My partner is out of town for the weekend, and this afternoon I went by myself to Dark Knight Rises. Much of the outdoor shooting takes place on Wall Street in pitched battles between the New York police and the bad guys. In the first image, Wall Street is cleared of traffic and the cops are crowded at one end of the block in front of the Stock Exchange. The bad guys are crowded down at the other. Powerful image.
It made me think of the first big AIDS demonstration, which was in the same place—on March 24, 1987, in front of the New York Sock Exchange. There were about 200 gay men and women. They stopped traffic, and by doing so, captured the media. Because many of the participants had AIDS, they had manipulated the cops into putting on rubber gloves and masks, and they looked terrible. Our guys were in all the papers the next morning—except the Times—and it was clear from the media that the guys with AIDS were the good guys. It was from this demonstration that Larry Kramer formed ACT UP, focussed on the chokehold that the FDA had on AIDS medications.
It was a small demonstration—two hundred men and women—in comparison to all those policemen in Dark Knight Rises, and what I was thinking of this afternoon, sitting in the cinema, was how huge the effect of ACT UP had been on vast stretches of American life—on public health, on the practice of medicine, on pharmacology, and, of course, on the place of gay people in American public life.
A friend made the same point about the Stonewall Riots. They were really very small, weren’t they? Well, yes. But it doesn’t take vast throngs of men and women to change the nation, if the few you have are of the right sort. Our few had science on their side, and the Constitution, and, of course, morality. No wonder they were powerful. And another thing. The men and women at this first demonstration of the group that became ACT UP taught us that decorum is a weapon the other side uses against us. So ACT UP taught us again (we have to keep learning this) to stop being polite.
On AIDS and the transformation of America, read Steven Epstein, Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.