When I was a kid growing up in Texas, I used to watch John Waters' hysterical film Polyester over and over. It was one of my favorite movies. Among the many sub-plots in the "odoriffic-ly" filmed black comedy... was the constant protesters marching in the front yard of the Fishpaw's lush, suburban home. In the film, the characters Francine (played by Divine) and her husband Elmer were simultaneously thrilled and aghast that there were Christian activists with signs and chants (and tomatoes) in their front yard, day and night, marching and ranting against Elmer Fispaw's local porn theater - which the protesters felt was corrupting the morals of the community's youth. The sleazy, adulterous Elmer was thrilled at all the "...free publicity!" and the overweight, fawning, doormat of a wife Francine was horrified at what her husband had caused, and angry at his encouragement of it because "...now the local women won't speak to me down at the shopping mall!" At one point, she actually goes outside to plead with the protesters by yelling through tears "...please leave me and my family alone! We're a nice family! We haven't done anything to you! Please!" only to be met with an onslaught of jeering and splatting, rotten tomatoes.
Trying to figure out exactly which character I was secretly dreaming of being as I let the film subconsciously seep into my brain over and over is hard to figure. Which did I identify with the most? The hen-pecking, snobbish, overly-moralistic protesters... forcing their value system on the entire world in lieu of saving their children's morals? The opportunistic, corrupt, toupee-wearing Elmer - who couldn't have cared less about any children (including his own) and was stubbornly and bombastically thrilled at all the attention he was getting? The entire-cake-eating, alcoholic, pathetic, Francine... who pleaded for peace... and wanted to avoid conflict in the name of her reputation, naively wanting everyone to "...please just get along?"
Despite that film portraying a kind of surreal comic reality... I nevertheless saw this kind of thing happening all around me. Especially in America. I always wondered "What would that be like?" To be protested against I mean... to have something you did rub a group of people so the wrong way that they went to the trouble to organize and carry out a formal expression of dislike towards you - with rabid flyers disseminated about you... marching in circles in front of your home or place of work... signs with your name in dripping blood letters and a picture of your head on them and a big red circle and "cross-out" sign over your face... screaming people shouting "Shame!" at you and pointing their finger as you walked past... threats left on your answering machine... rhyming clever chants about how bad you were shouted over and over... people in tears, pouring their hearts out in front of television cameras about how they hated you... print ads recruiting people to organize against you... lobbed fruits or vegetables... an effigy of you strung up and jeered at... the works. What would you feel? Would you be thrilled? Angry? Scared? Freaked out? Annoyed? Happy? Sad? One thing I was pretty certain of: you would probably feel was that you were right and the protesters were wrong.
I found out all this information... from both sides.
First, from the side of the protesters:
My first foray into the world of organized protests and activism came in the form of ACT-UP, which I enthusiastically joined some time in 1991, when I first moved to NYC - starry-eyed and empty headed. ACT-UP (The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) was formed in 1987 by a handful of determined visionaries who wanted to try and wake America up to the growing AIDS epidemic (which was seemingly being intentionally ignored under Presidents Reagan and then Bush) by speaking through the media via direct, ballsy actions... bullshit-less, radical, often humorous protests and clever forms of civil disobedience. The often brilliant organization, who's motto was "Silence = Death", was highly successful in it's beginning... and partly so through it's middle period. Unfortunately it peaked in the Winter of 1989, during a demonstration at St. Patrick's Cathedral when a single protester questionably threw a communion wafer on the ground and stomped on it. That marked a turning point, and ACT-UP... which had by that point spawned cells all over the world and was indeed serving it's purpose... ever so slowly, bit by bit, descended into a kind of low-grade dysfunctional madness... as every pennynickle radical and shallow, Che-reading anarchist within a three-brain radius glommed onto the group and anchored it down into a maddening, nonsensical merry-go-round of old, old-school feminism, tedious racial issue witch hunting, police brutality conspiracy theorizing and warmed-over hippie anti-war charades - in other words; the fetid, fascistic Hell of P.C. group think. By 1995, ACT-UP's New York chapter was indeed a popular and constructive community of close-knit friends and social networks (just like a Star Trek convention), but it's political and social relevance to the still growing AIDS epidemic was an embarrassing joke. Many of the original core member jettisoned from what had, in effect, become a ship of fools... and ACT-UP sailed off as a ghost ship into unknown seas.
When did I jump on that particular bandwagon? My history with ACT-UP was roughly over a year, the period from 1991-92... and even though the group as a global force was in it's Autumn years... it still had a lot of potential, and did a lot of good... and spawned a lot of fantastic memories for me.
Memories? I distributed clean needles to drug users in Tompkins Square Park. I went to public meetings and helped shout down and disrupt speakers (who were there to help people) because their kind of AIDS research and service wasn't politically correct. I got sprayed with mace and had to spend the night in jail with blurry vision because I lost my contacts. I was hilariously tapped lightly with police batons in what seemed to be a surreal attempt by police to not be perceived as using excessive force (at an impromptu demo in front of a police station where an arrested member was being held and supposedly 'tortured' by maniacal police - or so the wild rumor went). I got practically beaten up by normal pedestrians that were infuriated that they couldn't get through us after we tried to halt commuter traffic in Grand Central in a "Day of Desperation" demonstration that's purpose I'm still trying to figure out. When we couldn't stop commuter traffic at that particular demo... we went out and sat in the middle of 42nd street during rush hour - and all 300 of us were one-by-one plucked from the street and hauled off to the pen (I think it was almost midnight by the time they got to me). I finally got to make out with a guy I had had a crush on for months - in the back of a moving police van with both of our hands handcuffed behind our back (how romantic!) and was then heartbroken when they put us in different group holding cells. During a hellish stay in a Nutley, NJ jail (after being arrested with a group that chained themselves under trucks to block the entrance to the Hoffman IaRoche drug company)... I was confronted with a firework (that emitted colored smoke) I had been carrying for the group in my bag that we thought might come in handy to create a "dramatic" effect during the demo... I happened to have it in my bag (lucky me!). During that subsequent trail a month later I had to pay a fine (paid for by, weirdly, someone from Greenpeace) and received an official one-point terrorist record in the state of New Jersey (it's still on file!). I helped install a giant, yellow, inflated condom over Jesse Helms' Arlington, VA home that said "Jesse Helms: Deadlier Than the Virus" and then rather than getting arrested had to spend the afternoon trudging all over D.C. in a rented van as the core members of the group tried to get interviewed on CNN (I would have gladly spent a week in a Medieval torture chamber instead). Helms decided to not press charges since we politely took it down after the press left (I had a nice time re-arranging his front flower bed after one of the tether wires uprooted some tupils), plus he wasn't home at the time (but his maid was). I had a sign I had drawn (depicting Bart Simpson with his pants down and a condom over his penis) yanked out of my hands by a member of Donald Wildmon's American Family Association group and smashed over my head during a sit-in at the Board of Education to try to get condoms distributed to high school students in NYC (the incident resulted in me inviting the member of Wildmon's group to be a guest on a gay-themed radio show I was a part of on WBAI 99.5FM and debate the issue... the person agreed and I scheduled them to appear - only to have my request to debate the person angrily halted a day before the airing - by a feminazi member of G.L.A.A.D. who worked at WBAI). I proposed demos and working group ideas on the floor of ACT-UP meetings and heard members of the assembled chant "Act up!", "Fight AIDS!" all through the hall when they heard something I proposed that they thought made sense (a haunting memory that to this day reminds me of what people in the congregation of churches in my Southern Baptist upbringing did when the pastor spoke of salvation - except they said 'Amen!' not 'Fight AIDS!'). I ended up on 60 Minutes for about sixty seconds - shown being man-handled by Virginia police who were snatching a walkie talkie out of my hand and cuffing me into a police car ('Hi mom!'). I helped cause low-key havoc at George Bush's Kennebunkport, Maine vacation home during a week of protests there... and ended up getting laid more than anything else. I remember sitting inside the Astra drug company waiting rooms chatting with nice secretaries about our favorite television shows while I was helping "shut down" the offices they worked in... all while being handcuffed to the arms of seven other people (under white plastic piping we had our hands clasped to each other in - we were bluffing). I spent countless nights in the NYC police holding system... sometimes getting out almost instantly... sometimes spending a grueling 48 hours. Well, it wasn't countless... I think about six or seven times in NYC and other parts of the upper East coast.
It's strange how all my memories when I was writing this just now tended to involve getting arrested, being in jail, going on trial, the mad rush of excitement, etc... over the cold hard facts of what exactly I was doing and why. At the time I seemed to know... but now, those memories are not the ones that stuck. The names, the companies, the reasons. I literally had to look at an ACT-UP time line on the web to get all the dates and drug companies' names correct.
Nevertheless, in ACT-UP I had made some great, intense friends... and realistically, also some enemies. I felt like, at the end of it all, I had contributed to some great work in "greasing the wheels" of AIDS research and attention... and as time goes on and the AIDS epidemic still grows... having an even bigger world-wide impact now more than ever before... I feel I definitely did something positive.
But also... looking back, and especially being older and wiser... I cannot in all consciousness say that it all was part of some great cause. Much of it was indeed... but a lot of it wasn't. Don't get me wrong... the organization was filled to the brim with dedicated and brave people who worked tirelessly and diligently... many driven by the desperation of dead or dying loved ones... or perhaps their own looming mortality. But also...
The most troublesome (or is 'puzzling' the right word?) thoughts about it all? I remember protesting against people who's story I didn't really know 100%... situations that I hadn't researched thoroughly but that seemed to me nevertheless worthy of being "shut down." Some situations I didn't know at all... I just joined the fight. I remember hating drug companies because I was told to. Screaming "Shame! Shame!" in politicians faces because everyone else was. Anyone who was deemed an enemy... for whatever reason was a target for the whole group... and they'd better not mess with us... because we were WATCHING YOU! Anyone who opposed us? They were picked apart and jeered... we wanted to see them humiliated and taught a lesson... people's lives were at stake and we were fault-less heroes with big sticks whom you'd better not cross. The point of political activism seems to be to disrupt your target's routine to the point where they have no choice but to confront you and listen to your ideas... but when we got people's attention - all they probably saw was our red, screaming tantrum faces yelling "Me! Me! Me!" By the end I remember getting arrested for political actions that seemed like dramatic ego-projection more than anything else. Huge, sweeping demos that seems cooked up from a high school boy's rock star dreams more than from a seriously contemplative and determined mind with a serious goal - one that carefully analyzed and weighed all political and social ramifications of cause and effect - the kind of thinking that started the organization.
And so in the end this was how a once-great ACT-UP, which in the beginning was true strength in the face of the abyss, and a true and pure positive force... became an abyss of a different sort, and eventually rotted in the face of man's ego. But it's no surprise, as studies of most activist movements (or any organizational government) have shown similar patterns.
Despite it all, I often wondered at the time about the people I was protesting against. What was going through their minds? I mean specifically... on a personal level? Did they think we were good? Evil? Courageous? Right? Wrong? Did they think we were waking them up to something they really needed to see? Did they see us as egotistical retarded bullies having a fit? Did they feel we were their conscious? I mean... regardless of whatever was true (or not) ...what were the thought processes going through the minds of the people we protested during our actions?
In 1995, I found out first hand:
I believe that the best thing for me to do is to share my horrible past to help others avoid the same path.
I like offending people! It's how I fight society's bull. Call me obsessive...
"Oh we thhhooouuught yyyooouuu would be caaalllllllliiinnng u-s-s-s-s-s-s!!!" he said with the same sort of tone and inflection The Joker used whenever he lured Batman and Robin into one of his diablical traps.
Angrily draw battle lines with crayons.
Having a bunch of activists have a full-blown protest against you in front of where you work may look exciting from the outside but, much like winning an Emmy Award ...or being nailed to a cross as The King of the Jews... the boring, doldrums reality of such an esteemed position, once you are no longer on the outside looking in... the view from the ivory tower is not so exciting or glamorous.
I soon learned that
Francine and Elmer Fishpaw getting picketed or pelted with tomatoes for
peddling porn to toddlers wasn't as glamourous or exciting as it seemed...
they were just actors shouting lines and doing slapstick pantomime in an
outrageous comedy... and I now knew exactly how they felt.
...PART 2 comingnext week
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