Thoughts on Activism and “How to Survive a Plague”

Yesterday, a group of AIDS activists made headlines by stripping nude in the office of Speaker John Boehner to protest budget cuts that would impact AIDS research. Their tactics were covered by the mainstream media – which was their goal – but largely treated as a sideshow. Brazen tactics like these, however, have been a staple of the AIDS activism movement, and I couldn’t help but view their protest yesterday as a time machine back to an era when activism meant something different.

Last night, I finally got around to watching How to Survive a Plague, a recent documentary about a committed group of AIDS activists who pressured federal agencies to speed up approval process for AIDS drugs in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It is a compelling story filled with heroes, some of whom died for their cause. Here is a trailer:


The movement had humble beginnings. ACT UP, the organization featured in the film, started with just a few people in Manhattan. Their initial protests were staged to shed light on NYC Mayor Ed Koch’s refusal to acknowledge the disease and their suffering. As their numbers grew, they took their fight to the national stage with a multi-pronged approach. They staged sit-ins at the FDA and eventually earned a role in the drug-approval process there. They did the same at NIH, which adopted elements of their research plan. While they were making progress on the policy front, they also went political: a key moment in the movement also came when one of ACT UP’s leaders confronted Bill Clinton during a speech in his 1992 presidential campaign. Clinton responded on-camera that he cared deeply about AIDS, and activists were able to hold him accountable to this public pledge of support: funding for AIDS research increased 150% during his presidency.

Throughout the film, the passion of these activists bursts through the screen, and it stands in stark contrast to what I see from activists today. I rarely see this type of enthusiasm in the animal rights movement, in which I work. Maybe this is understandable – these AIDS activists were literally fighting for their lives, whereas we animal activists are one step removed from the suffering we are trying to stop. But I don’t see these type of protests over human rights abuses, either. Environmental activists rarely have this passion, and their cause is the very survival of the earth. So what has changed?

My guess is that the internet has something to do with it. Being an activist today is as easy as clicking a button, signing and forwarding an email, or hitting “like” on Facebook. The online petitions that people sign rarely have an impact on public policy and are often just a means for non-profit organizations to raise money. Many activists I have spoken with over the course of my career in politics and government have told me that they are afraid to even” phone bank,” the grassroots tactic of calling potential supporters and asking them to vote or take another action. The significance of this can’t be overstated: the ability to talk to another person about your values is the cornerstone of activism, and many people, who have now spent a decade in the confines of online activism, have lost the ability to do that.

Activist Peter Staley from “How to Survive a Plague”

The actions of the AIDS activists in Speaker Boehner’s office yesterday were mostly laughed at, and I imagine the activists themselves don’t mind. Their goal is to raise awareness for their issue, and they certainly have done that. But as we look around for the great systematic change that Obama promised us in 2008, we may want to look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are fighting as hard as we can.  Are we fighting as if our lives depend on it? How to Survive a Plague serves as a reminder of what real activism looks like. Hopefully, it will ripple.

NOTE: How to Survive a Plague is still in theaters and also available on Video on Demand.

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