Twenty years ago this week, ACT UP, the AIDS-activist movement, held its first protest, shocking lower Manhattan’s buttoned-down lunchtime crowd when hundreds of gay protesters stormed the streets demanding lifesaving AIDS drugs; seventeen were arrested when they lay down “dead” in the street at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street, stopping traffic. (“Homosexuals arrested at AIDS drug protest,” read the Times photo caption.) Today, ACT UP was back, this time rallying for the group’s bigger-than-AIDS demand for universal health care, and about two dozen protesters were arrested when they stopped traffic on Broadway, alongside the famous statue of a bull.
ACT UP is today a shadow of its former self, in part because so much of what it demanded — effective drugs and better laws for people with AIDS — has been achieved. But this afternoon survivors of the old gang — including ornery Normal Heart playwright Larry Kramer, 71 — joined up with about 500 new-school AIDS activists, who are much blacker, straighter, and poorer that those of two decades ago, reflecting those AIDS hits hardest these days in New York City. A sea of signs in classic ACT UP black-and-white block letters screamed DEMAND DRUG PRICE CONTROLS NOW and ACT UP FOR SINGLE-PAYER HEALTH CARE FOR ALL. Many bystanders said they weren’t familiar with ACT UP but supported the health-care-for-all rallying cry. One of the cops making the arrests averred that the NYPD’s health plan was only “okay.” Even the truck driver heading the stopped-up traffic, a guy named Robert, retained a good mood. “As long as I’m getting paid, I’ll stay here all day,” he shrugged.
ACT UP co-founder Eric Sawyer, 53, HIV-positive “since before they had a test for it,” he said, and now a part-time real-estate flipper, said that today’s protest, while less tense and urgent-feeling than the first one, still reminded him of that desperate March day twenty years ago. “It’s sad to think of the hundreds of our members who didn’t survive to be here with us today,” he said. Abruptly, his voice broke. Then he collected himself — and admitted that, well, yes, the cruising at the way-gay 1987 protest was much better than at today’s.