Peter Staley was one of the driving forces in ACT UP, the pioneering 1980s-90s AIDS street activist group that did outrageous things like covering the home of right-wing Senator Jesse Helms in a giant condom to push for better HIV/AIDS research, services and laws.
These days, in addition to being a major figure in How to Survive a Plague, David France’s epic new account of the raging ACT UP years, he’s been teaching activism 101 to Harvard undergrads.
Here, he gets super-specific about what activists will have to do to gain traction against Trump in the years ahead, especially to protect health care. (For one thing, he says, stop wasting your energy on turning the Electoral College!)
“The necessity of large demos is going to be a key component of anti-Trumpism,” he says. To those ends, he urges everyone who can — woman, man or otherwise — to join him at the Women’s March on D.C. on Jan. 21. And he stresses that public protest usually doesn’t entail getting arrested — though if you plan to, work in a coalition to do it the smart way and make it count. Staley certainly plans to.
If you really wanna change something, you better know the subject backwards and forwards.
Some highlights from the interview:
“ACT UP was known for doing its homework and becoming experts in the issues that we were fighting for. If you really wanna change something, you better know the subject backwards and forwards.”
“We need to pick the right targets. In a sense, ACT UP had it easy because we were largely just fighting the AIDS epidemic and our issues were pretty obvious and our targets were within a narrow range. What we’re facing now is an overwhelming number of possible targets and it’s confusing, it feels overwhelming, it boggles the mind, it makes you feel almost defeated before you start. So that’s gonna be a real challenge. We have to look at what’s in the range of the possible. A lot of the early targeting since the election, demanding recounts or an Electoral College revolt, is pretty much doomed to fail.”
“I plan on going to the Women’s March in D.C. I think everyone who can go should go. What a statement it will be if we can get enough people down there that it instantly becomes known as the largest gathering in D.C.’s history. To have that happen on the first day of a presidency, Americans coming together to say, ‘This president does not represent us, we will not stand silently by for this scam artist.’ It will be a sign to the rest of the world that this is a very, very different game we’re facing.”
Everyone has to add a little bit of activism to their life. I’m not saying you have to get arrested — I’m talking about legal demonstrations.
“Republicans are saying that they want to ‘repeal and replace’ Obamacare, but the ‘replace’ stuff is bullshit. Medicare and Medicaid have huge constituencies relying on them and we can use those bodies at protests. We need some sort of Standing Rock action on health care that’s persistent and can grow over time. I don’t know whether the best target is Paul Ryan’s house outside D.C. with hundreds of people legally protesting and some kind of legal encampment where they can stay every night. That’s something I’m thinking about.”
“We’re in this mess today because too many of us sat on the sidelines. Everyone has to add a little bit of activism to their life. I’m not saying you have to get arrested — I’m talking about legal demonstrations. We just need you to show up at one or two huge anti-Trump rallies every year. We’re gonna needs tens of thousands of bodies in the street for this fight. Follow what’s happening online by reading quality sources like the Atlantic, the New York Times, Democracy Now. Get over your bitching about the Times. They are still doing the most hard-hitting journalism in the country and you should be paying for your subscription.”
“Give a small monthly donation to the ACLU and also to a smaller direct-action group like Health GAP. Local civil-disobedience groups really need your help to pull of their actions.”
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