ACT Up Members, Occupiers to Give Wall Street the Fi.S.T.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have shut down the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park last November, but he did not manage to squelch the movement. Like spring blossoms; protestors have begun emerging from their winter solitude, determined once again to take to the streets in opposition of corporate greed and widespread inequality.
But this time, ACT Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) has teamed up with this passionate group of protestors for an April 25 action that will commemorate the organization’s 25th anniversary. Hundreds of protestors will march from City Hall to Wall Street to call upon local, state and federal legislators to "give Wall Street the Fi.S.T," demanding a small financial speculation tax (comically labeled "Fi.S.T") or "Robin Hood tax" on speculative trading by Wall Street investment banks and hedge funds. Activists say a portion of the revenue that this tax would raise could end the worldwide HIV/AIDS epidemic.
"ACT Up has a long history of this, although we’ve never used the term ’occupy’ before," said Jennifer Flynn, a longtime ACT Up member and managing director of the Health Global Access Project. "Our first action in 1987 was targeting Wall Street, and many other actions targeted the high price of pharmaceuticals. There is a deep understanding that the AIDS crisis became a pandemic because it was driven by corporate greed and the government inaction that this greed can buy."
Flynn said that Occupy protesters are beginning to see the natural affinity between their groups, and are joining efforts to a common cause. Activists across the world have embraced the idea of a "Robin Hood tax," a .003 to .5 percent charge on speculative tax transactions and derivatives that they say would raise an estimated $350 billion a year to fight HIV, homelessness, hunger and create jobs.
"The results of the HTPN [HIV Prevention Trials Network] 052 studies proved we could end the AIDS pandemic in 30 years if we drive up investment into treatment slightly," said Flynn. "AIDS would look like polio; there would be a couple of thousand cases around world instead of 33 million people living with AIDS. We ask for about $1 billion dollars. And if we got $2 billion, we’d be on track, with $348 billion left over. But right now, it’s going into the pockets of the big banks and speculators who caused the financial crisis."
Longtime AIDS activist John Riley agreed, saying that harnessing this new source of funding to address social problems is something people around the world support. He added that Wall Street is the perfect target for this protest.
"Wall Street’s greed is a central reason why the AIDS crisis is as bad as it is, with the outrageous prices of AIDS drugs," said Riley. "Somehow, we have to pay for this; we cannot let people die because of corporate greed. So that’s why we’re calling for the Robin Hood tax."
LGBT activists have long realized that the system is unjust and are willing to fight the system, said longtime ACT Up supporter Ben Shepard. And in this post-identity era of community organizing, identity doesn’t matter. The system is so large, people have to address it in myriad ways.
While ACT Up member Megan Mulholland recognized the value of coming together for a common cause, she was among those who felt that the Occupy movement largely excluded gays. This exclusion prompted her and others to found Queerocracy, a nascent LGBT social activist group.
"Our members are involved in ACT Up as well as OWS, so we were dipping our toes in all of it," said Mulholland. "But we recognized the need for a radical queer voice in the social activism movement, caused in part because we were not speaking out, and in part because we were being silenced."
Mulholland said marriage equality, the repeal of ’don’t ask, don’t tell’ and other mainstream LGBT rights issues were not priorities for "everyday queers, transgendered, low-income LGBTs, and those living with HIV/AIDS."
"We are bringing this perspective of the need to dismantle corporate greed," she said. "And we are seeking to make it a collaborative effort."
Longtime AIDS activist Michael Tikili agreed.
"ACT Up has been occupying Wall Street since their first action in the ’80s. This is nothing new under the sun, but it will give momentum to the movement," he said. "Any groups that share this sentiment need to come out and have solidarity with us."
Occupy Mobilizes Without a Central Location
With their eviction from Zuccotti Park and the cold winter months, Occupy actions came to a crawl. Spring has brought actions in Union Square and Times Square.
Some believe that activists will find a new Occupy headquarters, while others feel like having a ground zero for the movement is secondary to the power it unleashed in everyday people to stand up for what they believe is right.
"In the early part of the movement, the strength was that we had a central point to meet and start actions," said Tikili. "Since that was decentralized, it has been a lot harder to mobilize people; we have to tell them where to go. I hope people will come back with this spring awakening, but I do think that the OWS movement was damaged by dismantling the central location."
Transgender activist Melissa Sklarz said that she went down to Zuccotti Park several times last fall, and even attended organizing meetings.
"I wanted to honor the work they’d been doing. I thought it was great," she said. "I think now, without a home base, it’s going to be far more difficult to create the same media buzz."
But Staci Smith, an ACT Up member for the past 17 years, said that Occupy was always moving toward aligning themselves with groups already working on social justice issues.
"I think it was really important in the beginning to have the actual space, but I’m not sure it’s as important now to continue that," said Smith. "Pop-up OWS actions are happening; there are a lot of actions in Union Square. They are making good alliances with unions, nurses, and health care workers. I don’t think it’s dying out; I think people can relate to it."
Making Demands, Getting Results
Tikili said that while Occupy protestors had been adamant about not having demands, ACT Up made them because "we want change."
"I hope that will spread; I hope the future of OWS is to start making demands," he said. "If we want to continue protesting in the future, we have to have demands, and not just because we’re disgruntled and unemployed. I hope this is the way of future."
Sklarz believed that the vision for Occupy really came from the struggles of the LGBT community and other marginalized groups. And while she didn’t quit her job and sleep in the park for weeks, she will participate in the April 25 action, and will continue to work to change the political dialogue.
"OWS has a message for all activists, and the message for LGBT people is inclusion, empowerment, and diversity," said Sklarz. "If we can’t advocate for ourselves and let people know what our issues are, who will do it?"
"I think the LGBT community is part of the 99 percent", echoed Riley. "OWS had more generalized demands, but there is a power to having some specificity. We are dealing with a movement that is trying to define itself... and I think their enthusiasm is important because they can see that there is a possibility of change, but if they are going to make change, we have to make it together."
Riley noted that although the corporations have the money, activists have the power of the people. By seizing the zeitgeist of the Occupy movement and building broad-based coalitions, the LGBT community has a better chance of achieving its goals.
"Queers and trans have been part of OWS since day one," said Shepard. "But queers don’t just talk about it or make a manifesto, queers put their body on the line. On April 25, they will put their body on the line again. Part of what’s been so vital about the strategy is being able to connect tactics with a winning strategy to get the goods. This financial tax is something whose time has come. OWS could learn a little from ACT Up’s practical capacity to ask for something, to put a tangible request on the table and push for that."