Revisiting ACT UP’s Tactics and Strategies: An evening with Sarah Schulman.

AAN! was happy to co-sponsor an exciting event last week at the TIFF Lightbox. Sarah Schulman, an acclaimed American lesbian novelist, playwright, and activist was interviewed by Now Magazine’s Books and Entertainment Editor Susan Cole about her work as an AIDS activist and about her writing, film making, and other activist work.

The event was called “Learning Tactics and Strategies from ACT UP.” Schulman joined ACT UP in 1987 and was involved for 5 years or so. She’s been chronicling the history of ACT UP through interviews; there are hundreds of them – they are really incredible. It makes you wish we had an oral history project for AAN!

Schulman is also collaborating with Jim Hubbard on a documentary film about ACTUP and she showed a clip from the film. It was a high point of the evening. The footage was so inspiring. Watching clips of demonstrations and actions like the storming of the stage at the IAS conference in Montreal in 1989 (which AAN! helped organize and participated in) and the occupation of Grand Central Station in 1991 brought people back to the incredible creativity, excitement, innovation and success of the early years of AIDS activism.

Things are different now and we need to rethink how we work, which was part of the point of the evening. Exploring new forms of activism is all the more pressing for us now given the pall of conservatism we’ll be facing over the next few years.

During the Q and A there was a lot of talk about strategies and tactics. Schulman talked about how the critical mass of people involved in ACT UP made it possible for the organization to have a pretty democratic process in meetings and in actions. In her words, you weren’t forced into doing anything you didn’t want to do because there were enough people to do it without you. She also talked about how through the interviews she’s been doing she’s discovering that the common denominator that drew so many different people to ACT UP was their unwillingness to see people being victimized.

She spoke a lot about the need to be effective in activist work and to have victories. For her that’s not about the big revolution, but about learning about and researching a specific problem, getting prepared and taking direct action that moves toward a shared goal.

After the event was over a few of us talked as we walked toward downtown. Nicole wondered about whether there wasn’t something constraining about activism that was geared into notions of effectiveness. Gary said that, for him, activism works when it’s informed by an understanding of social organization or how things are put together. Eric was still taken by the idea of small victories.

There was another high point of the evening. It happened when a woman who was a lesbian cop in New York in the eighties stood up during the Q and A. She talked about the challenges of coming out as a lesbian police officer at the time, about the officers she knew who died from AIDS-related causes, and about how much she loved ACT UP.

All in all is was a great event, leaving us with a lot to think about.

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