AIDS protesters of 1990s see parallels with modern black civil rights struggles

ACT UP protesters shout on the floor of the Moscone Center on June 25, 1990 to disrupt the keynote speech of then-U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan at the 6th International AIDS Conference. AP Photo/Bill Beattie

Peaceful resistance. Police clashes. Accusations of riots. A struggle for civil rights.

Today’s Black Lives Matter protests, along with those targeting transgender rights, have many parallels with the protests for better AIDS treatment 25 years ago, say members of the ACT UP movement.

As the San Francisco AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power celebrates the 25th anniversary of its historic protests against unjust marginalization of those dying in the AIDS epidemic, some of those participants sat down with the San Francisco Examiner recently to reflect on struggles past and present.

Most striking, they say, is how the deaths in the AIDS epidemic have parallels with the deaths of black people that are driving the Black Lives Matter movement.

“This grief and pain we were feeling were part of the point in doing disruptive actions,” said former ACT UP protester Rebecca Hensler. The actions disrupting businesses and blocking freeways were similar as well.

“Who are you to be driving down the street when people are dying all around you?” Hensler said.

When former ACT UP protester Laura Thomas first saw the resistance in Ferguson, Mo. last year over the death of Michael Brown, she said she thought, “What do a bunch of 20-year-olds know about protests?” Upon reflection, however, she realized she was in her 20s during ACT UP’s most influential actions at the sixth annual International AIDS Conference in 1990.

That’s when she realized the power of Black Lives Matter. “All the Ferguson protests have these queer black organizers making shit happen,” she said.

Alicia Garza is one of those self-identified queer Black Lives Matter leaders, who also fights for workers and the LGBT community. She said modern protest movements owe much to the struggles of yesteryear.

“What’s so powerful to me about this moment is certainly in the spirit of ACT UP and others; folks are really unapologetic,” Garza said.

Garza was among the Black Friday 14 who stopped BART trains in November to protest police violence in the black community. Many of these protesters were, at various times, met by tear gas and rubber bullets during demonstrations in Oakland.

The ACT UP protesters said they too experienced police violence, citing an SFPD raid of the Castro in October 1989.

The encounter was captured by The Bay Times. One headline from the time reads, “Nightstick Justice.”

The article describes over 150 officers descending on the Castro to arrest 50 peaceful protesters. But after the arrests, police descended on the remaining crowd, beating some bloody with their batons. Officers ran their motorcycles right into the crowd.

Lito Sandoval, a former ACT UP protester, recalled that night to the Examiner. Police weren’t attacking protesters, he said, but instead the people milling about watching the protests from bar windows or sitting on their stoops.

“We were beaten up by — and sued the pants off of — the SFPD,” said Laura Thomas, who is now deputy state director at the Drug Policy Alliance. That lawsuit was successful, and police captains were suspended.

But more than just a mirroring of protest experiences, the modern AIDS struggle is now borne by the black community, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suffers a “disproportionate burden” of HIV in the U.S.

Ingrid Nelson, a former ACT UP protester who now is a nurse practitioner, sees this every day. She works with HIV patients in Oakland.

“My patients who die are black or Latino, young gay men of color, or black women, and transwomen,” Nelson said. “These are people who died of AIDS. We’re not supposed to die of AIDS anymore.”

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