Surviving a Plague, Building a Movement
by Chanel Dubofsky
I have this memory of me, age 8, refusing for some reason to go to the bathroom before we left the house to go to the mall, and my mother saying, “Fine. You’ll have to go in the mall and you’ll get AIDS from the toilet and die in six months.”
I’m pretty sure I went to the bathroom only at our house from then on, and not in strange, unsupervised toilets, but I don’t actually remember. It seemed like a lot of people were scared then, an insane, unsubstantiated variety of fear. Maybe you got AIDS from kissing, maybe you got it from open sores, maybe from sharing glasses? Maybe it would kill you in six months, maybe in a year. I don’t remember knowing that gay men were getting it, I don’t think I knew what a gay man was. I just knew from the news that was filtered through my mother that people were dying.
Last week, I saw How to Survive a Plague
, a documentary about the formation and work of ACT-UP
(AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), the international direct action advocacy group that formed in New York City in 1987 in response to AIDS, which was rampaging through the gay community without any response from the government.
I went to see the film largely because the hosts of my favorite independent political podcast
raved about it, and because I imagined myself drawing all sorts of exciting parallels between ACT UP and Occupy Wall Street. ACT UP and Occupy have worked together and informed one another on issues of direct action and movement building.
I was so excited to analyze things, the thought of it made my skin prickle. Instead, I made awkward snuffling sounds and swiped at my eyes for two hours. People around me in the theatre cried openly. I won’t spoil it for you, it’s a film you should see faster than immediately. How to Survive a Plague is devastating, but for me, it was not a piece that neutered my ability to sort through my thoughts, which is an invaluable characteristic of a political documentary.
The film lays bare how much of the work of ACT-UP wasn’t discussed in the corporate media. There’s one particular action that occurred in front of the White House, while folks milled around at the AIDS quilt, that seems to have escaped the attention of the press. The actions of the group stopped getting coverage after a while, similar to what happens to the Occupy movement (“Is that even still a thing?”).
As I said before, at the height of the AIDS crisis, I was too young and too generally frightened of the world to have any critical thought about it, and so a lot of my experience of seeing in this film was about feeling deeply regretful for something I could not really have controlled. Another piece of it was realizing again, in a more robust way, how much of the AIDS crisis was, and continues to be motivated by homophobia. That might seem obvious, and it is, but I’m grateful for it. The point of art, after all, is to rouse people, even if they think they’ve been riled up enough to last a thousand years.