Saturday, 29 September 2012

Lessons from the plague years

As we are in the one-year anniversary month of Occupy Wall Street, it is an excellent time to hurry down to the IFC Cinema and see ‘How To Survive a Plague’ about the origins and history of ACT UP. The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power arose out of the criminally negligent indifference of Ronald Reagan and his clique who ignored AIDS while the epidemic, now of truly historic proportions, was gathering strength throughout the world. We are still suffering from the effects of that non-decision decision by Saint Ronald of ‘government-is-the-problem’ fame.

The film by David France is an unabashed hagiography of the audacious activists who marched through the streets, sat in at the FDA and the CDC (and Wall Street!), confronted drug company executives, threw blood, blocked traffic and generally made themselves unbearable while publicly exposing their HIV-positive status to the hostile gaze of one and all, a daunting experience even now. There are a number of aspects of this history that are revealing and instructive for us today.

First of all and most germane as we listen to eulogies over the ‘dead’ Occupy movements, the early mobilizations and demonstrations built a crucial base of action. ACT UP could put a few hundred bodies on the street at a given moment, and while the tactic eventually reached the limit of its effectiveness, it was also fundamental. It shone a light on the issues and frequently forced the anonymous functionaries to deal with the people directly affected by their actions who were all up in their face. I hope we can look forward to future Occupy activities by the homeless, the destitute and the unemployed accosting the greedy banksters as they emerge from their gated caves and grotesque yachts although I also expect the 1% to react with ever greater and more murderous fury.

Next, experts were drawn to the activist core: Iris Long, for example, a Queens housewife and retired chemist, quickly saw that the group’s success would be limited until it mastered epidemiology and the logic of drug trials so that its leaders could interact with the scientific and regulatory bureaucracy as equals. They set about doing so, and the suited counterparts promptly took them seriously. The combination of confrontation and expertise was extremely potent, even when the protests seem to be going nowhere—in fact, precisely at that moment.

Then, as the strategy deepened in sophistication, ACT UP also experienced the internal tensions common to all social upheavals and had to confront the loony contingents within its ranks. Movements based on anger attract angry people, and loose alliances that facilitate group action also pave the way for factionalism and anarchy. A few loudmouths will never shut up no matter what, and some ultra elements will have a fit over tactical decisions that look politically impure—and may well be. While Larry Kramer is given the Voice of Reason role in the film, he was also one of the angriest, most prickly, uncompromising and difficult people on the scene right from the start. He’s a typical mixed bag and deserves respect for his role as well as a reminder that he displayed and deployed the same tendencies he’s shown criticizing.

The documentary isn’t easy viewing for anyone who lived through those troubled times and buried their friends, but it ends on an upbeat note as quite a few of the main characters are shown as middle-aged, only slightly ravaged survivors after appearing on screen talking about how they’d soon be dead.

So what sticks out from ACT UP’s history? AIDS and its movement rattled the cage of the entire medical regulatory and treatment apparatus and carved out a role for patient advocates that still resonates today. It’s not an accident (nor an original thought) that the leaders came from fairly privileged backgrounds and believed themselves entitled to life and health. These were people for whom demands that their government do something for them (yes, Mitt!) came naturally. Plenty of people don’t grow up feeling that way, especially those tossed by the wayside in our increasingly selfish culture.

Back to Occupy: rumors of its death are highly exaggerated, and as the grip of the financier class tightens around our collective neck, I believe we’ll see it resurface in a variety of ways. Here’s one: Occupy the SEC continues to intervene as experts, ACT UP style, in the ongoing fight over financial regulation. These are savvy finance professionals who penned, to cite one example, a 100-plus-page letter to the SEC on the Volcker rule contained in the Dodd-Frank bill and continue to oppose and expose the bank lobby’s ongoing attempts to weaken regulation. The estimable Yves Smith from Naked Capitalism is a member and updates us here on their activities.

In retrospect, ACT UP almost had it easy compared to the herculean tasks facing Occupy because, when all was said and done, the medical professionals and research scientists within the CDC and the FDA were fundamentally sympathetic to the patients’ goal—drugs that worked. By contrast, Occupy is up against a government and news media already captured by the financial sector, notwithstanding the presence of surviving allies here and there. But generally speaking, Occupy’s gain is their loss, and that battle is going to be much longer and bloodier and far less forgiving.

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