Act Up Driven By Pain, Anger

Posted: September 25, 1991

Fake blood at a protest.

Real tears for a friend.

And the belief that silence equals death.

Those are the ties that bind the men and women, gay and straight, old and young, who make up ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.

It's the group whose attention-grabbing tactics sparked the police- protester clash during President Bush's recent visit here.

And last week its members denounced as a "witch hunt" the disclosure by Mercy Catholic Medical Center that a staff orthopedic surgeon had tested positive for the AIDS virus. The group sponsored a forum on that controversy last night at Graduate Hospital in Center City.

Nationally, ACT UP has wrapped ultraconservative Sen. Jesse Helms' house in plastic to represent a giant condom, stormed the set of the CBS Evening News, and doused the floor of Grand Central Station with fake blood.

Under those public protests is private pain.

The 80 or so members of Philadelphia ACT UP are drawn together by the loss of friends, relatives and lovers - and by their anger that government and society have not done more to fight AIDS.

"It's as though we're living in a war zone and the bombs are dropping, but the people next door or in City Hall or in the White House don't hear or see them," said ACT UP member Scott Tucker.

Tucker, 36, was born in New York and has lived in Philadelphia for the last 18 years. He is open about his ACT UP membership, and about the fact that in 1986 he was diagnosed as carrying the HIV virus, which causes AIDS.

Tucker stressed that ACT UP does not condone violence.

"We don't carry weapons or throw rocks or bottles . . . . We at ACT UP are often accused of being terrorists or people who don't do our homework, but

neither is true. Homework and hell-raising together is the ground rule for ACT UP."

ACT UP exists with no appointed or elected leadership, no membership list, and no solid consensus on tactics. Its members come from diverse backgrounds.

A gay businessman who asked not to be identified because "my business will suffer" said he had been drawn to ACT UP by his frustration at the loss of his lover and of 29 other friends - in a single year.

"You get to New Year's Eve," he said, "and start calling to wish people a happy new year, and then start crossing names off your list."

Another ACT UP member, Anna Forbes, is a committed Quaker. A public-health intern in the city's AIDS Activities Coordinating Office, she was one of the ACT UP members jailed during the anti-Bush demonstration Sept. 12. (She attended on her own time.)


Forbes' route to ACT UP and jail was an odyssey through deeply held concerns. Years ago, she worked for the American Civil Liberties Union and women's reproductive rights organizations, but when the mysterious killer AIDS appeared, she threw her energies into ActionAIDS, an organization that provides services to AIDS patients. The job took a deep personal toll.

"When I worked with ActionAIDS, I had been through something like 250 deaths, and it was blindingly apparent to me that the government response . . . was nowhere near adequate," Forbes said.

"Depression is anger turned inward, so I keep it turned outside," she said.

That's why, though recently married, and just back from her honeymoon four days earlier, Forbes on Sept. 12 headed for Broad Street and protest. On her way out, she kissed her husband and gave him a list of phone numbers to call if she wound up in jail.

"As a Quaker," she said, "I was always brought up to understand that civil disobedience is a perfectly fine tactic to bring attention to problems."

What does her husband, Walter Cuirle, think of all this? "I tell her, 'I respect you for it, damn it,' " he said.

Forbes had prepared for the Bush demonstration carefully. In case of arrest, she had been warned to wear sturdy shoes to protect her toes if she were dragged face down to the police wagon. But after considering the purpose of the protest - to draw public attention to their cause - she decided, ''Ratty sneakers or boots would look awful on camera."

So Forbes chose nicer shoes and, when arrested, was relieved to be dragged on her heels.

That mood changed when the demonstration turned into a brawl. A coffin carried by ACT UP members landed inside police lines, hitting an officer. Police responded with nightsticks. Real blood flowed.

"I was terrified," Forbes said.

The Bush protest was the latest in a series of attention-grabbing tactics ACT UP has used in Philadelphia.

It disrupted City Council meetings to demand the city spend more money on its AIDS program, occupied a Mount Airy nursing home demanding assurances that the state would pay for adequate care for AIDS patients, and showered the Philadelphia Board of Education with condoms to demand condoms for students.

ACT UP claims some victories. Many once-fringe elements of its agenda have become reality, endorsed by mainstream institutions: The schools are now distributing condoms, the nursing home for AIDS patients opens next month, and Mayor Goode endorsed the idea of giving drug addicts access to clean needles to slow the spread of AIDS.

ACT UP members vow their protests will continue.

"There is a class of people even angrier than those who have AIDS," Forbes said, "and that is those who are losing someone or have lost someone who had AIDS."

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