artifacts, posters and placards documenting the organization's efforts.
- ACT UP New York (Organization) (Creator)
- Dates / Origin
- Date Created: 1969 - 1997
- Place: New York
- Library locations
- Manuscripts and Archives Division
- Shelf locator: MssCol 10
- AIDS (Disease)
- AIDS (Disease) -- Political aspects
- AIDS (Disease) -- Social aspects
- AIDS (Disease) and the arts
- AIDS (Disease) in mass media
- AIDS activists
- Gay activists -- New York (State) -- New York
- Fliers (Printed matter)
- Biographical/historical: The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was founded in March 1987 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in New York City's Greenwich Village as an organization devoted to direct action (demonstrations and civil disobedience) to call the attention of government officials, scientists, drug companies, other corporations, and the general public to the severity of the AIDS crisis and its impact on the lives of individuals. ACT UP New York gained thousands of members in its first four years and expanded to more than 70 chapters worldwide.
On March 24, 1987, only weeks after its founding, ACT UP demonstrated on Wall Street to protest the profiteering of pharmaceutical companies, especially Burroughs Wellcome, manufacturer of AZT. Seventeen people were arrested. Following the demonstrations, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would shorten the drug approval process by two years. For ACT UP, demonstrations were the physical result of the theoretical concept of direct action. At its peak, ACT UP, which first created the acronym, then chose the words to fit it, consciously acted in a manner befitting its moniker. As an organization, it spoke and acted out to test the limits of authority. Notably, the organization gained renown for its demonstrations, which captured media attention and brought focus to its messages. During the height of its activity in the early 1990s, ACT UP's demonstrations were theatrical in nature, involving rehearsal and props in addition to research, planning, and publicity. While practicing nonviolent civil disobedience, members often aimed at getting arrested. Arrests drew media attention to both the actions of the protestors and the grievances that sparked their action. This attention might then either embarrass or otherwise motivate the protested party to elicit change.
Through the years ACT UP orchestrated numerous demonstrations that contributed to changes in public policy regarding AIDS. Other notable demonstrations that occurred in 1987 included protests against Northwest Orient Airlines, New York City's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, and the newly-formed Presidential Commission on AIDS in Washington, DC.
ACT UP New York's Women's Caucus formed and organized its first action when it targeted the offices of Cosmopolitan magazine in January 1988. Five hundred people protested an article that claimed heterosexual women were not at significant risk of contracting AIDS. Celebrating the first anniversary of an ACT UP demonstration in March, the coalition returned to Wall Street where one hundred activists were arrested. The major media coverage this action received helped broadcast central AIDS issues. In October, ACT UP and other AIDS organizations shut down the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) outside of Washington, DC.
In 1989, ACT UP demonstrated at City Hall, the Fifth International Conference on AIDS in Montréal, the New York Stock Exchange, and St. Patrick's Cathedral. ACT UP's Youth Brigade began distributing condoms and safe sex/clean needle information outside New York City schools in October. Following these demonstrations Mayor Ed Koch announced a new housing policy for people with AIDS; Anthony Fauci, director of the AIDS program at the National Institutes of Health, publicly announced the concept of "parallel track," which would make experimental AIDS drugs available to patients outside of formal clinical trials; and Burroughs Wellcome lowered the price of AZT by 20%.
In 1991, ACT UP demonstrated at the Manhattan Criminal Court building; the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) in Albany, New York; the National Insurance Association in Washington, DC; the New York State office building; President Bush's vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine; and the White House. The last two demonstrations were part of the "Target Bush" action, which occurred throughout the month of September. It was on January 22, 1991, however, when one of the highest profile actions in the group's history occurred. Activists invaded the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour while America was tuned in for news of the Persian Gulf War. The protesters stormed in shouting, "Fight AIDS - Not Arabs!" and chained themselves to the anchors' desks. This dramatic interruption increased the media's interest in the following day's series of protests that ACT UP declared a "Day of Desperation," implying that with AIDS, every day is a day of desperation.
While the media, and thus the public, focused on the demonstrations that ACT UP orchestrated, the coalition spent most of its time doing other types of work. A General Meeting was held every Monday night that included announcements, life-saving information, actions in development, follow-ups on previous actions, zap proposals, and operational requests. To clarify, ACT UP defined actions as public protests that were characterized by a planning period, promotion, and large turnout; zaps addressed immediate concerns and usually had more specific targets. At least during its first decade, a literature table was set up at each meeting that included information for general distribution while a fundraising table sold T-shirts, stickers, books, posters, buttons, postcards, and mugs; attendees were asked to donate $3.00 to help pay the rent.
Much of ACT UP's work from 1987-1995 was done in affinity groups, committees, working groups, and caucuses devoted to particular topics. Some groups, particularly working groups, were short-lived, designed to address short-term projects or activities. Generally, committees had longer lives. Some of the larger groups were the Alternative and Holistic Treatment committee, Latina/o caucus, Media committee, Needle Exchange committee, Prison Issues committee, Treatment and Data committee, and YELL (Youth Education Life Line).
As ACT UP declared, their members advised and informed in addition to participating in demonstrations. A large and important committee, Treatment and Data, grew to be vital to this mission. In June 1990, Treatment and Data issued its "1990 Treatment Agenda," which outlined the direction it believed the AIDS research community should take. In November, the committee released the "Countdown 18 Months Plan," a set of scientific procedures and demands to implement treatment and research for the top opportunistic infections. ACT UP members attended international conferences on AIDS and stayed up to date on traditional and alternative treatments that might help the AIDS community, creating their own AIDS library.
Out of ACT UP other noteworthy AIDS organizations arose: Gran Fury, an artists collective of AIDS activists, formed out of ACT UP's involvement with "Let the Record Show . . ." at The New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1987, and continued to be associated with the group by creating many of their notable graphics; Queer Nation, a short-lived radical, militant gay and lesbian activist organization dedicated to visibility; and the Treatment Action Group (TAG), an organization dedicated to AIDS treatment and cure research. Also associated with ACT UP New York was the Silence = Death Project, the anonymous group of men that created the Silence = Death poster that became a rallying point for the early AIDS movement.
ACT UP New York was at its peak of activity during the early 1990s. By 1996, the radically democratic organization harbored internal divisions over tactics and its relationship to both the AIDS and gay/lesbian movements. Divided, and with declining membership due to death and burnout, the coalition endured financial troubles, left their longtime workspace on West 29th Street, and donated their records to the New York Public Library. This end of an era for ACT UP coincided with a diminishing sense of crisis. In America, the combination of new treatments and greater availability, coupled with greater public education, made it possible to have AIDS and live. Although the coalition still exists at the time of this writing, its public visibility has waned.
Sources: Greenberg, Jon. "ACT UP Explained." ACT UP New York. http://www.actupny.org/documents/greenbergAU.html (accessed Mar. 20, 2008).
Rimmerman, Craig A. "ACT UP." The Encyclopedia of AIDS. Ed. by Raymond A. Smith. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998. http://thebody.com/content/art14001.html (accessed Feb. 22, 2008).
- Content: The ACT UP New York records contain administrative files; minutes; correspondence; action, demonstration, and zap records; financial records; chapter records; committee records; subject files; conference notes and programs; published and near-print material; ephemera, fliers, and handbills; photographs and slides; artifacts; posters and placards.
These records document a very active grassroots organization committed to focusing the world's attention on the AIDS crisis. Arranged in fifteen series, the first three series provide a basic overview of ACT UP that is expanded upon throughout the collection.
Strengths of this collection include its documentation of ACT UP's expertise at identifying, locating, and keeping abreast of medical and experimental treatments. Since this knowledge extended throughout the organization, documentation can be found in multiple series, including: Series VIII. Committees, particularly the Alternative and Holistic, Media, and Treatment and Data committees; and Series IX. Conferences. The organization also monitored society's attitudes toward and treatment of individuals with AIDS/HIV. It accomplished these tasks, in part, by collecting articles from medical literature and the popular press; publications and related material from pharmaceutical companies, federal, state, and local governments which can be found in Series X. Publications and near-print materials. While ACT UP sought to find a solution to the crisis, it remembered those individuals who succumbed to AIDS by maintaining a small obituary file, as well as other AIDS-related subject files, in Series VIII. Subjects.
One of the strengths of this collection is its documentation of the way in which ACT UP offered its members the opportunity to express ideas, innovations, and interests for the cause. As ACT UP member Jon Greenberg noted, the group, and its demonstrations in particular, offered empowerment to its members. This empowerment can be seen in the collection of impressive posters and placards in Series XIV which were created by members for demonstrations and actions. On a smaller creative scale, Series XI. Ephemera, fliers, and handbills contains handouts used to publicize meetings, provide information, and promote actions. The collection also offers insight into how ACT UP interacted with other organizations concerned with similar issues, documentation of which can be found throughout multiple series, including: Series III. Correspondence; Series XI. Ephemera, fliers, and handbills; and Series XIV. Posters and placards.
The majority of this collection has been microfilmed. Once a folder has been located in the container list below, use the microfilm guide to ascertain the order in which items appear on the microfilm reel. Items that were not filmed are noted at the box or folder level; entire series that were not filmed are noted in their series description.
- Acquisition: Received from ACT UP New York, 1995; additions received from Ron Goldberg, Jack Ben Levi, Conyers Thompson, and Stephen Shapiro, 1992-1997.
- Content: Processing information: Processed by Nick Tucker, intern; David Gips; Eileen Monahan, intern; Briar Sauro, intern; and Valerie Wingfield; revised by Laura Slezak Karas.
- Physical Description
- Extent: 97.4 linear feet (234 boxes, 4 oversize folders, 4 tubes, 1 oversize item)
- Type of Resource
- Still image
- NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b16864445
- MSS Unit ID: 10
- Archives collections id: archives_collections_10
- Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): 24fc78e0-988f-0138-b354-7557849ba9de