From the Long-Forgotten Archives #8

 

For months now, writer, teacher, and long-time AIDS activist Sarah Schulman has been drafting an intriguing new book. Entitled Let the Record Show, it’ll be the first of its kind: a “political history” of New York’s AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power [ACT UP NY]. Arguably the most impactful grass roots movement in modern American history, the members of ACT UP–mostly gay men dying of AIDS, lesbians, and other queer non-conformists–were responsible for both forcing elected officials to pay attention to the AIDS epidemic and pressuring big pharmaceutical players to test new drugs on the virus. Without the group’s involvement, it’s plausible the “triple cocktail” treatment wouldn’t have arrived when it did in 1996. It might have come later–years later, in fact–if at all. In the interim, the procession of the dead and dying would certainly have climbed unabated.

And who better to write this history than Ms. Schulman? After all, she was there. As a member of ACT UP NY, she helped steer its direction. Moreover, since 2003, she and Jim Hubbard–the filmmaker behind United in Anger: A History of ACT UP [2012]–have been at the forefront of preserving the group’s legacy. With their ACT UP Oral History Project, they’ve been recording video interviews with as many of the group’s participants as they can. Their mission? To give these veterans of the AIDS fight a platform to “say what they experienced and created and how they feel about it.” Why? Well, as Ms. Schulman explained in a 2004 interview, these people 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 last month, she shared something astonishing on her Facebook page: The Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] kept a classified file on ACT UP NY. (Can you even imagine? What was it they found so malicious about a group of sick people advocating for help?) But there was more: They received regular intelligence reports from someone embedded in the group or surveilling it from the outside. Perhaps both. And there were probably multiple “informants” too. For evidence, check out the document Ms. Schulman presented below (of course it still has some redactions):

 

 

A page from the FBI's file on ACT UP New York. Via https://www.facebook.com/sarah.schulman.56.
(A page from the FBI’s file on ACT UP New York. Via https://www.facebook.com/sarah.schulman.56.)

 

So who could have given this material to the FBI back on June 14, 1988? Well, as Duncan Osborne, an ACT UP survivor and reporter for Gay City News guessed, it might have been the NYPD. Responding to Ms. Schulman’s post, he noted 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 could have been the Associated Press [AP]. As Mr. Osborne recalled, ACT UP often “sent announcements” to the AP to be added to its Daybook, a public events calendar, so the FBI could have mined its data there. But that thought led to a more obvious origin: the nature of 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 everyone, and we informed the press.” So all the FBI might have needed to flesh out its files were a few well-gathered flyers. That doesn’t seem so far-fetched to believe. Besides, Mr. Osborne comes with some solid credentials to assess the agency’s work. He’s already seen part of the files:

 

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 decidedly wary of the NYPD having infiltrated ACT UP: 

 

The NYPD is a different matter. I recall that there was a photographer with no press tag at the bedsheet demo who had a step ladder. He took dozens or hundreds of photos….

Then there was an impromptu Monday night demo 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 be able to dig something up. I bet the unknown contents would warrant a few chapters in her book. For the sake of the next generation of scholars, gays, and interested citizens, the record would be lacking without those details. 

 


 

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