ACT UP Turns 30, Uses Same Tactics To Boost Resistance Movement Against President Trump Veteran activists who helped make ACT UP and its affiliates a potent force in the fight against AIDS are now helping train activists opposed to the policies of the Trump administration.

ACT UP At 30: Reinvigorated For Trump Fight

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT UP, started as a protest group in the 1980s. It was aggressive and persistent, and that paid off. It helped change U.S. government policy on AIDS. Today, some ACT UP members are helping guide a new generation of activists. This time they're fighting the Trump administration. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: ACT UP never settled for trying to push change quietly or behind the scenes. They were loud, demanding and in your face, like the time members engulfed Senator Jesse Helms' suburban Virginia home with a 35-foot canvas prophylactic...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The means for the message - a giant condom.

WESTERVELT: ...Or the time ACT UP occupied the National Institutes of Health, pushing for change in AIDS research, funding and clinical trials.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: AIDS activists stormed the government's premier disease research center.

WESTERVELT: On an NIH entranceway, activists unfurled a giant banner with their logo and slogan, silence equals death.

AVRAM FINKELSTEIN: My name is Avram Finkelstein, the snarky Machiavellian dude behind the silence equals death image.

WESTERVELT: That slogan, black and white with a pink triangle, helped change the way the world looked at AIDS. At one point, silence equals death was the most powerful protest slogan around and became an iconic backdrop to the chant act up, fight back, fight AIDS. Now 65, Finkelstein is one of those ACT UP veterans from the '80s and '90s who today is helping shepherd the new anti-Trump collective, Rise and Resist. He recently led a teach-in on design and imagery for the New York City-based group.

FINKELSTEIN: Many people are younger people who work with organizations that were formed by ACT UP or were in ACT UP themselves. All of the civil disobedience training is being done by the exact same people who did them at ACT UP. So here is this perfect cross-section of this moment.

WESTERVELT: In January, Rise and Resist did one of its first actions. Scores of members booked brunch reservations at fine restaurants at several Trump-owned properties and suddenly, over eggs benedict, began to cough and cough some more.



WESTERVELT: Protesters at what they called a cough-in held up signs - Trumpcare is making us sick. Writer David France created the book and film "How To Survive A Plague" about the AIDS crisis and ACT UP.

DAVID FRANCE: That's the kind of mediagenic action that ACT UP used to needle their opponent. And Trump is an easy target for needling. And they're working on trying to exploit that weakness of his.

WESTERVELT: While ACT UP is best known for its direct action protests, the group's real power came from its well-organized committees, says Maxine Wolfe, another veteran from ACT UP's earliest days who's now active in Rise and Resist. ACT UP had subgroups on health, research, PR and more. They did their homework, Wolfe says, and helped ACT UP create a potent inside-outside strategy, demanding a seat of power alongside politicians and Big Pharma while keeping pressure up through creative street protests. The strategy helped turn HIV from a death sentence to a manageable condition.

MAXINE WOLFE: We lobbied peoples. We did civil disobedience. The idea there was that you could use not a huge number of people but a varied playbook and would keep coming at it until we won, which we did.

WESTERVELT: Artist Avram Finkelstein says he's not against big marches like January's Women's March or the upcoming March for Science. But his lesson from ACT UP - there's tremendous power in smaller actions that can reverberate in unexpected ways.

FINKELSTEIN: Whereas if that million people were broken into small groups of four and five, think of the power that could have. Pussy Riot was four people with a boom box, and it totally changed the way we thought about Putin's administration.

WESTERVELT: David France says those who oppose the president are now trying to reinvent the ACT UP tool kit for the age of Trump and Twitter.

FRANCE: I think what they're doing, especially at Rise and Resist, is taking those tactics and strategies and bringing them to the modern era and making them appropriate for the particular struggles being faced today.

WESTERVELT: But it's not yet clear what tactics might have a real impact with a famously media-savvy mogul turned president who may be thin-skinned but knows how to punch back. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.