Social Justice

ACT UP & The AIDS Epidemic: The Molecular Social Justice Movement

If you haven’t seen United in Anger, I would definitely suggest it. It’s an eye-opening documentary about something that is so raw in America’s very recent past. It follows the founding of ACT UP, the social justice group which sprouted in New York in 1987 following the outburst of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, as they fought for recognition of the truth in the media and medicines to be released to those afflicted. ACT UP was many things and accomplished many things, but I would like particularly like to consider it’s potential as a molecular social justice group, and how it’s success might pave the path for social justice movements today.
 ACTUP 1What struck me as I was watchingUnited in Anger was the way that ACT UP was constituted of such diverse activist, social and affinity groups; it was so interesting that it had such a molecular construction to it. It seemed that there was a commonality to the grievances of all the people who attended the meetings and identified with the group, and I found myself thinking about the importance of community to such groups. Some were there because of an immediate need and drive to find a cure to AIDS, and others because they saw the larger possibility of what might be accomplished in the future if ACT UP remained united, but either way, ACT UP became a community in the midst of a crisis, a community of belonging and action to people who would otherwise be written off as disabled, or small interest groups, or just ill. The sense of ACT UP breaching social and political borders to bring smaller groups together to fight towards a place of change, even despite is eventual internal divides, was something I thought was rather revolutionary in its construction.
When thinking about the idea of community, it might be interesting to consider the work by Douglas Crimp, How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic, specifically in his musings on how community was being reclaimed by ACT UP and those who were affected by AIDS: the idea that ACT UP extended beyond the mere idea of “community” and “community values” into a space of actualised bonded togetherness where those who were actually affected by AIDS had a voice and say. ACT UP really reclaimed the idea of community back from the notion of  “abstract, universalized community that does not and cannot exist.” Activism became about the people who were affected being active, not just some abstract group of people. The involvement of those who had contracted HIV being so involved in finding a solution for it is revolutionary.
Overall, I found the way that community was actualised in the ACT UP movement to be revolutionary in it’s molecular and divided nature; there is something to be said for such diverse political and social groups (lesbians, gay men, HIV+, feminists, black rights leaders) branding together first over one issue (the immediate epidemic of AIDS), and later over broader ones (the foundations that were laid by ACT UP which carried through into the 1990’s in relation to a revamped health care system entirely), and I think it can be seen as an interesting example of the possibilities of such molecular activist communities.
If you haven’t seen United in Anger, I would definitely suggest it. I have in no way done its breadth justice in this short article, but I do suggest having a look at the film, which can be found here. (Archival webpage: great resources here!) (Current webpage)

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