Excerpted from LET THE RECORD SHOW: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 by Sarah Schulman. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux May 18th 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Schulman. All rights reserved.
The most influential cohering experience in values inside ACT UP that almost everyone shared was civil disobedience training, and thousands of people experienced it together. Although based in an applied practice with tips and guidelines, all of the instructions were rooted in a very articulate and deep ethical belief system about community. The trainers became a moral center of this culture, profoundly influential on the movement as a whole, and specifically consequential on the individuals who shared this preparation and subsequent experience of nonviolent defiance.
Jamie Bauer and fifteen to twenty others trained over a thousand ACT UPers in nonviolent civil disobedience over the six or seven years that ACT UP was most active. (They resumed the trainings as part of Rise and Resist during the Trump years.) Jamie went to MIT to study civil engineering, architecture, and urban planning, and earned a master’s in transportation, which had a one-in-eight women-to-men ratio. Boston had a huge lesbian community, and so Jamie came out pretty quickly. In 1981, they returned to New York to work for the MTA, eventually as director of subway schedules. About two decades after their time in ACT UP, Jamie started to live as nonbinary.
In the early 1980s, Jamie joined Women’s Pentagon Action, a mobilization to create a large women’s peace action directly confronting the Pentagon that included Grace Paley, Vera Williams, Eva Kollisch, Donna Gould, Sharon Kleinbaum, Toni Fitzpatrick, Laura Flanders, and Harriet Hirschorn, among others. Jamie learned a lot about organizing, dealing with the police, insisting on the right to take space, and just everything about doing politics on the street.
Another trainer, BC Craig, lived at the Seneca Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice for a year. “When I came to ACT UP,” BC said, “it was a revelation to me… Having spent years and years in activism where it was like—Let’s put on a demo! Okay. If everybody brings their own poster board, then all we have to do is pay for the markers, or something like that—was about the kind of budget we were talking about. And early in the first fall that I was with ACT UP, they were working on a CDC action in Atlanta. And it was, Let’s fly a hundred people to the CDC so we can have an action there. And I was like, Are you serious? You’re seriously going to fly people? And then put them up in hotels? And then pay per diems for them?”
Jamie recalled that a lot of men initially came to ACT UP because it was the first time in their life that their white male privilege wasn’t working for them, and they were outraged that the government wasn’t taking it seriously, and that they couldn’t get the drugs. They couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t believe that other people didn’t think their lives were worth taking extraordinary steps to save. Jamie observed that some of these people had a hard time making the connections to others who didn’t have that same privilege. But everyone in ACT UP knew people who were sick and dying, and, particularly in the beginning, when a lot of people didn’t know their HIV status, no one knew who could be next. “So there was a certain emotionalism about it that was very different from [the] Women’s Pentagon Action.”
Influenced by the writings of Barbara Deming, Jamie picked up the concept that people have a right to free speech and freedom of assembly and should not have to ask permission for it. And if the state wanted to arrest us for it, that was their business, but the people were not going to ask the state’s permission. So it was nonviolent civil disobedience rooted in an insistence on people protecting their rights by using them, and not letting the government take those rights.
When they first came to ACT UP, Jamie found it all very exciting. People were so charged up and just wanted to demonstrate, demonstrate, demonstrate. ACT UP would schedule five demonstrations in a week, and then the members would go to all of them. But Jamie found that they didn’t know anything about demonstrating. For example, at the first Wall Street demo, ACT UP gave the police a list of the seventeen people who were going to be arrested, and each person who was going to be arrested wore an armband so that the police wouldn’t accidentally take the wrong person. Jamie felt that this was overly orchestrated and made it impossible for anybody else to try to jump in. Jamie called this “Celebrity CD [civil disobedience]. They didn’t want three hundred people, at that point, necessarily doing CD. They wanted a couple of name people, with recognition so that would be what would be in the press.”
Jamie had a particular commitment to a concept of safety. There were people who didn’t understand issues of public safety, personal safety, the safety of the community, or taking responsibility for one’s actions. Jamie and the other trainers really began to talk about civil disobedience as a safe tactic for making a stronger, direct, personal statement, and as a way of getting media attention. They tried to get everybody in the group trained for civil disobedience, because no one always knows when it’s going to happen, or when they’re going to want to do it. When dealing with the police, no organizers can guarantee people’s safety; there are a lot of things that can make it physically safer than just haphazardly running out into the street.
There were some situations in ACT UP when Jamie saw people lose it. But the group had enough mechanisms to pull them back in before it got out of hand. In a less disciplined group, Jamie felt, there would have been some violent actions. But in ACT UP, even with people kicking over police barricades, or jumping through a line of police officers to join a demonstration, there was no violence against the police. In one case, Jamie saw someone actually shoving a cop at a level that could get him a felony arrest. The ACT UP marshals were able to surround the person and get him back in. They physically engaged him and calmed him down.
“I turned to the police officer and I said, He’s with us. I saw what he did, we’ll talk to him. And I turned around and was like, What’s going on? And you just talk to the person and try to get them to engage with you . . . Even in situations where you might have hecklers, what we would try to do is get some marshals to talk to the hecklers, so that the people protesting wouldn’t stop protesting to focus on the hecklers, and that would defuse some tension. We tried to get people to not be provoked into doing things that they would regret . . . If someone in a group stands up and says, Let’s charge the barricade! that you don’t get up and charge the barricade. You say, Well, why should we? What’s the pros and what’s the cons? I don’t really feel like charging the barricade, to defuse the situation, because you don’t want a police provocateur or anybody else [to] be able to lead a whole group into doing something like that.”
When the police would bring horses into a demonstration, running away creates panic, so people had to be trained. Although it is counterintuitive, sitting down is safe if done in a group. “If you run away—well, who gets left behind? Well, the people who can’t run fast—the people who are older or sicker or are just too dazed to figure out what they should do. And so you leave your most vulnerable people behind, to the police.”
Jamie believes that it is absolutely critical to establish an affinity group structure from a safety perspective, “so that someone knows who you are, what you’re wearing, where you were arrested, who to contact if anything happens. They know that you went into police custody, and they know when you came out of police custody, so you don’t lose anybody, and everyone is tracked. And that is really important—so, if anyone gets injured, or if there’s any brutality.” A typical training would involve twenty people, fifteen of whom would decide to get arrested, a couple of whom would decide to do support, and they would become an affinity group.
“None of us were there to do the work on the cops,” said Alexis Danzig, another trainer. We were there to make sure that people were safe—not only physically safe, but also legally safe. And it took a lot of time. It was like ACT UP meetings themselves; it was like participatory democracy, in general. It’s messy; it takes a lot of time; you got to explain things three or four times; people don’t get it. So instead of going up and saying to somebody: Stop stickering that cop car; you had to explain: These are the implications of what your actions are, and—it was boring, and people didn’t listen, anyway, and—there were times when people were doing more egregious things—property-damage kind of stuff; and I’m talking about, like, spray-painting—where more people could have been implicated, and we would act, more firmly to shut that down. It was sort of businesslike—friendly and businesslike. We tried very hard not to tell people what to do.”
Gerri Wells was arrested nineteen times. Sometimes she was a little manhandled, bounced into the wagon. There would be a little hostility, a little tight on the wrists. And she knew how that all worked. But when she was getting arrested, Gerri felt that she wasn’t disrespecting the cops. Because she wasn’t there against the police. She was there to bring solutions to the problems of the AIDS crisis. Yes, officer. Okay. I’m moving. It was never, I’m angry, and fuck you, you’re a cop. That’s not where she was coming from.
Gerri is from an Irish family in the Inwood section of Manhattan. Her father was a sergeant in the New York Police Department; her mother was a medical secretary. Gerri went to the police academy and became an officer. She worked in a child abuse unit in Harlem for a number of years. Then she started a contracting business. Her brother Easton, an actor, was also gay and they would go to gay clubs together.
Around 1987, Easton was in Cabrini Hospital with AIDS, and Gerri went to visit him only to find that his tray was being left outside his room. She was outraged, but she wasn’t getting anywhere in the hospital. The nurses were too petrified to bring the tray in to him. A friend who was active in leftist politics, Michelle, said, There’s a guy named Larry Kramer who wants to start this group, and gave Gerri his number. She called him and said, Larry, what do you do with this anger? I’m really pissed off. What do I have to do, because they’re leaving his tray outside his room? It was just so unfair. And Larry said, Well, we’re meeting at the Center tomorrow night. Gerri went to the meeting, and there were only a handful of people there. It was just the beginning.
“ACT UP was like, right on time . . . I was kind of shy; and totally not into the whole group thing, myself. So when I got there, something happened, something changed in me . . . I think when you’re fighting for a member of your family or for a loved one, it changes who you are, in a way . . . I went every Monday night . . . I would teach people about how to bring police up on charges, how to get shield numbers. I’m the one that brought that into the group: Get their shield number; document everything; write it down . . . How to work the process. How not to get arrested, and how to get arrested and keep yourself safe when you see someone else getting arrested . . . Basically, you don’t want to get into a physical thing with the officer, because then the charge changes. You’re not doing civil disobedience, you’re doing something else.”
At trainings, she would talk about the penal codes and the law, do some role-playing. Suppose I’m a cop and I arrest you. What do you do, how do you act? She answered a lot of questions. People were nervous about getting arrested. Some cops were, and are, homophobic, and they couldn’t control their bias. They would take it to work with them. “And that’s where it’s a problem, because you’re arresting people, you’re dealing with all kinds of people. And a lot of people were . . . they hit them with the baton; they’d kick, accidentally trip them. It’s just rough.”
When Jamie was marshaling a demonstration, their goal was to let the police know why ACT UP was there, and what the parameters of the demonstration were. We’re going to be setting up a legal picket over here. No, we do not want barricades. No, we are not going to take barricades. If the barricades were set up when ACT UP got there, marshals would just set up in another spot, “and everyone knew that.” Jamie treated the police with respect for their personhood, but not for their authority. Jamie tried to be friendly with them, to assure them that ACT UP was perfectly capable of maintaining our own demonstration without their help, but also tried to not give them a lot of information about whether there was going to be civil disobedience, where it was going to be, whether there would be a march, and where we were going to march.
“We don’t need the police to do our demonstrations. We don’t want them there. It’s better off if they don’t come. You know, it’s 100 percent legal to do a picket without telling the police you’re going to do it. You do not have to be behind barricades; you just have to leave enough space on the street for people to walk by. And we were pretty careful when we were doing demonstrations—that if we took up more than a block to go to a second block or across the street and set up other pickets, and to try to keep everything moving.”
Gerri was on the mayor’s police council and fought for more sensitivity trainings. Once a month she would meet with Mayor Dinkins’s liaison to the LGBT community, Marjorie Hill, the director of the Anti-Violence Project; Matt Foreman; and a number of others. The police chief would sit on one end of the table and Gerri would sit on the other. “And we would lock horns constantly.” She brought examples to him. This was a case where the officer used excessive force, and it’s all documented, we have pictures of it, there’s witnesses. And he would say, Not my officers. And Gerri would say, Are you kidding? “And he would get really red.” Gerri would insist, Why can’t you just admit that there’s some bad apples in the force, and just get people sensitivity training?
She did sensitivity training at some of the local precincts. Officers used to put on rubber gloves when they were arresting people from ACT UP, assuming we all were people with AIDS and HIV, and that we could infect them simply by being arrested. Gerri would tell the police, Say whatever you want, this is all off the record. You could say whatever you want.
“And they would go off. They would say, Well, you guys went into our church. That always came up; that was always one of the first things that came up. And I said, Well, it’s my church, too. It’s not just your church . . . But they would say awful things. I never knew any dykes before, and blah blah blah. And usually, by the end . . . there would always be three or four cops that would come over to me and say, Thank you . . . There would always be one or two cops that you knew were gay. And they would come over and say, I’m so glad you came. Because that’s when the cops, they were peeing in your locker. If they thought you were gay, they would do all kinds of stuff. So they had it going on right with their fellow officers.”
After some time, Jamie observed that there were some people on the police force who understood that ACT UP was basically nonviolent. “They understood the parameters of exactly what we were going to do, and they didn’t feel a need to assert their authority in our doing what we were doing, and those were the ones we worked the best with. And there were other ones who were just like—they just couldn’t stand the fact that we wouldn’t tell them ahead of time, we wouldn’t ask for permission, and we didn’t want to talk to them when we got there, and it drove them crazy.”
“I really believe that anybody can change,” Jamie said. “They can change because they want to change, or they can change because they have to change. And first you try to persuade people to change because they want to change, [but] that’s not really why you do civil disobedience. When you want to get people to come over to your side, you talk to them, you write to them, you confront them. But there’s a certain point where they don’t want to change, but you can force them to change, and that’s where civil disobedience, I think, really comes in—to either make it impossible for them to do what they’re doing and not change, or to make them really have to face you face to face, if you can’t get into them through some other direct methods.
Civil disobedience also makes people understand the seriousness of what you’re doing. And I think CD that is the most direct, like taking over someone’s office, is a very powerful CD, as opposed to blocking traffic in front of their office building. So the more direct the action is and the closer it gets you to the person you’re trying to change, or the institution you’re trying to change, the better off you are. And the hardest thing in organizing any demonstration, whether it be a picket or a CD is, how do you get across to the people who are outside your demonstration, what it is that you are doing . . . the clarity of why you’re there and what you’re demanding, and that that has to be really simple and crystal clear, both to you and to [the public]—using props or signs or banners or whatever, to make that crystal clear, to the people you’re confronting and the people walking by you. If that’s what you want.”