March 11, 2002
Forcing powerful institutions to address the AIDS crisis was what the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power -- ACT UP -- was all about. Its mantra, "Silence = Death," became synonymous with fighting the epidemic. "We did so much damn effective work for so long, we changed the course of the disease," said Jeff Getty, a veteran San Francisco AIDS activist.
Public health officials credit ACT UP with creating the political pressure that prompted increased research funding and faster drug approval. "Generally, they did a very important service in terms of making mainstream America aware of prevention needs," said Dr. Ronald Valdiserri, deputy chief of STDs at the CDC. But eventually, even their boldest protests failed to draw the media, and chapters that once brought 700 people to a protest dwindled to a few stalwarts. Some early members, such as Roger McFarlane, started raising money and leading HIV non-profits. ACT UP's founder, Larry Kramer, continued lobbying and created an online databank where AIDS patients can share treatment information.
Members of ACT UP/San Francisco, meanwhile, decided that the mainstream AIDS establishment is the enemy. They preach that drugs, not HIV, cause AIDS, and they believe safe sex campaigns threaten gay rights by limiting sexual freedoms. Member David Pasquarelli and his friend Michael Petrelis have been slapped with dozens of restraining orders over the past few years. Arrested in November after allegedly making a series of threatening and obscene phone calls, they have pleaded innocent to felony charges of harassment, stalking and criminally threatening AIDS researchers, public health officials and journalists. Trial is set for May.
Pasquarelli's lawyer, Mark Vermeulen, said his client admits making phone calls, called "zaps," to raise awareness about such things as a study showing a rise in syphilis cases among city's gay men, but his client did not stalk or threaten anyone. Others disagree with their tactics. "You can't just go around frightening the hell out of people," said McFarlane, who attended ACT UP's first meeting. You "cannot intimidate or silence people who hold different viewpoints. That's what America is all about. That's why we get to act up." Said journalist and former member Tim Kingston, "They have made it impossible for people to get information to save their own lives, and that is criminal."