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Plague! We are in the middle of a plague! Forty million infected people is a plague!

playwright Larry Kramer shouts.

David France’s bold, powerful, heart-wrenching documentary How to Survive a Plague follows the evolution of ACT UP NY and its Treatment Action Group (TAG), capturing the outrage, agony and activism that changed the social, political and medical fabric of the United States from the 1980s with the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Director/co-writer David France and Howard Gertler, one of the film’s producers, are our guests tonight.

Using video shot by ACT UP members (video cameras had just hit the mass market) news footage and contemporary interviews, How to Survive a Plague follows the nascent ACT UP movement as AIDS began killing men by the thousands. Activist Peter Staley, a closeted Wall Street bond trader, attends his first ACT Up meeting when his mentor, who has no idea Staley is gay, says that AIDS victims deserve to die because

They take it up the butt.

His rage–Staley became a spokesperson for ACT UP and full time AIDS activist– and the rage of others as they see their friends and lovers die swiftly and cruelly, turned away at hospital emergency rooms, ignored by the medical community, shunned and reviled, spurs sit-ins, protests and headline grabbing activism. ACT UP took over emergency rooms, shut down the FDA, disrupted mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, draped Jesse Helm’s home in a giant condom. They would not shut up; they would not go away.

Silence = Death

ACT UP’s members knew that they could die, that they would die, and they fought hard for their lives and the lives of their fellows.

Along with headline grabbing protests, ACT UP’s activists searched for drugs to stem the tide of deaths.  Mark Harrington, a brilliant ACT UP member with no science background, digested thousands of pages of medical literature and developed  a comprehensive treatment guide while others bring in drugs from Europe for black market treatment.

Ronald Reagan, the false promise of AZT, Jesse Helms, the Catholic Church’s silence, the FDA’s foot dragging are exposed in horrifying clarity as tens of thousands more die.

And then in 1992 comes an act by ACT UP member Bob Rafsky which shifts political climate. At a campaign fundraiser, Rafsky disrupts a speech by Bill Clinton:

We’re not dying of AIDS as much as we are dying of eleven years of government neglect.

Clinton famously responds:

I feel your pain.

Two days later candidate Clinton met with members of ACT UP and other activists to discuss his AIDS policy. Clinton agrees to make an AIDS policy speech and to have HIV positive people speak at the Democratic convention. He also agrees to sign on to the  United Action for AIDS five-point treatment plan.

This is one of the many victories this focused group of activists won. But the victories are bittersweet as more and more people die–David France has a counter in the lower right corner of the screen that shows the mounting AIDS deaths. ACT UP’s bravery, strength and focus changed America and the world, bringing HIV/AIDS awareness–and by extension LGBTQ rights–to the forefront of social and political dialog and making HIV/AIDS research for drugs a priority (and the research on the immune system developed out of HIV/AIDS research has far-ranging repercussions for other illnesses).

If it were not for ACT UP, millions of more people across the globe would have died. How to Survive a Plague is a tribute to the men and women of ACT UP, to the strength and power of free speech and the right to protest, to the lives lost, and should be seen by anyone and everyone with social conscience and a desire to change the status quo.

Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.