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Fight Back, Fight AIDS

By 1987, more than 46,000 Americans had become infected with HIV and more than 13,000 had died from AIDS. In response to this devastation, a new movement emerged led by people with AIDS: the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). They fought to be included in the scientific process, demanded the release of new drugs, advocated for an expanded definition of the disease, and insisted that other systemic inequalities could no longer be ignored. Using artistically striking, media savvy tactics, these activists harnessed their anger to fundamentally change the course of the AIDS epidemic.

  • Protester in foreground placing protest mock gravestone in a field with other protest mock gravestones.

    Protestors in front of the James A. Shannon Building, National Institutes of Health, 1990

    Courtesy Donna Binder

    In 1990, ACT UP protesters occupied the National Institutes of Health campus, calling on scientists to develop more drugs for people with AIDS and the federal government to disseminate drugs equitably. Their efforts convinced policy makers to change regulations, which resulted in a new regimen of drugs used to treat AIDS made available in 1996.

  • Four police officers stand facing away from protesters lying down in front of a building.

    Police officers stand watch over activists at Storm the NIH protest, May 21, 1990

    Courtesy Donna Binder

    In one of its most dramatic and effective national protests, ACT UP chapters from across the country occupied the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on May 21, 1990. During Storm the NIH, protestors staged a “die in” and plastered buildings with signs and banners to illustrate their demands for governmental action on AIDS treatment. Responding to a wave of activism, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH, initiated changes in the testing of AIDS drugs.

  • Group of protesters, holding hands and holding signs, most notably one in the middle which reads SILENCE=DEATH.

    Protestors in front of the Department of Health and Human Services, during the national campaign to change the definition of AIDS, October 2, 1990

    Courtesy Donna Binder

    With chapters across the country, ACT UP held thousands of demonstrations between 1987 and 1996, including one at the Department of Health and Human Services to insist that women with AIDS receive care and treatment. Their actions transformed how scientists and politicians responded to the AIDS crisis.

  • Grey representation of the symbol for women with two snakes entwined around the base. Over the image in black text is “WOMEN DON’T GET AIDS. THEY JUST DIE FROM IT.”

    Poster for the Department of Health and Human Services demonstration designed by ACT UP/DC Women’s Committee, 1990

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    In October 1990, ACT UP descended upon Washington and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, carrying signs that demanded the formal definition of AIDS change to include women. Excluded from the diagnosis of having AIDS, women could not access potentially lifesaving care and treatment, even as they died of the disease.

  • Procession of people walking across a street on a sunny day. Some are holding umbrellas; in the foreground two men are holding a mock coffin.

    Members of ACT UP/Philadelphia hold a mock funeral march in front of the governor’s mansion, August 30, 2012

    Courtesy Joe Hermitt, © 2012 The Patriot-News. All rights reserved. Reprinted and used with permission.

    As AIDS increasingly affected people of color, gay and straight, those at the center of AIDS activism changed. In 2012, ACT UP/Philadelphia defiantly protested the state’s decision to eliminate a cash assistance program used by people living in poverty to purchase treatment medications. The chapter remains active today because it connects AIDS activism to other pressing social issues, such as access to safe housing and quality healthcare, in both the United States and around the world.