Lessons for Anti-Trump Activists from ACT UP

Gran Fury, Silence = Death, 1987.

My current personal plan for fighting Trump includes a few different parts:

  • Interconnection: Continuing to stay connected to the spider web of activists who I know are currently working with me, staying in community, working in groups.
  • Thinking intergenerationally: Continuing to keep my focus on the many activists who have come before us to fight oppressive leaders and oppressive systems, and the many people who will come after this time.
  • Make activism fun again: To fight burnout, I’m trying to have as much fun as possible while I work, bring snacks I like to meetings, listen to music while I edit documents, wear my pajamas to actions.
  • Thinking systemically: Remembering that no one person, group, or event is the full story. Trying to pretend to be a bird, flying up to a tree to look around, then back down to the ground to go back to work.

And another activity I am focusing on is reviewing activist histories.

No time in history is exactly like any other time in history, and we can’t fully copy our elder’s tactics and timing. However, there is something very orienting about looking back at what other organizers have done at other moments in time.

This week, I read David France’s book How to Survive a Plague and focused on the history of ACT UP, the famous AIDS activist group. Before it leaves my mind, I want to write down what I am taking away from the book so I can continue to remember and contemplate it.

Ideas I want to remember from How to Survive a Plague:

  • Activism is about death, even when it’s not explicitly framed that way. Part of what ACT UP reiterated is that the threat of death can be activating and clarifying and can spur action. Many ACT UP members had never been activists before, and many came to the work who had other aspects of their identity that were protected by the dominant culture (for instance, many of the leaders were white men who were college graduates). As I was reminded this week by Professor Ken Hardy, activism around any issue is a form of death because fighting dominant norms is analogous to walking against the flow of traffic: risking arrest, risking police violence, risking being fired, risking being alienated from family and friends. ACT UP activists described how the desperation of the danger of AIDS pushed people to step through fear to action. For some people (people of color, trans* people, people with disabilities, women, etc), the life-threatening nature of oppressive systems is made clear from birth — the violent power of the dominant system is the context of being alive. For people with privileged identities, the danger is presented as a choice, a choice that can be avoided by staying still or by supporting the dominant system. What the book reminded me of is that framing activism in relationship to death can be very clarifying. For people with subjugated identities, there is no true safety in staying still, the existing system is life-threatening. In that mindset, activism is not endangering, it is an act of reaching for safety. To recruit people with privileged identities, we might want to experiment with looking for ways to align activism as reaching for true safety (an approach taken, for example, by groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice), and to see if we can find ways to explain how both action and inaction are forms of death.
  • Activism is about living with intolerable losses. Every fight against every sub-system of oppression is filled with horrific losses that can never be made right. Reparations can not ever make slavery right, there is no action that could truly restore the destruction of land, community, and life brought on by colonialism, there is no repayment for the unpaid labor of women and no undoing the generations of violence endured by subjugated people of all identities. Oppression is not inevitable, it is not “human nature,” or the natural order of things or the natural arc of history. Oppression is made even more intolerable because it is unnecessary. How to Survive a Plague is a story of what are now millions of avoidable deaths. Deaths that were a direct result of policy decisions, corporate priorities and interpersonal ridiculousness. Deaths of beloved people who I consider to be directly murdered by Ronald Reagan, by both Bushes, by Bill Clinton, by Catholic power structures. This was not a one-time historical event: our histories are full of avoidable death. Of people of color murdered by police with no consequences. Of horror stories like Emmet Till’s. These are deaths we cannot live with, minimize, absorb, or make peace with — there is no silver lining. But this very task, the task of expecting the intolerable without ever tolerating it — is a core task for activists. Reading about the early days of AIDS, I can feel the shape of my human helplessness magnified. These deaths are in the past, and have already occurred, and can never be made right. I know that Trump’s administration will kill people, will irreparably harm the environment, will further rupture an already-ruptured system. I know that many of the things that are about to happen are as bad or worse than what has already occurred. And I know that the spiritual question for all of us is how we will continue to hold on to the truth in full color, just as our ancestors did, never collapsing the loss and never giving up. Because there is no surprise in needless death, there is no shock. It is the typical landscape of our world. Our work is to expect death without adjusting to it.
  • Use power dynamics to fight power dynamics: When we come together to fight oppression, we arrive at the meeting with different amounts of systemic power. Power is not inherently good or bad — what is bad about the current system is that some people are empowered at the expense of others. When we gather for a common goal, we can strategically use our different positions in the system to maximize our power as a group. How to Survive a Plague describes a number of key moments where people’s privileged identities advanced important strategic needs. The death of Rock Hudson, for instance, is a key moment in the history of AIDS visibility — Hudson’s celebrity and connection to the Reagans forced some of the first acknowledgments of the AIDS by people in power. It is tremendously unfair that the death of a celebrity was considered more impactful than the deaths that had come before. This fact is another of the horrors of our current lives in oppression — the fact that — over and over again — we see evidence that men, white people, straight people, cis people, and rich people are valued more as human beings. For activists, we need to never accept this devaluing as true, while also using opportunities when they arise to encourage the system to destroy itself. For ACT UP, there were many key moments when it was clear that the white, cis, male leaders who had gone to fancy colleges were able to use those identities to kick doors down that were tightly closed. It’s clear that playing up those parts of their identities made possible some Trojan horse tactics that could not otherwise have been done. When we think as a team, we can use the keys and codes of privileged members to unlock doors, gain access, hack information, and find donors — it’s a form of essentially using the illogical injustice of the system to illogically break it down. For white people, for instance, this can involve seeing ourselves as spies or double agents, using our access points to gain information or resources and then bring them back to our true coalitions.
  • There are unintended consequences of using the system to destroy the system. Audre Lorde warned us that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” and the proof of her teaching haunts us. Looking backward from the present moment, we can see the impact of the places where the movement for LGBTQI rights and the interconnected rights of people with AIDS, prioritized privileged identities — white people, wealthy people, cis people — or tried to push for inclusion in the white power structure rather then destroy the structure itself. Because some of the most visible leaders of ACT UP were white cis men, some of the most visible gains of ACT UP benefit white cis men the most. We see the fallout from this history in the disparate death rates based on racial identity, we see it where healthcare is out of reach, we see it in who is valorized and who is invisible. This is not any individual’s doing. This is part of the pain of working in our current system: our choices as activists, even when we aim to work to dismantle injustices, are dragged towards those same injustices by the undertow of oppression. This is part of the power of the Movement for Black Lives: it’s an example of how analyzing generations of consequences can be the grounding for building the foundation for intersectional activism into every aspect of the work.
  • Use “Inside-Outside” tactics: In Michelle Goldberg’s article on ACT UP and Trump in Slate, David France explains:
“The model of activism that ACT UP innovated is a model that they called inside-outside… They had these armies of bodies that could show up at the drop of a phone call and stand outside these institutions that needed to be addressed, and they could do that with enough numbers, force, and clever timing that it forced somebody inside those institutions to pay attention. They also had an inside group of people who trained themselves in the science of AIDS and AIDS research. Once their comrades got those doors open, they moved through.”

I deeply believe that we need everybody in the movement and we need different people to play different roles. When we can coordinate inside-outside tactics, and stay clear enough for those in different roles to remain in comradeship and not turn against one another, we have a truly powerful strategy available.

2010 World AIDS Day protest (Xinhua/Zhang Jun)
  • The end of any one battle is not the end of the fight. David France’s book ends with the discovery of AIDS medications that saved lives in an unprecedented way. In the time since that day, however, the fight continues. This includes, of course, the ongoing policy and cultural change work: the continued patient advocacy, the continued work for economic and healthcare justice and for the end of homophobia and transphobia. But the fight also continues in the lives of the activists. We know now, at this moment in history, that people who put their lives on the line for ACT UP in the 1980s and ’90s, even if they physically survived AIDS diagnoses, did not always survive. We know how many were lost to depression, addiction, PTSD. We know that the ongoing trauma of living with intolerable losses is often itself intolerable. And we know that this is not just true of losing people to AIDS. We know how white supremacy shortens the lives of people of color, we know the life stories of powerful trans* activists whose suicides cut to the heart of the suffering of trying to survive unbearable injustices. Activists often like to tell one another about how the movement saves our lives but we see evidence all the time that this is only sometimes true, and sometimes only partially. Sometimes the movement saves our lives and sometimes we die anyway. There is no bargaining about this, no magic bullet to inoculate any of us from the dangers of living in oppression. There is no solution other than ending all oppression, and it is our duty to win.

Educational consultant and speaker Pippi Kessler has trained thousands of people across the country to use their power for good. As the Education Director at ImmerseNYC and as an ongoing consultant and former Program Director at Ma’yan, she designs feminist leadership programs for teens, conducts professional training seminars, and creates innovative curricula and workshops. She is also the Director of Rowe Young People’s Camp, a summer program for 8–11-year-olds in western Massachusetts, and the cofounder of Movement Match, a project that matches people with progressive activist organizations. She received her M.A. in Social-Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. To book a workshop with Pippi, learn more at pippikessler.org or contact her at pippikessler@gmail.com.