| Religion and Media
| Media and Movement Building:The Five Best Strategies of the Last Fifty YearsA Report for Auburn Media
Media and Movement Building:
The Five Best Strategies
of the Last Fifty Years
A Report for Auburn Media
CASE STUDY 3
Militant Tactics of ACT UP and Operation Rescue:
(How Far) Should One Cross the Line?
Some organizations use shocking graphics and militant tactics to communicate about their cause—they create media, attract media coverage, and leverage public pressure. Two such organizations—ACT UP, and Operation Rescue—were founded within a year of each other, each responding to what in both instances was likened to genocide. ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, held its first protest against government inaction on the AIDS epidemic in 1987. That same year, Operation Rescue had its first of many “rescues,” in which participants would block access to an abortion clinic. What did these organizations really achieve? Through direct action, compelling messages, and arresting visuals, these two organizations raised public awareness, changed public policy (not always in ways they intended), and mobilized people who would be active for many years to come. However, critics say that both organizations may also have also alienated moderates, and given a bad name to the larger movements against AIDS and against abortion. Both organizations still exist, but have faded. Each movement began with what they saw as a grave injustice.
The Birth of a Movement
In 1986, the number of AIDS cases in the United States surpassed 30,000—the great majority of whom were gay or bisexual men, and more than half of whom had already died. President Reagan had not said a single word in public about the epidemic (and would not until April of the next year). In the summer of 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Bowers v. Hardwick, upheld a lower court decision that criminalized oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults of the same gender. (Gould, 137) AIDS was being all but ignored by the federal government, and gay people’s sexual behavior was criminalized on the federal level. Such was the context for the creation of a new and more aggressive approach to AIDS activism. Playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer gave a March 1987 speech at the LGBT Center in New York City, in which he asked two thirds of the room to stand up, and announced they would be dead within five years. Drawing from an essay he’d written, Kramer added, “If my speech tonight doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If what you’re hearing doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men will have no future here on earth. How long does it take before you get angry and fight back?” (Mass, 49-50) He called for an AIDS organization that would be “devoted solely to political action.” (Cohen, 15) His speech helped crystallize the anger many people had been feeling, and built on years of activism by other groups, says Maxine Wolfe. Soon after, ACT UP was created. Elsewhere, Kramer wrote, “The worst years of the AIDS pandemic lie ahead of us… There are millions of us yet to die.” (Gould, 147)
Feeling the urgency of Kramer’s cry, the organization adopted some militant tactics, rhetoric, and graphics. The organization made an explicit link to Nazi persecution of homosexuals in its most famous and widely-used image, a pink triangle with the phrase “Silence = Death” below it. The New York City chapter, the first and always the largest, and the some 80 other chapters that sprouted up elsewhere around the country, were known for such tactics as disrupting public meetings, throwing condoms at opponents, and putting up “bloody” red hand-prints around cities. (Cohen, 20). Other graphics from ACT UP, Gran Fury, and other activist groups included “Read My Lips” t-shirts of same-sex couples kissing, and provocative posters.
Taking it to the Streets
The organization was perhaps most famous for its loud, disruptive protests, at which activists might stage a “die-in” where people lay down and other activists drew chalk lines around their bodies, or block traffic and commit other acts of (mostly symbolic) civil disobedience. (Cohen, 23). The group’s first demonstration was March 24, 1987 on Wall Street (additional information here), and was directed at the FDA’s “unholy” relationship with drug companies working on AIDS treatments, most especially Burroughs Wellcome. (Cohen, 16) The “Seize the FDA” demonstration in October 1988 brought about almost immediate changes in the drug approval process. (Cohen, 30) At the May 1990 “Storm the NIH” demonstration, protestors demanded—with some success—that the agency widen its medical investigations to include other kinds of AIDS drugs. (Cohen, 31) The 1989 “Stop the Church” demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City generated the most controversy, alienating even some LGBT activists. At that demonstration, over the church’s stand against condom distribution, over 4,000 people protested inside and outside the church during Mass, and at least one protestor was alleged to have desecrated a communion wafer (others say he simply refused communion). In September of 1989, protestors chained themselves to the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange. At the January 1991 “Day of Desperation,” protestors jammed into New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, where they hung banners decrying spending on the Persian Gulf War instead of on AIDS treatment and health care. (The night before, an ACT UP member had jumped on camera during the broadcast of the CBS Evening News, saying that not enough press attention had been paid to AIDS.) And, partly in response to ACT UP’s protests, the Centers for Disease Control started, in August 1991, the gradual process of amending its definition of AIDS, allowing more women suffering solely from opportunistic infections to have access to clinical drug trials and other benefits. (Cohen, 32)
However loud or out-of-control the demonstrations may have seemed to outsiders, they had a purpose and were planned accordingly. ACT UP’s goal was to end the epidemic, and members wanted existing institutions to reform their practices to that end. (Cohen, 29) Much of their work went on behind the scenes. There were dozens of committees in the New York City chapter and elsewhere, focusing on such issues as education and outreach, treatment and data, access to clinical trials, and homeless people with AIDS. (Cohen, 16) ACT UP drew on the skills (design, organizing, etc.) and resources (money, connections) of its members. Many ACT UP members were white men, who, while not necessarily uniform in their politics, were used to having resources and political access. As Michelangelo Signorile said in 1989 Spin magazine interview, “We’re from the system. We’re gay, but we are running companies, we are working for corporations, we are working for medical facilities, we are legal people. In a way, we’re the same system that we’re fighting.” (Cohen, 38)
The Decline and Legacy of ACT UP
By the mid-1990s, ACT UP had largely declined in membership. (Cohen, 268) Many activists died. Some became burnt out. New drugs were developed, and the number of AIDS deaths started to go down. (Cohen, 63-65). Larry Kramer says he has “no doubt” that many drugs were developed and released under the pressure of ACT UP, and that constituted the organization’s “greatest achievement.” The evidence of “genocide” that many gay men had seen less than a decade before—the awful and endless parade of deaths, the government indifference or outright hostility—had seemed to diminish. The situation no longer felt so urgent, perhaps precisely because ACT UP had achieved some of its goals. It got representatives placed in various government committees, helped effect changes in corporate and public policy, and not least of all energized a new generation of activists. And some argue that, while the group’s militancy may have alienated some people, it may have also made other more moderate AIDS groups seem reasonable by comparison. The latest figures, published in 2010, indicate that over 30 million people now live with HIV worldwide, which seems to confirm the rage and urgency with which Larry Kramer spoke in the 1980s. But AIDS activists weren’t the only ones who saw a crisis of sorts at that time.
“Act Like It’s Murder”: Operation Rescue
“If you believe abortion is murder, then act like it’s murder,” implored anti-abortion activist Randall Terry, in mobilizing protestors to stop what he saw as the murder of over one million nascent lives per year in the U.S. alone. Consistent with that belief, Terry founded an organization called Operation Rescue, of which he later wrote, “I am convinced that the American people will begin to see the pro-life movement seriously when they see good, decent citizens peacefully sitting around the abortion mills, risking arrest and prosecution as Martin Luther King, Jr. did.” (Steiner, 7) Just eight months after ACT UP’s first protest, Operation Rescue staged its first major action. In November 1987, Terry and six others blocked access to an abortion clinic in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. (Ginsburg, 227) The group was formally incorporated in the spring of 1988, and continued to block access to other abortion clinics.
The ultimate goal of these blockades was to end what members often described as a Holocaust—the abortion of untold numbers of fetuses, as made legal by the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. Fifteen years of legislative and legal action since Roe had accomplished little, leaving activists like Randall Terry feeling the need for more drastic measures. And so each protest, or “rescue,” had an immediate objective, as Philip Lawler says in his book on the group. “The goal of a Rescue is to stop abortions—not by influencing legislation, or swaying the courts, but by preventing the particular killings that were scheduled on that specific day at that specific facility.” (Lawler, 60)
Whether or not the rescues really sought to attract press coverage, they certainly did. The organization gained national notoriety with the “Siege of Atlanta” in 1988, demonstrating during the Democratic National Convention in that city. As many as 100 other loosely affiliated chapters sprang up across the country, each holding “rescues” of the same sort, blocking access to clinics and getting arrested for trespass. According to Operation Rescue figures, by 1990 over 35,000 people had been jailed and another 16,000 had risked arrest in rescues. Rescuers could take on one of several roles at the actions: Some rescuers would block the doors, others might chain themselves to the doors; some would act as “sidewalk counselors” to intervene with women going into the clinic (regardless of whether there was a blockade); and “prayer supporters” would pray for the success of the mission. All participants would take a pledge of non-violence. (Steiner, 61-63) Their posters and placards often featured graphic images of abortions, and their slogans and speeches were similarly provocative.
The Organization Reaches its Peak
The climax was the so-called “Summer of Mercy” in 1991, which consisted of six weeks of protests at three abortion clinics in Wichita, Kansas, including a clinic run by Dr. George Tiller, one of the few places nationwide that provided late-term abortions. (Tiller was murdered in the foyer of his Wichita church in 2009.) The actions resulted in 2,600 arrests, and substantial press coverage in papers around the country. (Ginsburg, 228) The “Summer of Mercy” campaign was the organization’s biggest action, and some even called it the “last stand.” Other rescues continued to take place in the early 1990s, such as the “Spring of Life” in Buffalo, New York, and other actions in Baton Rouge and Houston. (Steiner, 10) Rescuers in California were especially active. But by 1993, Operation Rescue had become what one of its leaders called “only a shell of its former organization.” (Steiner, 11) As Faye Ginsburg explains, the decline happened in part because Randall Terry had stepped down as its head and the organization became decentralized. External factors played a role, too. Pro-choice organizations filed lawsuits that led to hefty fines against clinic protestors. President Clinton beefed up prosecutions of those who blocked clinic access. And increased violence at abortion clinics prompted the U.S. Congress to pass the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994, making it a federal crime to block access to clinics. The murder of abortion providers and clinic workers also created a “credibility problem” for the organization. By 1995, the New York Times declared the organization “virtually dead.” (Ginsburg, 228)
Although the organization is no longer as active or attention-grabbing as it once was, it does still exist, and its Web site claims victories in putting many California abortion clinics out of business. Faye Ginsburg weighs the organization’s accomplishments and failures during its heyday. Operation Rescue had an “irreversible impact,” she writes. “Terry revived long-term right to life loyalists, who had become discouraged at the minimal gains of fifteen years of legislative efforts, and delivered thousands of new activists to the cause.” (Ginsburg, 242) However, “for most pro-life moderates, direct action and violence undercut one of the larger objectives of the right-to-life movement: to gain credibility for their position with the American people in order to gain support for a constitutional amendment banning abortion.” (Ginsburg, 238)
Even if Operation Rescue activists failed to turn public opinion in their direction, rescuers saw themselves as fulfilling a moral obligation—a divine call—to act. “When people ask after a rescue whether we achieved our goal, it is hard to answer,” said Randall Terry. “Most of the babies usually die after we are removed. Not all of them, but most of them. Were we trying to save a few? Absolutely not—we were trying to save all the babies scheduled to die there that day. Well, then, does that mean we failed? No, because we were really trying to be obedient to the Lord, who asked us to rescue those babies. And if we were obedient, then the results are in God’s hands, not ours.” (Steiner, 72)
Cohen, Peter F. (1998) Love and Anger: Essays on AIDS, Activism, and Politics.
Ginsburg, Faye. (1998) “Rescuing the Nation: Operation Rescue and the Rise of Anti-Abortion Militance,” in Abortion Wars: A Half-Century of Struggle, 1950-2000, ed. Rickie Sollinger.
Gould, Deborah. (2009) Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS.
Lawler, Philip F. (1992) Operation Rescue: A Challenge to the Nation’s Conscience.
Mass, Lawrence D. (ed.) (1997) We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer.
Steiner, Mark Allen. (2006) The Rhetoric of Operation Rescue: Projecting the Christian Pro-Life Message.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Is militancy only sparked by a crisis, or a life-and-death cause? Do we have a life-and-death cause today?
Does militant action effectively push the envelope for more mainstream activism?
What was the context for the creation of ACT UP and Operation Rescue, and how does it differ from today’s context for the movement for LGBT equality?
Do we need street protests today, or should organizing be more based in media?
ACT UP and Operation Rescue arguably created spectacles, or they engineered media events. What are the benefits and risks of such a strategy?