Rudy Giuliani got his first taste of ACT UP on his first morning as mayor when hundreds of spirited demonstrators met him outside City Hall and implored him, loudly, to make AIDS a top priority.
The new mayor didn't stop to chat. Too busy fusing, I guess. But if he had he might have noticed that while in most respects it was a typical ACT UP demo -- meaning the chants were clever, the visuals striking and the faces mostly white -- on this particular morning a rather prominent black face was in attendance. Al Sharpton told me later that his presence on the picket line marks the beginning of a "new day" in which he'll be leading his legions into the streets alongside ACT UP. If so, Monday's may have been the last "typical" AIDS demo. It wouldn't be a moment to soon.
A great flaw of AIDS activism is its overwhelming whiteness in the face of an epidemic that is anything but. People of color make up 70 percent of adults and 90 percent of children with AIDS in this city, but blacks and Latinos rarely take to the street about that. Squeaky wheelwise, it's one reason minority AIDS issues get less grease. This imbalance of activism is partly because, for many minorities, AIDS isn't a unique disaster, just one more debacle, and partly because AIDS activism, like the epidemic itself, began among white gays. As the virus has reached out to people of color, activists have not, at least not very successfully.
"Part of it," says Sharpton, "was a matter of ACT UP not knowing who to reach out to." True. But part of it was also the fact that whenever ACT UP did reach out, few prominent blacks reached back. That's easy to understand in the case of conservative clerics uncomfortable with gays and IV drug users. It's harder to understand among progressive activists like Sharpton himself.
For years his demos careened past ACT UP's like ships in the night, never connecting even though Sharpton was protesting pathologies of prejudice that have an enormous impact on lesbians and gays, and ACT UP was fighting health injustices that have a disproportionate impact on minorities. So if he and ACT UP finally do come together, it would do more than energize the weary AIDS movement or help stem racial balkanization among progressive New Yorkers. It would also help empower legions of minority AIDS workers in the fields of education, treatment and prevention, heroic folks who still get comparatively little respect within their own communities. And it would bring minorities into AIDS activism as numerical, and therefore political, equals.
Sharpton's message of self-empowerment is that blacks can't wait to be invited to join the AIDS activist club: "We're losing people in disproportionate numbers," he says, "and it's _our_ responsibility to be out there in disproportionate numbers." Nor does he want a separate minority ACT UP, envisioning instead "one big movement, to attack AIDS as a universal issue that has been universally ignored."
An alliance between Sharpton and ACT UP would certainly increase visibility for minority AIDS issues. And if both groups found themselves marching on the same picket lines, it might, God help us, erode racism among white gays and homophobia among blacks, especially if gays began reciprocating by turning out for Sharpton's own rallies.
Not all activists would cheer, of course. Some white gays will never get past the Tawana Brawley episode; some blacks will never forgive ACT UP for the disruption of mass at St. Pat's. But most ACT UPers I spoke with seemed thrilled about working with Sharpton. "I don't know if I'm actually going to become a regular ACT UP member myself," Sharpton told me, "but from now on I intend to be acting up." He may not know it, but given ACT Up's whoever-shows-up tradition, he already is a member. And given the demographics of AIDS, a potential leader as well.