REVIEW ESSAY: On Friendship and Social Movements: AIDS activism and struggles against fascism, global AIDS and harm reduction

Books reviewed:

The Pox Lover: An Activist’s Decade in New York and Paris  by Anne-christine d’Adesky, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2017)

No Fascist USA! The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today’s Movements by Hilary Moore and James Tracy (San Francisco: City Lights Press, 2020)

Undoing Drugs: The Untold Story of Harm Reduction and Future of Addiction by Maia Szalavitz (New York: Hatchette Books, 2021)

To End a Plague: America’s Fight to Defeat AIDS in Africa, by Emily Bass (New York: Public Affairs, 2021)

Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 by Sarah Schulman (New York: MacMillan, 2022)

Throughout Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert sketches an image of revolution extending in multiple directions, between exuberance and futility, possibilities and failures, steps forward and inevitably backward.  Like a splash of cold water on New Year’s Day, for a second there, Frederic, our protagonist, was a part of it all, completely exuberant:

“Great clouds of smoke were pouring out of the chimneys of the palace…  The sound of bells in the distance….  Everywhere, to right and left, the victors were letting off their firearms.  Frederic, for all that he was no fighting man, felt his Gallic blood stirring.  The ardor of the crowds had infected him.  He greedily breathed in the stormy air, full of the smell of gunpowder; and at the same time he trembled with the consciousness of a vast love, a sublime, all embracing tenderness, as if the heart of fall mankind were beating in his breast….”

Play is never far behind in the “vast love” Frederic found in the revolution of 1848:  

“After coffee they went to the Hotel de Ville in search of news, and by that time his playful nature had reasserted itself.  He climbed the barricades like a chamois, and answered the centuries challenges with the patriotic quips.” 

The city of Paris is almost a character in the novel.

And certainly Flaubert is not the only writer to trace the links between friendship and friction, eros and Thanatos, fighting and revolution, particularly in Paris. 

Anne-christine d’Adesky’s The Pox Lover: An Activist’s Decade in New York and Paris builds on this trajectory, tracing a story of epidemics and pleasure activism, the AIDS carnage and global cities, New York and Paris. 

On the first page of the preface, d’Adesky writes:

“A tsunami comes and threatens to sweep you away, drown you without hope of a breath.  You make an instant decision to hold on, to try to hold fast to your loved ones.  Or at some point you may let go out of sheer  exhaustion, or you’re forcibly taken by the current and seek another anchor point, a refuge.  You worry about everyone else and vow to never stop searching or remembering the missing or the dead.  Every day in the 1990’s, such waves hit the shores of New York City and Paris, where I spent much of the era working as a journalist chronicling the AIDS epidemic, while getting sucked further into the currents of activism… I was not neutral – not about AIDS…. There were nightly meetings, constant processing, and a million arguments about strategy. Humor helped us survive the 1990’s.  So did dancing.   Madonna provided the soundtrack for our generation; so did the Pet Shop boys…. Amid our fun it was always about taking action….” (xi-xii).

In between, grief is omnipresent. So is the Seine and its sinews, stretching throughout the city, between bridges, paths, and secret places where d’Adesky naps and dreams, her mind wandering back to those still in New York. 

“Death is pumping inside my chest, stealing away my earlier happy mood.  I want to push it away with my hands, part the Red Sea with mine, push death back through it to the other side, stay away, I say, Give it a rest,” (P.16).

Action=vie, activism offered a counterbalance to thanatos. It’s a distinct Paris experience. 

“Before any ACT UP action, the group meets at a cafe to plan strategy and finesse details; afterward, they retire to another cafe to discuss how it went.  I like the French method of protest.  Caffeinated direct action.  But nothing too rushed,” (p. 47).

In Beats per Minute, the 2017 film about ACT UP Paris, MDMA pumps through the bodies of members of the ACT UP Paris, upping the volume, transforming a demo into a dancefloor, a synthesized high buzzing, ebbing through the crowd, in what might have been a dream.  In New York, it was usually caffeine, not that certain pleasure activists did not add cocaine or heroin to the mix, harm reduction mixing with public health. RIP Keith. Keith Cylar keep up the struggle!

Love was in the air. It’s Paris.  It’s a cafe.  It’s history, lots of it.  d’Adesky is taking notes. 

“That’s something that people who are not in groups like ACT UP may not appreciate about activism: despite the serious subject and critical life steaks; it can be so fun, and the people who are drawn to protest and social change, so interesting.  I’m finding the same thing here in Paris… its one of the perks of joining ACT UP that i never would have anticipated.  I’ve made so many friends and had my share of sexy fun.  It keeps us going.  There’s just a lot of love in this movement,” (p. 22)

In other moments doubt turned into a clusterfuck.  HIV dovetailed with age-old systems of domination and overlapping issues. “We’re too isolated,” thought  d’Adesky. “We don’t really know enough of what’s happening. I know they arrested some people last week behind the Gare du Nord.  So where did all these people go?  We have to connect AIDS to homelessness, to the housing problem.  That should be a top priority, shouldn’t it?  Not everyone agrees..”

Of course, some do agree, pointing to the interwoven complications associated with HIV and gaps to healthcare access, pointing the movement toward an ever broadening arena of struggle.  Harm Reduction activists would strive to reduce alienation and physical pain, connecting AIDS activism with structural efforts to find homes and battle the drug war while contending with the harms of anomie and alienation, among other maladies of modern living.  This is the story of Maia Szalavitz’ majestic new work, Undoing Drugs: The Untold Story of Harm Reduction and Future of Addiction. 

Other AIDS activists would struggle to make sure AIDS drugs were available around the globe, not just in developing nations, especially once highly active antiretroviral medications became available in 1996. This is the story told by Emily Bass, who worked with d’Adesky at Outweek, in her dynamic new work To End a Plague: America’s Fight to Defeat AIDS in Africa. Bass takes up the AIDS story a few years after Sarah Schulman leaves off in his luminous Let the the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP, 1987-1993. This was my New York AIDS activist moment, zapping politicians and drug companies with Mark Milano, getting arrested at the 1998 Matthew Shepard political funeral turned police riot with Keith Cylar and Charles, Leslie Feinberg and Sylvia Rivera, picketing Al Gore fundraisers with Eric Sawyer and Sharonann Lynch, fighting with housing for people with AIDS with Jennifer Flynn, going to Sylvia Rivera’s funeral with Keith Cylar and toasting to it all, before it became too much.  By 2004, Keith followed Sylvia into the beyond. Spacial limitations preclude a fuller consideration of these important works.  Suffice it to say, Bass has highlighted a story of AIDS activism that needs telling, the battling to get drugs into bodies across the globe, internationally. Five years after the heyday of AIDS activism, a group of ACT UP newbies and veterans helped bridge a gap between local and global AIDS activism. Doing so, they took on systems of medical apartheid, pharmaceutical company greed, and a global trade system that favored drug patents over lives, profits over people.  This was the system that  activists targeted in Seattle in December 1999.  And helped propel AIDS activism into a space between Anti Apartheid activism and the Global Justice Movements, bridging gaps in care, moving drugs into bodies around the globe. 

It was the system that ACT UP took on in fighting the right, zapping St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, taking on Le Penn and the National Front in Paris. 

A subtext of much of this work, of course, is looming fascism.  This rightward political tilt means some bodies, married bodies, heterosexual, white bodies, those with papers, those not injecting drugs are favored and prioritized, while queer and immigrant, trans, brown and black bodies are thought to be disposable, best disgarded, incarcerated, neglected, left to languish, in detention centers or jails or the streets, living in shanties.

What is to be done, wonder activists?

Hillary Moore and James Tracy trace the story of The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today’s Movements in their work, No Fascist USA.   Part memoir/ political manifesto, one can practically feel the partisans sing Bella Ciao, picking up this City Lights press book. James Tracey brings a journalist’s eye and a punk rock poet’s ear to the project. Shortly before San Francisco poet laureate Jack Hirshman shuffled off, he exchanged copies of poetry books for No Fascist USA with Tracy. 

In their own ways, both the Pox Lover and No Fascist USA consider the ways friends bring us into movements and the anguish we feel when they depart, both movements or this world. Moore and Tracy eye the challenges of building coalitions and alliances, while D’Adesky considers the ways coalitions and movements come together and fall apart, through friendships, social eros and ideas, crossing continents, through connection and dislocation, sex and grief. 

In No Fascist USA, Hilary Moore recalls the friendships that got her involved:

“I grew up drinking root beer and practicing kick-flips on skateboards with my friends on the same Capitol grounds where the white supremacists staged their rally, an event that represented the exact opposite of all I held dear. And yet, my decision to go to the rally wasn’t clear cut. I felt critical of how much attention went to street confrontations with white supremacists, and how little went to those who are doing the long-haul work of organizing to create a world where everyone has safety, dignity, and belonging. Slogans like “Nazis get out!” felt insufficient, and at times just as misguided as incitement to “punch a Nazi.” Yet I also felt frustrated that, in my five years as an anti-racist political education trainer with commitments to build broad anti-racist movements that can win, we had very few strategies ready to confront white supremacy in the flesh. Ignoring the rally seemed like the worst option. Conflicted as I was, I chose to go because I had a group of reliable friends who were committed to keeping people safe and unwilling to concede public space to those seeking to advance a white supremacist agenda,” (p. 22).  

Nothing goes as planned says Moore:

“Witnessing the violence filled my body with visceral, hot rage. But when a knife-wielding white supremacist stood at attention for chants of ‘Sieg Heil,’ I froze. A large group of counter-protesters quickly surrounded the man and began to beat him. Horse-mounted police intervened, ushering the white supremacists into the shelter of the Capitol building, a protective maneuver that had not been offered to victims, just moments before, when the white supremacists stabbed five people… Later that night, reflecting on all that had happened, I realized we had to do better. The next day I began contacting people who had confronted the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s and 1980s. I needed to know what they had learned while opposing organized racism and supporting social movements that were fighting for self-determination. I reached out to my dear friend James Tracy and asked him to help make sense of this history. What lessons did they learn, and how might we apply those insights and strategies today? Asking and answering those questions together led us to write this book. (P.22-3).

James Tracy follows a similar trajectory:

“I first met members of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee in the spring of 1989, when I was a teenager in Vallejo, California. At the time, several white supremacist organizations announced that they would stage an “Aryan Woodstock” white power concert in the unincorporated land between blue-collar Vallejo and Napa’s wine country. In the lead-up to the concert, I talked to a woman from the Committee who was distributing copies of the group’s newspaper, No KKK!, No Fascist USA!. I asked her what it was all about, and in the next five minutes she effortlessly connected a critique of U.S. imperialism, advocacy for the Black Liberation struggle, and an invitation for me to join others protesting the concert. None of these subjects was a hard sell for me. The crop of racist skinheads that had long been a part of the area were a source of annoyance at the Punk and New Wave shows my friends and I would attend. My father, a Vietnam Veteran, had unintentionally turned me into an anti-imperialist once he was able to tell me what he had witnessed in the Army. Black Liberation? I was down for that. I had worked as a janitor at an art gallery in town with a former member of the Black Panther Party who introduced me to the Panthers’ Ten-Point Program and shared back-in-the day stories with me as we mopped floors. To most of my friends, adherents of the Gospel According to the Dead Kennedys, white supremacy never made any sense,” (p. 23-24). 

The friendships helped make the connections real, pointing us in new directions, toward  ways of seeing, imaging, navigating it all.  These are the stories that James Tracy finds, that Anne-christine d’Adesky shares.   An investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker who reported on the global AIDS epidemic for The Village Voice, she was an early member of ACT UP and cofounder of the Lesbian Avengers. d’Adesky pens stories of sleeping on the Seine in Paris, dreaming about lovers in New York, movements from here to there, stories about slumming it in New Orleans and dancing with the sexy girls in Amsterdam, across continents, unpacking what it means to do activism, how it feels, why we do it, where it takes us, where we come from. From Haiti to Paris to New Orleans, Anne-christine d’Adesky has lived; in the Pox Lover, she takes measure, tracking the rise of populism and extreme nationalism that jettisoned Britain from Europe, sent Lula to Jail in Brazil, and Trump to office in the USA. The book explores the author’s 90s work and advocacy, tracking the rise of far-right populism – a harbinger of today’s headlines. Meandering through indelible moments in time, d’Adesky takes us on a tour of Manhattan’s once-funky and now-gentrified East Village: through squatter protests and civil disobedience clashes with police to all-night drag and art-dance parties. The author relives the fun-loving anarchy of the Lesbian Avengers and their dyke marches, and the iconic public funerals staged by ACT UP. She unsparingly charts her personal losses of friends and comrades to the plague. 

Traveling as a journalist to Paris, an insomniac d’Adesky trolls the Seine, encountering waves of exiles fleeing violence in the Balkans, Haiti, and Rwanda. As the last of the French Nazis stand trial and the new National Front rises in the polls, d’Adesky examines the rise of the new right-wing in the popularity of Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front, and his successor, daughter Marine Le Pen, a frontline 2017 presidential candidate. The author implicates her own bloodline in this history, digging into her aristocratic family’s roots in Vichy France and colonial Haiti.  In the preface, the author instructs readers, “All I ask here, at the start, is what was asked of me: that you keep an open mind. That’s the best compass of all, I’ve found. I ask that and your willingness to take a trip, to dig in, and risk getting your hands a little dirty. To have some fun. C’est tout.” The Pox Lover is a memoir, a manifesto, a coming-to-terms, a testament of a life lived both unwisely and too well, offering an enduring message: grab at life and love, connect with others, fight for justice, keep despair at bay, and remember. The author’s journey captures the evolving cultural changes shared by lesbian peers and the surviving 90s generation.

In an April 15, 2003 interview with the ACT UP Oral History Project, d’Adesky links the workings of friendship within ACT UP’s efforts to slow the carnage of the AIDS crisis.  Unpacking the source material for majestic Let the Record Show, interviewer Sarah Schulman notes:

“Okay. Now, a lot of people, for a lot of people, ACT UP was a place for – where they made friends, where they found lovers. There was a lot of social life. And certainly, you had quite a few girlfriends in ACT UP over time. How would that – if you were willing to say, who were some of the people you went out with and how did that impact on what subjects you got involved with? 

AD: Well, I don’t think it’s appropriate to name them without having checked with them first. Some of them, I don’t know that they’re identified as lesbians. 

SS: Well, then let’s call them Madame X or whatever – but, how did your sexual relationships with other women in ACT UP lead you to certain areas of interest?

AD: One of my great loves was a woman I met at an ACT UP conference. And, it was, very much, in and around ACT UP activities. I form very deep friendships. So, I think, in that way, definitely ACT UP was a place for people who I found interesting. They definitely came together there and I made friends with him there. I think that for the women who came into ACT UP, it’s interesting to me that I think I was primarily involved with women who have ended up being with men. I’m not sure what that really means. But, I think it means that a number of women were drawn to ACT UP because they were really drawn to the kind of energy that gay men brought to organizing and the sexuality that gay men have. I think that they felt very comfortable in …that’s a lot of young lesbians that I was around. It was certainly true for me.

SS: So, you’re one of the five founders of the Lesbian Avengers and that was 1993. What was it about ACT UP that made you decide to start the Lesbian Avengers? 

AD: Well, I think that – first of all, it was some of the experiences of friendships within ACT UP, and the watching the style of activism. Getting to know people like Maxine [Wolfe] and you – and feeling, I think that, at that point in the epidemic, that lesbians had been so actively involved and what was happening in the city at the time was that – I think – there just was very little visibility that was being given to lesbian issues on a national level, on a city level. And, I think it had to do with that generational shift that I was talking about, where you had women coming in who sort of had energy and brains and felt really strongly about the need for more visibility and attention to lesbian issues. And, there was also, I think, the sense of play that had emerged that has to do with the social aspect, also, of activism. And, I think it made activism more appealing to people. And, so I think that all the ingredients were there for women to say, we really want to hang out together, we want to do something, and we really need to speak out more. I think that time, also, was driven partly – it was partly in reaction to a climate of sort of, really right wing activity on the part of the Christian right. And so much attention had gone to AIDS issues that I think that less of it was going to gay and lesbians specifically. And again, when it was being addressed, it was being addressed to the way it related to gay men, and not to lesbians. And, so I think it was very natural for the Avengers to find that they had an issue around which they could speak that wasn’t just broad, lesbian visibility that allowed some organizing to happen…”

Schulman is our generation’s Hannah Arendt,with a mix of Studs Terkel. 

d’Adesky builds on these themes in the Pox Lover

Moore and Tracey highlight a few of the connections between, reminding readers of the links between those in the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee who experienced incarceration and the AIDS activists, whose stories d’Adesky traces, “confronting the politics of the carceral state.” This experience, “lead many to address the emerging AIDS related health crisis by organizing for better HIV treatments for incarcerated people and supporting the non-violent direct action group, ACT UP,” say the authors (p. 190). 

The lessons of the No Fascist USA extend in countless directions.  A few of these include the importance of solidarity, disrupting fascist messaging, building alliances, cultural work and perhaps most importantly, checking egos, and biases, while remaining open to new approaches. “Self righteousness was a glaring weakness of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee,” say Moore and Tracey. “In the early years, the Committee often turned differences between progressive groups into points of antagonism and competition.  ‘We tended to out left each other,’ said Laura Whitehorn ” (p. 218-9).  We are all human. Everyone has flaws.  We all do. Within this, it is useful to recognize rigid, righteousness is dangerous, eroding movements and opportunities, undermining friendship, solidarity and ultimately the power of movements themselves. 

By the end of the 1990’s, d’Adesky looks to the conflicts that lead neighbors to turn on neighbors, from the Balkans to Rwanda. “Our contemporary genocides,” says d’Adesky. “Armenia, Cambodia.  How can such events take place, in this day and age, knowing all we do about the Holocaust?  Our love of purity is instilled early on and constantly nurtured.  We ask ourselves why people are drawn to a Hitler or a Le Pen or Pol Pot.  Because they touch us where we are vulnerable, where we have some longing for order, for control, for purity.  Someone to blame for chaos and insecurity in our lives.  The other… It makes me think of how much we we have in common with our perceived enemies.  Its so much easier to hate them, isn’t it?  To distance ourselves from them on the basis of perceived differences.  But what is it I have in common with a Hitler or a Karadzic that I’m compelled to think about – not how I’m different,” wonders d’Adesky (p. 254).

d’Adesky beseech us to ask the hard questions about ourselves and our movements. 

Moore and Tracey remind us that friendships matter as organizing is an art. 

The throughlines between movement narratives are many.  From ACT UP to the Black Panthers, John Brown Anti Klan Committee to Healthgap, movements ebb in countless directions.  I feel them after being arrested, processed in central booking in New York, looking at the old ACT UP, Reclaim the Streets, stickers, overlapping with newer Extinction Rebellion stickers that have found themselves onto the holding cells, remembering the arrests, the actions, the stories we shared inside, the long conversations with my graduate school advisors, and comrades, union members and fellow anarchists, waiting to get out, eating bologna sandwiches with my comrades, gossiping with Bob Kohler about Sylvia and Jim Eigo, thinking about who we’ve been here with in my dozens of visits inside over the years, recalling friends.  I see them in No Fascist USA and The Pox Lover and their overlapping narratives of friendship and struggles for autonomy, health and freedom of bodies, minds and ideas through time.   

Benjamin Shepard is a reluctant organizer, a supporter of unions, and Professor in the Human Services Department at City Tech/CUNY. He is author of numerous books including Illuminations-on-Market-Street, Brooklyn-Tides, as well as Sustainable Urbanism and Direct Action: Case Studies in Dialectical Activism, from which this essay was born.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Catharine MacKinnon: Interview: Catharine MacKinnon on Abortion and Misogyny

By Richard Wolin: Introduction to Martin Heidegger’s “The German Student as Worker” and “The German University”*

By Martin Heidegger: The German Student as Worker: Matriculation Ceremony Speech November 25th, 1933

By Martin Heidegger: The German University

By Philip Green: The Alt-Left and Ukraine

By Elizabeth S. Corredor: The Right-Wing Myth of “Gender Ideology”

By Barry McCrea: The Novel in Ireland and the Language Question: Joyce’s Complex Legacy

By Paola Cavalieri: “You’ll Come with Me”: Humans and Animals in Times of War

By Axel Fair-Schulz: The Two Faces of East German Socialism

By Bill Nevins: Poetry Review Column

By Benjamin Shepard: REVIEW ESSAY: On Friendship and Social Movements: AIDS activism and struggles against fascism, global AIDS and harm reduction

By Justin Elghanayan: Review Essay: Thomas de Zengotita’s Postmodern Theory and Progressive Politics: Toward a New Humanism (New York: Palgrave, 2019)

By Bill Nevins: Review: Fintan O’Toole, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland (Liveright /W.W. Norton, 2022)

By Warren Leming: Review: Aaron J. Leonard, The Folk Singers and the Bureau (London: Repeater Books, 2020)

By Michael R. Jackson: Review: John McWhorter, Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America (New York: Forum, 2021)

By Amy Starecheski: Review: Benjamin Heim Shepard’s Sustainable Urbanism and Direct Action: Case Studies in Dialectical Activism (Rowman & Littlefield: 2021)

By Kevin Dan: Review: Benjamin Shepard, Sustainable Urbanism and Direct Action: Case Studies in Dialectical Activism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021)