From The Heart
Benita Roth On The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA
Successful direct action and protest are key mobilizing forces of change, and in this new era where resistance needs to be part of our everyday lives, stories like that of ACT UP/LA become increasingly important. How did these organizations mobilize in ways that made a difference? What’s happened to anti-AIDS direct action since? Is there a difference between the effectiveness of advocacy and direct action?
Benita Roth, author of Life and Death in ACT UP/LA sat down with PinkPlayMags to discuss the book and what it meant to participate in ACT UP/LA then, as well as what lessons the organization has for current social movements.
PinkPlayMags: What made you want to write this book?
Benita Roth: The immediate answer is that I’m a political sociologist, and I had been active in ACT UP/LA in the early 1990s while in graduate school. After I moved to New York state to take a job, I continued going back to LA to interview activists after the group died, and see how and what they were doing. The larger answer is that the 25 years later, the accomplishment of direct action anti-AIDS protest is largely lost. That story needs to be told, because it is a story of success in making social change.
PPM: How did you feel being part of the community without necessarily coming forth as such while researching it? (at least this was how I understood the context of the research taking place while the organization’s history was unfolding)
BR: I joined ACT UP/LA’s Women’s Caucus at first, because I was writing a dissertation about racial/ethnic divisions in second wave feminism in the US, and because I was taking an ethnography course. I did disclose my status pretty quickly to the women in the Women’s Caucus, and they were fairly nonchalant about it, and in fact one of them had been taking notes on the previous meeting for a class she was taking. I did not formally disclose to the larger “General Body,” but was in fact aware of two other UCLA graduate students who were researching the group, both men. As I explain in the book, I used the logic that the Women’s Caucus used, which is that the General Body did not necessarily need to approve their efforts and agenda. While I don’t think I did anything wrong, if I had to do it again, I would likely disclose to everyone all the time about the fact that I was a researcher. I’m currently doing research on a grassroots organization here in Binghamton, Truth Pharm (www.truthpharm.org), that is fighting for greater recognition of and resources to counter the opioid epidemic in Upstate New York where I live, and disclosed my status immediately to the founder and volunteers there.
PPM: What was your experience of the AIDS crisis?
BR: This is kind of a broad question — I think it is meant to get to something “personal” on my part — so I will just answer like this: the personal is political. The AIDS crisis fundamentally changed our ideas as a society about LGBT issues, and our vision of the LGBT community. It also furthered the change that was happening, begun with the women’s health movement, about the relationship of the public to science and the medical profession, democratizing the relationship between the medical establishment and us patients. That these changes have not been as sweeping as some of us wanted doesn’t negate the fact that they took place. While there is still work to do on LGBT issues and on democratizing healthcare, it is the case that we think very differently about who is a legitimate part of society and what kind of care they deserve because of the activism that countered the AIDS crisis.
PPM: The book has quoted community members and therefore kept this history in their voice, which is important. When chronicling or studying LGBTQ2+ movements in the community, why is this in some ways a necessary corollary to theorizing/theory?
BR: As a sociologist, I don’t know any way to make theory other than in dialogue with empirical reality (and I do believe there is such a thing, no matter how imperfectly we apprehend it). That’s my training, anyway.
PPM: While reading, I couldn’t help but see many of the community’s current struggles set against another set of battles being won in various systems and structures, regarding racialized groups not always feeling welcome. Do you think that there is anything we can learn from the life and death of ACT UP/LA as it may apply to current struggles?
BR: In the book, I argue that large-scale structural divisions and inequalities are necessarily going to affect activists, even if they are struggling to break down those divisions and rectify those inequalities. What I would say to actors in current struggles would depend on what the struggle was, but I think we need to start with the recognition that we all lead intersectional lives about how inequalities buttress each other and created lived, visceral differences among people. What that means to me is that folks in the fray should always be actively conscious of how they construct solidarity, who is included, whose voices are excluded, who gets listened to, etc. That kind of self-examination is hard work when you are trying to accomplish social change, and groups can fall into paralysis if they don’t keep a balance going between internal self-examination and outside-oriented action. For many years, the ACT UPs, including ACT UP/LA managed some sort of balance, although as I argue in the book, inequalities of race/ethnicity, gender, and even sexuality were part of the groups’ internal struggles.
PPM: What lessons [d]oes the death of ACT UP/LA have for community organizers today?
BR: I think community organizers have to think intersectionally, and really, I think they do for the most part, and increasingly so do a lot of people — the term “intersectional” is in the process of getting mainstreamed in the press, some 25 or so years after critical race legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined it. The best community organizers have been thinking intersectionally even before they term came along — they’ve been looking at how inequalities interact with each other in shaping lives. In the US right now, there has been an explosion of grassroots responses to the policies of the Trump presidency — for example, the Indivisible movement (see https://www.indivisibleguide.com/) — and I think one thing that organizers will naturally want to do is network with folks on the ground and on the Internet who are seeking social change. ACT UP/LA grew out of networks of progressive LGBT (and other) people in LA, and it was sustained in part by those networks. The Internet simultaneously makes networking easier, and lowers the stakes of belonging to grassroots resistance. So smart community organizers will figure out the balance between web activism and boots-on-the-ground activism for getting the job done for their communities.
PPM: Do you believe that direct action keeps a group relevant or successful? I felt while reading that it was only once the group moved from direct action to advocacy, that ACT UP/LA’s membership and efficacy shifted.
BR: I don’t think ACT UP/LA moved from direct action to advocacy. I think it always had folks in it interested in both things, and some individuals who moved effortlessly between those modes of activism. Some didn’t. But I didn’t see ACT UP/LA switching modes of resistance so much as losing steam due to a variety of factors that reduced membership. I also don’t think that “direct action” is necessarily opposed to advocacy, assuming that what is meant by “advocacy” is more routine political participation. Direct action is a mode of resistance. It isn’t the only mode of resistance, even if it is (usually) the sexiest kind, with the best posters, t-shirts and after-demo parties. There’s pretty clear evidence that social movement success is almost always a combination of pressure from the outside and inside, through routine and disruptive measures. Community members should use the tactics that they feel will work to solve problems.
PPM: What was your favorite part of researching and writing this book?
BR: It’s hard to choose a favorite part of the research, because first, my participant observation with ACT UP/LA transformed me, and that was before I thought I was going to write a book on the group. Second, I am a history nerd, and love combing through archives, even uncatalogued ones, which I did a lot of for the book. But I would have to say that I love doing interviews the most. There is just something great about hearing people talk with passion about what they did, and what they continue to do, for social change. I love how expressive people are, how incisive, how funny, how filled with wisdom. I came out of every interview satisfied and with more hope for a progressive future.
AIDS Walk Toronto happens Sunday September 10th
About the Author
Cheryl Costello is the founder of The Finding Hearts Project, also writes for the Brampton Focus and formerly wrote at The Loving Instant. She has also worked with Fortune 500 and Financial Post 500 companies to bring greater attention, awareness and action for LGBTQ+ issues, giving the community a powerful voice. She has conducted workshops for LGBTQ+ students on the power of reclaiming their power through owning the stories they tell and was also a Keynote speaker at a Toronto World Pride event in 2014. If she isn't writing or organizing in the community, she's out with her camera, wandering a bookstore or out hiking among trees and water. Have a question you want to see answered on the blog? Stop by her page on Instagram, join in the good vibes and send her a message: @cherylalisoncostello