Black Lives Matter, ACT UP and the Urgency of Violence and Death

There's been lots of criticism from some progressives after Senator Bernie Sanders was shouted down by Black Lives Matters activists in Seattle recently, especially from supporters of Sanders' presidential campaign. The basic tenor is that Sanders is a "friend" and thus protesting him is a waste of time, diverting from going after the "real" enemy. But much context is missing among the critics of Black Lives Matter, and, in one case in which a a comparison to the fiery AIDS activist group ACT UP is made, there's a bit of unintentional historical revisionism that needs to be cleared up.

I was sitting in the crowd when former Maryland governor, Martin O'Malley, was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protestors in Phoenix at Netroots Nation last month. The activists took the stage and made the point that the issue of police violence and killings of black citizens weren't being discussed adequately by progressives and political candidates. They demanded answers from O'Malley, and, directly afterward, from Bernie Sanders. It was disruptive, loud, tense and passionate.

And the first thing that came to my mind was ACT UP, a group of which I was a part, chairing its media committee back in the late '80s, and which engaged in similar kinds of protest and disruption, including against Democratic presidential candidates. The urgency of the protest was similar as well: People are dying, and no one in power seems to be doing anything to stop it.

That's why I was perplexed by at least one critic of Black Lives Matter suggesting that the group could take a page from ACT UP, which is portrayed as having engaged in a more productive form of disruption. Charles Pierce, a sharp, progressive writer I've followed for years and who does great work, criticized Black Lives Matter on for protesting Sanders in Seattle -- preventing him from speaking -- and like many other progressive critics he called the action "stupid" and "counterproductive" since Sanders basically supports the cause, unlike GOP presidential candidates. In a follow-up post he took back the word "counterproductive" but stuck by his general criticism and used ACT UP, which transformed the response by government, media and the health care establishment to HIV, as a model of activism which Black Lives Matter should follow.

The implied message was that ACT UP was successful by only targeting obvious enemies and not offending supposed allies. But that is simply not true. ACT UP was hated, despised, ridiculed and attacked by supposed friends -- including many in the gay community itself -- who claimed we were hitting the "wrong" targets, including our supposed allies, similar to the criticism Black Lives Matter is receiving now. The progressive Village Voice, born in the 1960s' rebellion, was perhaps the biggest critic of ACT UP in the early years. According to some progressive critics there and elsewhere, we were fascists or Stalinists who silenced people with angry and confrontational protests. Or we were alienating the very people we were supposed to bring in.

The same was true of the criticism of the tactics of the various offshoots of ACT UP in the early '90s, such as Queer Nation, which focused on the violence against gays and engaged in guerrilla actions to promote queer visibility, staging kiss-ins and wheat-pasting posters around major cities which revealed the sexual orientation of closeted prominent Hollywood and political figures.

And there were virulent attacks on OutWeek magazine, another ACT UP offshoot, founded by ACT UP members, which was at the center of the so-called "outing" movement (and where I was an editor). The writer Fran Leibowitz, a darling of liberal intellectuals, said of OutWeek, "It's damaging, it's immoral, its McCarthyism, it's terrorism, its cannibalism, it's beneath contempt."

ACT UP regularly protested that supposed friend of liberals, The New York Times, and ACT UP activists literally hijacked the set of Dan Rather's live broadcast on the CBS Evening News, flashing a message opposing the first Iraq war and calling instead for money for AIDS research. The group disrupted trading at the New York Stock Exchange, unfurling a banner on the floor, invaded St. Patrick's Cathedral with a civil disobedience action against the Catholic Church and shouted down Democratic presidential candidates, like Bill Clinton, getting promises from them on fighting the AIDS epidemic.

Years later, people herald ACT UP for the work it did, but they all seem to forget that in the moment there was enormous tension between the group and the larger progressive community -- as well with the larger gay community -- as people accused ACT UP of alienating allies by being confrontational. And that has actually been true of every protest movement for every cause: In the moment they're criticized, while later they're heralded. Black Lives Matter is doing exactly what it should be doing. And it is getting exactly the response it should be getting, bringing attention in every way possible to an urgent life and death issue.