An activist recounts how ACT UP demonstrators used a mastery of media and medicine to push their careful agenda. Occupiers, take note.
SEIZE CONTROL OF THE FDA
Food and Drug Administration Headquarters, Rockville, Maryland, October 11, 1988
Our takeover of the FDA was unquestionably the most significant demonstration of the AIDS activist movement's first two years. Organized nationally by ACT NOW to take place on the anniversary of the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and just following the second Washington Showing of the Names Project quilt, the protest began with a Columbus Day rally at the Department of Health and Human Services under the banner HEALTH CARE IS RIGHT and proceeded the following morning to a siege of FDA headquarters in a Washington suburb.
If "drugs into bodies" had been central to ACT UP from the beginning, the protest at the FDA represented both a culmination of our early efforts and a turning point in both recognition by the government of the seriousness and legitimacy of our demands and national awareness of the AIDS activist movement. This turning point occurred for two interrelated reasons: 1) the demonstrated knowledge by AIDS activists of every detail of the complex FDA drug approval process, and 2) a professionally designed campaign that prepared the media to convey our treatment issues to the public.
The entire body of ACT UP was schooled in advance with knowledge of complicated issues that until then had largely remained in the province of Treatment and Data Committee members. The latter, who had been studying treatment issues for over a year and had also profited from knowledge garnered by AIDS activists in other U.S. cities, prepared an FDA ACTION HANDBOOK of more than 40 pages and conducted a series of teach-ins for ACT UP's general membership. This information was then distilled by the Media Committee for presentation to the press. The FDA action was "sold" in advance to the media almost like a Hollywood movie, with a carefully prepared and presented press kit, hundreds of phone calls to members of the press, and activists' appearances scheduled on television and radio talk shows around the country. When the demonstration took place, the media were not only there to get the story, they knew what that story was, and they reported it with a degree of accuracy and sympathy that is, to say the least, unusual.