For months now, Sarah Schulman has been drafting a new book. The long-time AIDS activist, teacher, and writer calls it “Let the Record Show: 1987-1993.” When ready, it’ll be the first of its kind: a “political history” of the New York’s own AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power [ACT UP NY].
Perhaps America’s most impactful grassroots movement in the last 50 years, ACT UP was comprised of gay men dying from AIDS, lesbians, and other queer non-conformists. The group was not only responsible for forcing elected officials to pay attention to the AIDS epidemic, but also pressuring big pharmaceutical companies to test new drugs on the virus. Without the group’s involvement, it’s plausible today’s “triple cocktail” treatment wouldn’t have been approved when it was in 1996. It might have arrived later — years later, in fact — if at all. In the interim, the procession of dead and dying would have marched on unabated.
Now who better to write this history than Ms. Schulman? After all, she was there. And as a member of ACT UP NY, she helped steer its direction. Moreover, she’s already been working to preserve the group’s legacy.
Since 2003, she and Jim Hubbard — the filmmaker behind United in Anger: A History of ACT UP  — have been recording video interviews with as many members of ACT UP NY as they can. Dubbed the “ACT UP Oral History Project,” their mission is to give the veterans of the AIDS fight a place to “say what they experienced and created and how they feel about it.” In other words, they hope to memorialize these “hidden figures.”
But why? Well, as Ms. Schulman explained back in 2004, the members of ACT UP were revolutionaries; they altered the mainstream perception of gay people forever:
This is a group of people who were despised, they had no rights, they had no support from their families, society, or government, they had a terminal illness and they were supposed to roll over and die. And then they decided that they mattered. And they decided to come together and forced others to change, against their wishes.
Anyway, after finishing the first draft of her book, Ms. Schulman revealed something astonishing. She wrote on Facebook that the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] kept its own classified file on ACT UP NY. (Can you even imagine? What did it find so malicious about a bunch of sick people advocating for help?)
There was something else. She found that the FBI received regular intelligence reports from someone embedded in ACT UP or surveilling it from the outside. Perhaps both. There may have been multiple “informants.” Check out the document she discovered below (it has a few FBI redactions):
So who “provided” these things to the FBI?
Duncan Osborne, an ACT UP survivor and reporter for Gay City News, guessed the informant was the NYPD.
Responding to Ms. Schulman’s Facebook post, he noted that the FBI often depended “on local law enforcement agencies for information about groups it was snooping on.” So the NYPD’s Political Surveillance Unit was a possible source.
Another might have been the Associated Press [AP]. As Mr. Osborne recalled, ACT UP often “sent announcements” to the AP to be added to something called “Daybook,” its public events calendar. The FBI could have mined for its data there. But maybe the origin was more obvious: the group itself.
“ACT UP did its work in public,” Mr. Osborne wrote. “Our meetings were public, our announcements about future actions were public to the point that we pasted flyers everywhere, and we informed the press.”
So the FBI’s big source was a flyer? Perhaps.
Years ago, Mr. Osborne confessed, he saw the FBI’s paperwork and was less than impressed:
My view is that the FBI collected very little info about ACT UP and that tends to be confirmed by the records the agency released in 1995. It had 199 pages divided among 10 field offices, and that’s not a lot. Most of the material was held in control files, which is where miscellaneous, non-investigation material is stored.
On the other hand, he was wary of the NYPD. He remembered two incidents where he was sure a cop had infiltrated ACT UP:
The NYPD is a different matter. I recall that there was a photographer with no press tag at the bedsheet [demonstration] who had a step ladder. He took dozens or hundreds of photos….
Then there was [also] an impromptu Monday night [demonstration] instigated by Michael Petrelis that got us up and marching in the West Village…. Before we stepped off, a plainclothes guy or detective from the 6th Precinct appeared at [The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community] Center during the meeting. I remember Maria Maggenti getting up in front of the room and making that standard announcement that law enforcement was required to identify themselves. At that point, the detective said something like ‘I heard you’re going to have a demonstration tonight.’
The NYPD’s files on ACT UP may never be made public, but maybe Ms. Schulman will find one. The unknown contents would certainly warrant a few chapters in her book. The record’s not complete without them.
A page from the FBI’s file on ACT UP New York.
Screenshot by Rick Stachura. Courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/sarah.schulman.56.