How the SFPD Shut Down Dennis Peron’s Cannabis Buyers Club

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“While I was growing up I thought, Dennis, you’re gay, Liberace is your role model, you’re Italian, you’ve got a fucked up family, you’re white trash, but at least you’ve got marijuana. It’s your friend. It’s your advisor. It’s your buddy who will never leave you. It saved my life. Damn sure.”

–Dennis Peron interviewed by Chris Simunek in 2015 via Paradise Burning. (Link to full interview.)

In a previous post, I reported on how the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) used gay officer Joe Bannon to conduct surveillance upon the sick and dying patients obtaining medical cannabis at Dennis Peron’s Cannabis Buyers Club. The CBC was the first establishment in the USA to openly sell cannabis to medical patients as an act of civil disobedience against ongoing prohibition. Bannon, along with other SFPD officers, infiltrated the CBC by posing as disabled patients seeking relief from medical complications.

Bannon’s need to portray himself as ultra masculine and tough on crime served to curry favor with the department’s top brass. He betrayed the LGBT community by targeting an establishment that catered to gay men overcoming complications from AIDS. The SFPD’s macho attitude, as typified in the Dirty Harry movie series, promoted a culture that justified recklessness and a disregard for the communities it was purported to serve.

Retired SFPD Captain Gregory Corrales

There is no better example of this lawless “Wild West” attitude than Capt. Greg Corrales who was among the department’s first Latino officers when he joined the predominantly Irish American force in 1969, according to a 2014 SF Examiner profile. Corrales retuned from military service in Vietnam with a new job that saw him transferred to the department’s notorious tactical squad (a precursor to SWAT) that focused on anti-war demonstrations and people burning the American flag.

Corrales swiftly moved to the undercover narcotics unit which would eventually bring him into contact with another Vietnam veteran named Dennis Peron who had returned stateside with two pounds of cannabis in an Air Force bag. Joining the Bay Area’s burgeoning counter-culture, Peron came out as gay and became a cannabis dealer with a conscious.

In the mid 1970s his restaurant and bar The Island, based in the Castro neighborhood, was frequented by progressive politicians including Harvey Milk. Those in the know could purchase cannabis in the flat above the restaurant. It was at this time that Corrales and Peron’s fateful connection emerged.

The dramatic events are detailed in activist and author Fred Gardner’s October 1996 article, originally scheduled to run in The New Yorker just before the election for Proposition 215, the first successful statewide medical marijuana initiative. According to Garner’s editor, he was offered a $3,000 “kill fee” following pressure on Tina Brown, the magazine’s chief editor, by psychiatrist Mitch Rosenthal, a special Consultant to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, her “guru on drug issues.”

Gardner writes that it was during a raid on Peron’s Castro Street apartment that he was shot in the thigh by Officer Paul Mackavekias. The second officer to enter Peron’s home was Mackavekias’ partner Greg Corrales. The criminal trial lasted four months.

“All Mackavekias’s testimony was thrown out after he blurted, in the presence of witnesses, that he wished he’d killed Peron so there’d be ‘one less faggot in San Francisco.’ Dennis received a lighter sentence as a result of this outburst, and wound up doing seven months in San Bruno.”

Mackavekias was later to serve two years in prison after the FBI nabbed him in a bribery sting for taking $25,000 in exchange for issuing false taxi cab licenses.

Over the next twenty years Peron would lay the groundwork for the history changing medical cannabis movement. In 1991 he had successfully sponsored Proposition P, which was passed by 80% of San Francisco voters, that urged the police department and District Attorney to make cannabis arrests and prosecution the lowest priority. Of course it took over two decades before the police department finally adhered to the will of voters. Shortly after Prop. P’s victory, Peron opened the CBC.

Meanwhile, Corrales made a name for himself in the SFPD. His captain’s report, released each week to media outlets, routinely described arrests involving cannabis as “The Weed with Roots in Hell.” Nicknamed “The Archenemy of Evil,” Corrales fashioned himself as some sort of comic book hero. According to former police chief Greg Suhr, “He wore a shoulder holster with a 6-inch, chrome .44 magnum outside his shirt — and that was in uniform,” Suhr said. “He used to wear a Superman shirt under his stuff all the time.”

At the Cannabis Buyer’s Club of San Francisco, Dennis Peron, the director, lights up some marijuana for Hazel Rodgers, who like other customers seeks relief from a painful medical condition. NY Times Feb. 25, 1996 page 9

By 1996, Peron and the CBC had put medical cannabis on the national stage as California voters were preparing to vote on Prop. 215. Corrales was by then the commanding officer of the SFPD’s narcotics division where one of his subordinates was Joe Bannon who was spearheading the nearly two year long undercover investigation and infiltration of the CBC which reached extensive proportions.

This is when the narrative explodes into a saga worthy of David Simon’s The Wire. The SFPD had pressured then District Attorney Arlo Smith to prosecute Peron and the CBC, but he declined. Bannon was working simultaneously for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). At some point contact was made with the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement (BNE) who may have been responsible for video surveillance that was conducted against the CBC’s third location at 1444 Market Street. At the time, it was common knowledge that law enforcement had set up shop in the Bank of America building across the street from the CBC.

According to Gardner’s article,

“They forged letters of diagnosis on fabricated doctors’ letterheads and even set up phone lines so that a club registration worker calling to confirm a patient’s letter would reach an agent at BNE headquarters pretending to be a doctor’s receptionist. And the imaginary doctor was named ‘Nokamura.'”

The surveillance and harassment reached a tipping point on August 4th when federal, state and city law enforcement burst into the club seizing cannabis, cash and pointing guns at the heads of medical patients present inside the building.

SF Chronicle Aug. 8, 1996 pages 1, 11. CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

SF Chronicle Aug. 8, 1996 page 11, CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

ACT UP SF flyer by David Pasquarelli.

There was wide spread condemnation directed towards state Attorney General Dan Lungren, who oversaw the BNE and helped orchestrate the raid of the CBC, as well as residential homes of some of the club’s employee. However recently elected Mayor Willie Brown was reticent to criticize then Police Chief Fred Lau. Corrales and others officers attempted to minimize SFPD involvement in the raid, only citing Bannon as a chief participant.

The controversy surrounding the CBC bust backfired against Lungren and helped ensure Prop. 215’s passage two months later. Lungren was pilloried in the public and press, becoming the source of biting satire (as covered in a previous post) in a week long installment in the popularly syndicated comic strip Doonesbury. In a guest opinion for the SF Chronicle, Lungren demanded the strip be run side-by-side with a disclaimer and stated that pulling the cartoon from publication would “mark a courageous and stirring turn of events in the evolving history of drug abuse in America.

Corrales retired from the force in 2014. Bannon eventually moved to L.A. where he markets his mix of martial arts and militarism to Hollywood productions. Peron died earlier this year having lived long enough to see cannabis legalized in California. As the level of government surveillance continues unabated, regardless of a Democratic or Republican administration, and municipal police forces become increasingly weaponized, the lessons of the fight against cannabis prohibition illustrate the cost of freedom.

The SFPD’s War on Dennis Peron and the Cannabis Buyers Club

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As yet another Presidential administration continues to demonize the legalization of cannabis, which now extends beyond medicinal use, it’s important that we look back to the history of the persecution of patients, caregivers and those who provided medical cannabis. Whether it’s Bill Clinton or Donald Trump, the law and order goons of federal authorities persist in creating a climate of fear around cannabis distribution.

In a previous ACT UP Archives post, I examined the closure of the Cannabis Buyers Club (CBC) in 1996 by then California Attorney General Daniel Lungren who sought to influence the upcoming ballot initiative Proposition 215, which ultimately passed as the first state wide medical cannabis legislation. The closure of the club, which was located at 1444 Market Street, proved not only detrimental to patients’ and caregivers’ access to medical cannabis but also the ability for the community to gather and socialize at the four-story building that was more than a so-called pot shop. The CBC provided a space for the ill and marginalized to share, connect and heal.

The raid on the CBC was led by agents of the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement assisted by the Drug Enforcement Agency. What is less well known is how integral role played by officers of the San Francisco Police Department in building a case against the CBC. While the chief architect was Captain Greg Corrales (his role in the sting operation will be examined in a future post), this post will shed light upon the close to two years  which the SFPD waged a campaign of surveillance against the CBC that was spearheaded by openly gay SFPD officer Joe Bannon.

Gay cop Joe Bannon worked for the SFPD as an undercover agent in a sting operation against the Cannabis Buyers Club.

Well known in the Castro as the “gay cop” in the 1990s, Joe Bannon embodied all the characteristics of toxic masculinity. With his muscular physique, crew cut and mustache, Bannon was literally playing the part of the good cop. Though he eagerly used his position as an out-of-the-closet cop to illustrate the liberal policies of the city’s police department, Bannon was in fact targeting the most vulnerable within his community: gay men with disabling AIDS diagnoses.

Through documents later released during legal proceedings, we can trace the level of involvement the SFPD played in targeting the CBC and stifling patients’ access to medication. Using a membership card obtained from a “confidential source,” Bannon  purchased medical cannabis several times over a two month period at the end of 1994 when the CBC was located at 194 Church Street. Additionally four other narcotics officers made purchases while posing as patients. These documents also reveal that the CBC was under video surveillance, recording the patients and caregivers who entered and exited the club.

Even more disturbing is the fact that two SFPD officers posed at medical patients to CBC founder Dennis Peron as they filled out applications to obtain membership. It is important to remember that in 1991 Peron had successfully sponsored Proposition P which was passed by 80% of San Francisco voters. Prop. P resolved that “the Board of Supervisors urges the Mayor to urge the Police Commission and the District Attorney of the City and County of San Francisco to make lowest priority the arrest or prosecution of those involved in the possession or cultivation of hemp for medicinal purpose.”

Bannon continued his surveillance on the club into the following year. When the CBC moved to a larger location on Market Street in October of 1995, Bannon’s undercover operation expanded as he began questioning how many people worked at the club and how much they were paid. He additionally reviewed local and national newspapers for stories documenting the club’s operation. At the end of his declaration, Bannon characterizes the CBC as “a center for local criminal activity.”

While it’s true that cannabis purchased at the CBC was sometimes resold on the street, that was not the fault of Peron or his employees. Given that the plant continues to be classified by the federal government as Schedule 1 narcotic (having no known medicinal value), its continued prohibition is what creates a lucrative street market. It was unconscionable for the SFPD and other law enforcement to penalize sick and terminally ill patients for that activity.

Dallas Voice, Spet. 17, 1993, Page 16

In preparing this post, I decided to do some investigative work of my own into what Joe Bannon has been up to the last two decades. Following his dismissal from the SFPD due to his participation in the CBC raid, Bannon progressed in his work with the DEA serving as a Covert and Special Operative. From there he had numerous jobs within federal law enforcement including working with the Attorney General and the Dept. of Justice in Los Angeles.

Never one to shy away from bragging about his special ops activities, Bannon once provided protection detail for Pope John Paul II. “I provided close-quarter protection for the Popemobile when he gave a service at Mission Dolores in San Francisco in 1987,” Bannon said. “I helped him down the stairs of the Popemobile and he smiled at me and touched me on the shoulder. Everyone wanted to rub my shoulder after that to get, like, a blessing out of me.” We are left to wonder what the Pope would have made of Bannon targeting AIDS and cancer patients.

Currently Bannon resides in Southern California where he runs the Bannon Institute of Combat Neuroscience whose tag line is “The Best Defense Against Evil, Violent Men Are Good Men Who Are Better Skilled At Violence.” According to his website, Bannon’s work is a mix of martial arts training and consulting for film and television work.

In case readers might think I am being too harsh in my critique of Bannon, have a look at  this trailer for the unfinished film Shield of Honor – The Joe Bannon Story. The 2 minute clip features sourced television footage of the CBC as Bannon defiantly relates that he was in fact trying to “enlighten President Clinton and the rest of the staff what was going on here [at the CBC.]

UPDATE: Following publication of this post, the makers of yet-to-be-completed documentary on Bannon deleted their Facebook page which contained the above mentioned trailer.

Shield of Honor – The Joe Bannon Story

Teaser trailer for the feature length documentary Shield of Honor.

Posted by Mana Storm on Friday, March 6, 2009

Now that adult cannabis sales are legal in eight states in the U.S., it is only a matter of time before federal prohibition is ultimately rescinded. When that historic day comes, it will be up to Bannon, and his law and order cronies, to reckon with their own personal history in cannabis prohibition and the immense harm it has caused.

Here is the full declaration of Joe Bannon. Click on image to enlarge the text.

 

Remembering John Hudson– Pioneer Cultivator of Medical Cannabis

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The legalization of cannabis in California this year is an historic event that will beget even more significant changes in medical care, agriculture, law enforcement and numerous other areas. While many people are familiar with Prop. 215, the first state legislation legalizing medical cannabis, and its chief proponent Dennis Peron, there remains less documentation on the long road that lead to today’s landmark moment.Among the many people involved in the early days of medical cannabis legalization was John Hudson who died last week in Oakland. I first met John in 1994 when I began working at Dennis Peron’s Cannabis Buyers Club (CBC), the first venue to openly sell cannabis to patients with AIDS, cancer and glaucoma. With his bushy mustache and devilish grin, John’s mouth often burst wide open to release his reverberating laughter.

The haze of cannabis smoke filled the sun filtered air inside the compact space of the Buyers Club that was invariably filled with a vibrant mixture of queers, queens and other hold outs from the counter culture. Given that I was 21 and just out of the closet, back then everything was new to me. It was tempting to see that experience as a resin soaked trip on a time machine back to the 1960s. But as a member of the direct action AIDS protest group ACT UP San Francisco, my actions were firmly rooted in the present moment.

For all the stereotypes about lazy stoners, Peron consistently surrounded himself with the type of participants whose dedication came from the conviction of their personal experience. I was a bit curious about John Hudson. After all the CBC could be as cruisy as any gay bar in the Castro and John Hudson was unmistakably heterosexual. What was this dude doing in a place like the CBC?

Click to enlarge article

I soon learned that he was a key participant in the active disruption of unjust laws and attitudes that maintained cannabis prohibition. On a more specific note, John was a master grower of the cannabis plant at a time when doing so put one at great risk. As long as I knew and worked with John Hudson, the focus was always on providing the best quality medication to the patient’s in greatest need.

While John Hudson was heterosexual, he was by no means straight. Some of details I learned over time about John Hudson was that he had some experience with comics and comedy clubs. No matter how heavy it could get from seeing people you knew and cared about progress to death, John always found a reason to laugh. I also remember him saying that his father was among those involved in the development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He was a classic example of the counter culture’s rebellion against authority but always with a sense of humor that was irreverent without taking himself too seriously.

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It’s a longer history than I can convey in a blog post, but by the summer of 1996 I was no longer working at the CBC which had by that point moved to its four story headquarters on Market Street. I’d already decamped and helped open the city’s first delivery service. In the summer of 1996 as we inched closer to the election day for Prop. 215, there began a viscous reaction to the open challenge against medical cannabis prohibition.

Then state Attorney General Dan Lungren raided the CBC, confiscating it’s cannabis and closing the club. This was a double blow as the CBC was not just a place to purchase medical cannabis but also a meeting place, a community space for those marginalized by their medical or economic situations. It was in response to this attack on our community, that a number of former colleagues from the CBC banned together to defiantly open a new dispensary.

Flower Therapy opened about two months before the passage of Prop. 215. We were the first dispensary that was designed to operate as above board business in anticipation of the new legislation. In hindsight many of the steps we took, such as registering for a business license (product? dried flowers), are now common place.

Click to enlarge article

John Hudson’s focus was always to grow the best quality cannabis for patients. His vision for Flower Therapy was to drive down the price which remained exorbitant due to the extreme risk faced by underground growers. John’s idea was to have all parts of the plan remain in house to keep the prices low and return profits back into the business.

Ultimately these plans were thwarted during the brief but brilliant existence of Flower Therapy when we were raided by DEA agents of the Clinton administration on April 21, 1997. Federal authorities cited among their reasons for the raid, John’s open advocacy for growing cannabis. Being photographed by the SF Chronicle (see scans above) in front of his indoor grow was more than they could stand. The implied threat was that we might have been able to continue to operate under the radar if our boss weren’t so outspoken in his challenge to authority, but for John Hudson that was never an option. The opportunity to inform and support patients and caregivers in cultivating their own medicine was the fire that drove his engine.

Click to enlarge article

There is of course more to this story, more players and developments, that I plan to explore in further posts. After the closure of Flower Therapy, ACT UP San Francisco acted as a front group in order for John to continue distribution until that relationship became unsustainable. That’s when I lost touch with John Hudson as I focused on establishing the ACT UP SF dispensary which continued as one of the city’s longest operating dispensaries (14 years) until it was shut down by federal agents of the Obama administration.

A memorial for John will be held on Sat. January 27 from 2-4PM at the cannabis dispensary Magnolia in Oakland.

On the Occassion of David Pasquarelli’s 50th Birthday

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Today would have been the 50th birthday of my dear friend and ACT UP San Francisco comrade David Pasquarelli who was taken from us not only  too soon but under most distressful circumstances. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve tried a number of times to compose something in remembrance of David but none of it felt right.

Too often the pain and sorrow of his death prevented the abundance of joy, wisdom and compassion that was so much a part of David from coming to the fore. Or I ended up writing more about my own experience of sharing his friendship through the tumultuous years of fighting AIDS.

While neither of those are necessarily bad (and may indeed find their proper place somewhere here on ACT UP Archives), my desire is to honor David in a way that connects not only with those who knew and loved him but also those who never had that chance. Though his activism was often stereotyped as dangerous or violent, the truth is that David Pasquarelli gave all he had because of a deep love for humanity that would not allow him to remain silent in the face of injustice.

There are so many things I miss about David, from the physical (his dazzling smile, his beautiful blue eyes) to the cultural (his impeccable taste in music and clothes), but most of all I miss his voice. Not just the soft sound of his speech but what he articulated––the intelligence and historical import, the power and hope which we all received from his impassioned participation.

To say that the loss of David’s voice robs me, robs all of us, of an essential element is an overwhelming understatement. Not only did he make sense of the chaos during those desperate times and provide moral clarity in a culture of greed, David’s voice help to unite us in response to what was at that time was the threat of extinction for gay men.

If the slogan Silence=Death was a gauntlet thrown down by ACT UP New York, then it was up to each of us to not only speak our truth but challenge injustice, to use our mind, body and voice as an obstacle to destruction.

David’s courage, intelligence, artistry and empathy for the marginalized remains a benchmark for what these days is termed social justice activism. I’m not sure what David would make of today’s dystopian world (other than the fact that he, more than anyone I knew, would have excelled with the myriad technological advances). I know that whatever he would be doing, it would be grounded in helping others and preserving the rich legacy of queer history.

The black button with a pink triangle that hangs above my writing desk reminds me Silence=Death. In the case of David Pasquarelli, and many others who gave their lives in the fight against AIDS, that prophecy was made true for only a force as insurmountable as death could have silenced his shinning, valiant voice. Thanks to the material that remains in the ACT UP Archives, there is ample documentation. I look forward to sharing more of that with you all.

Blessed Be.

 

Shoot the Rich! Ronnie Burk’s Homage to Andrew Cunanan

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“A society where the police shoot black and latino teenagers daily…A society fueled by racism, homophobia, misogyny and class privilege. A society where killing faggots is viewed as a male past time. Unless, of course, you are a member of the super rich. In such a society we can only salute your audacity and rage.”

On the twentieth anniversary of the suicide of gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan, the infamous assassin of fashion designer Gianni Versace, let’s take a look back at one of poet Ronnie Burk’s most controversial statements as a member of ACT UP San Francisco.

ACT UP SF Protesting the Presidential Commission on AIDS, Atlanta, July 1997. Photo © Terry Kennedy.

In the summer of 1997, ACT UP SF had traveled to Atlanta, Georgia to protest a meeting of Bill Clinton’s Presidential Commission on AIDS. The group’s demands included funding not only for pharmaceuticals but food and shelter for PWAs as well as a ban on animal research.

It was during that same week that the manhunt for Cunanan was dominating the news media. Updates from the Atlanta based CNN were a fixture on our hotel room’s TV as Ronnie relished the sensational coverage. An avowed Communist who advocated the violent overthrow of the ruling class, Ronnie Burk was in many ways better suited to the time of Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg.

“In a world where the wealthy pay for the love they are incapable of giving we offer you our love freely and without reservation.”

Photo © Betty Best

Cunanan’s FBI Wanted poster was all around town as it was thought he might have traveled from Miami to Atlanta. Taking a copy from a storefront window, I offered it to Ronnie as a souvenir of the group’s trip. The day after Cunanan’s suicide, he could be overheard on the phone telling friends he was distraught over the death of his son.

While this may seem grossly offensive to many, Ronnie’s morbid humor was decidedly politically incorrect. However the intent to shock wasn’t merely sensational in the vein of today’s Nationalist homosexual provocateurs such as has-been Milo Yiannopulos, John Birch Society wannabe Lucian Wintrich or muscle-pumped fascist Jack Donovan.

Burk’s political prose was a critique of deeper socio-political issues, both informed and impassioned, the hallmarks of his writing as a member of ACT UP San Francisco. Let’s not forget he was a surrealist and knew from the movement’s history that art was political. =

By the time we’d return to the Bay Area, Ronnie had completed a statement regarding Cunanan’s killing spree and what it represented about America. Ascribed to The Thelma & Louise Gang, the flyer was immediately wheat pasted around the Castro neighborhood. Its incendiary prose, like the bulk of Burk’s artwork, remains powerfully prophetic. Here is the complete text:

“Biracial, HIV-positive, out since high school, male homosexual turned prostitute turn assassin. You broke all the rules. Having wined and dined in the company of the haughty rich we know you had special insights into the bankrupt values of this thoroughly corrupt society. A society where the police shoot black and latino teenagers daily. A society so visibly bankrupt on the moral plane we cannot help but point out for the past fifty years has prepared the world for nuclear annihilation all in the name of maintaining the status quo. A society fueled by racism, homophobia, misogyny and class privilege. A society where killing faggots is viewed as a male past time. Unless, of course, you are a member of the super rich. In such a society we can only salute your audacity and rage.”

Click to enlarge

“For a moment you struck terror in a sector of the ruling class we know to be hypocritical to the core. Paying for sex at night, attending mass in the morning, all in time to make a trip to the bank by noon. Clueless as ever, the rich, all dressed up with nowhere to go, are heading for the trashcan of historical obsolescence. As this society condemns millions to poverty, disease, homelessness and despair. As the concentration of the wealth continues to accumulate in smaller and smaller hands. As the delusions of grander of the vainglorious rich have them reenacting the court past times of Versailles and the Medicis. You showed us the solution to the greatest social problem of our era by doing what the rest of us are supposed to be doing, shoot the rich!”

“In a world where the wealthy pay for the love they are incapable of giving we offer you our love freely and without reservation.”

“Rest easy little brother. History will have its revenge! The Thelma & Louise Gang SF July 1997”

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In previous posts (here and here) I’ve highlighted material from the archive of actress and artist Monica Sanchez who was a good friend of Ronnie’s. Recently I came across this supplementary statement about Cunanan:

“People forget Andrew Philip Cunanan was a human being who loved and felt pain and rejection. A little boy who wanted to be loved. We pay the price for every suffering child. I know his rage and I love him for lashing out and I don’t care what even my dearest friends think of my opinion. He was a hero of the gay community to be canonized!”

Ronnie Burk’s poem Listen, whiteman!

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Before becoming a member of ACT UP San Francisco in 1996, Ronnie Burk lived on the island of Maui at several different periods in the early 1990s. Along with writing poetry and studying Buddhism, he became aware of the Hawaiian people’s struggle against racism and exploitation, something he himself experienced as a gay man of Mexican and Indigenous American descent.

In Monica Sanchez‘s archive there are several letters he wrote to The Maui News on this topic. Here is one of a few examples of Ronnie including collage with the presentation of a poem. “Listen, whiteman!” speaks prophetically to the challenges the world faces in this day and age.

Michael Bellefountaine’s Early Activism in ACT UP Maine

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“They advertised it all over town that they expected to block traffic and do civil disobedience type of things.”

Michael Chitwood, Portland Police Chief

Michael Bellefountaine is carried away by police in an ACT UP Maine protest against AIDS and the Iraq War, Jan. 23, 1991.

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the death of ACT UP activist Michael Bellefountaine, let’s take a look back to his formative years as a direct action activist. Hailing from rural Maine, Michael was among the first generation of queers who came out in the early shadow of ACT UP’s militant approach to fighting AIDS. The organization just celebrated the 30th anniversary of its first demonstration in April, 1987.

It was a much different time back then to be out, loud and proud; one that required a hefty amount of courage and perseverance. By 1989 Michael was traveling to Boston and New York by bus to participate in meetings and actions where he learned the basics of a new movement in AIDS activism that was as informed as it was confrontational.

In the summer of 1990 he was one of the co-founders of ACT UP Maine along with C.T. Butler. Butler was also one of the founders of Food Not Bombs whose use of consensus for group process and decision making became a core of Bellefountaine’s involvement with ACT UP and other direct action movements such as animal rights.

AIDS activist Michael Bellefountaine marches in Portland, Maine’s gay pride march circa 1990.

Among the dozens of boxes in the ACT UP Archives still to be processed, there is one with Michael’s material of activism which predates his arrival in San Francisco, with David Pasquarelli, at the end of 1993. For several months I’ve been digitizing a small binder of photocopies from ACT UP Maine’s first action in the summer of 1990 until Michael’s move to Florida in 1992.

Now that those photocopies and a couple of darkening news clippings have been scanned, I’ll begin highlighting selections from the news coverage of ACT UP Maine. For many years ACT UP SF’s detractors attempted to delegitimize the radical dissident chapter in the tiresome gay political parlor game of whose right it is to use that five letter acronym.

These documents help illustrate the foundation of Michael Bellefountaine’s fifteen years of ACT UP activism which came from direct participation in the actions and demonstrations of the its original East Coast roots, with a strong emphasis on people with AIDS and HIV living in rural communities.

Casgow Bay Weekly, Jan. 31, 1991. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

Though it began in the waining years of the Regean administration, ACT UP came into its own during the Presidency of George H.W. Bush. Among the group’s most celebrated actions was the Day of Desperation on January 23, 1991– coordinated protest against Bush’s Persian Gulf War and the perpetuation of armed conflict in the Middle East.

On that day the rallying cry was “No Blood For Oil”. ACT UP’s charge of “Money For AIDS Not For War” began with early morning protests in downtown Manhattan, culminating with a massive demonstration at Grand Central Station at 5PM to coincide with rush hour traffic. The most audacious action took place the night before when members of ACT UP New York stormed into the live taping of CBS Evening News. While the befuddled anchor Dan Rather began evening’s broadcast, activists jumped on camera chanting “AIDS is News; Fight AIDS, Not Arabs!”

Portland Press Herald, Jan. 24, 1991. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

ACT UP Maine also took the streets that morning as the war approached six months of death and environmental destruction in the Persian Gulf. Like many rural chapters, ACT UP Maine harnessed the national protests to call attention to local issues affecting people with AIDS and HIV.

Ultimately 10 members of the group were arrested for blocking traffic in downtown Portland. 6 men and 4 women lay down across Congress Street at Monument Square during a lunch hour march and rally. The choice of location maximized exposure to ACT UP Maine’s message challenging the government’s misdirection of priorities and funding.

Speakers blamed leaders from both the state and the nation for creating a mood of public apathy and indifference. Their demands included AIDS specific clinics and that doctor’s ensure care for patients without insurance.

Sarasota Herald Tribune, Feb. 1, 1991. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

The best coverage of the demo came from the Jan. 24, 1991 Portland Press Herald which featured a pair of eye-catching photos including the iconic image of Bellefountaine being dragged off by Portland Police officers. That striking photograph was picked up by wire news services and reprinted across the nation. Here’s a clipping printed the following week in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

The best quote came from Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood, “They advertised it all over town that they expected to block traffic and do civil disobedience type of things.” The “advertisements” were likely flyers wheat pasted around town encouraging citizens to participate while informing them of the reasons for the scheduled protest.

After speeches, ACT UP Maine activists ignited flares atop placards as 10 participants darted into the street and laid on their backs until they were forcibly removed by law enforcement. Charged with misdemeanor citations for obstructing a public way, the activists were transported to the Cumberland County Jail.

“At the jail, the protestors refused to identify themselves. Instead, they gave the names of public figures that ACT UP regards as adversaries, among them U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, state Human Services Commissioner Rollin Ives and Jasper Wyman of the Maine Christian Civic League.”

During the demonstration, participants carried tombstone shaped signs and pushed homemade black wooden coffins. In messages to the media, activists took aim at the nation’s misplaced sense of urgency, highlighting the discrepancy of resources between the Persian Gulf War and AIDS War. As speaker Patrick Dunn stated, “Because of the war in the Persian Gulf, it’s been easy to put this war aside…This was hasn’t ended. We’ve been fighting this war 11 years.”

Portland Evening Express, Jan. 24, 1991. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

As our country continues its destructive journey on the bloody path of endless war, it’s the legacy of direct action activists like Michael Bellefountaine whose 15 year commitment to ACT UP’s struggle for justice and dignity for people with AIDS and the still unfulfilled promise of queer liberation that provides perspective and inspiration to continue the persistence of resistance.

 

The Full Spectrum by Ronnie Burk

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I came across this letter from Ronnie to his dear friend, the actress and author Monica Sanchez, while digitizing her archive of material from Ronnie. The last four pages struck me as prophetic.

I’ve chosen the title “THE FULL SPECTRUM” and share these scans and my own transcription with Monica’s permission.

THE FULL SPECTRUM by Ronnie Burk.

It goes beyond conceptions of art or literature or even greatness.

The illusions (all of them) are wearing thin.

We need theater, art, literature that answers our desires. That manifests the world we desire. Not in reaction or in response to a given historical condition i.e. the oppression of (fill in the blank) people:
Hawaiian
Chicano
Hopi
Negro
Queer

We need to rebuild the garden of Eden. Hand Adam back his rib and tell god the father to go fuck himself. All myths are coming to an end. It is the Zen of time & there is no way out except up.

For the (fill in the blank) people this situation is hell i.e. a bottom line situation, and we don’t need another gang war to remind us the zoot suit, the Chulo look, the Nike baseball cap ghetto blaster children know & will tell you

“Get a life”

because this is not a life. This is a place for dead people and wannabes. What we want in the end is simply to live & that is the very source of our art which can be, in another form, defined as light. THE FULL SPECTRUM.

Once we come to the full understanding as a (fill in the blank) people, the world will explode & none of us will be able to continue we have. This is the role of the artist as Artaud said “Signal through the Flames” as the world is burning.

The world is burning & it is our collective delusion– “mass hallucination” propped up by TV, Hollywood, religion, history (as we are told), academia, i.e. media– that keeps us locked into this given format i.e. the white man’s reality. Which is to not see the world is burning and we don’t need “The Nutty Professor” to tell us there’s a hole in the ozone. I believe we will make it. But it’s going to take a lot of waking up. Are you ready to set the alarm clock?

Good night,

R.B.

Ronnie Burk’s Radical Activism in “Post-AIDS” San Francisco

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ACT UP SF member Ronnie Burk being taken into SFPD custody at the Womens’ Building on Oct. 16, 1997. Photo © Terry Kennedy.

“Notorious yet neglected, reviled but revered, Ronnie Burk redefined what it meant to be an HIV/AIDS activist in twenty-first century America.”

Over two decades have passed since Chicano Surrealist poet Ronnie Burk walked into a collectively run punk rock record store in San Francisco’s Mission District to learn more about ACT UP San Francisco. Despite having tested HIV positive in the early 1990s, Ronnie remained asymptomatic while he watched friends and lovers decompose from AZT. The recycled cancer chemotherapy received FDA approval in a fraudulent clinical trial as documented in John Lauritsen’s essential book Poison by Prescription: The AZT Story (which can be read at the following link: http://tinyurl.com/PoisonByPrescription.) There was little reason to believe the currently hyped protease inhibitors would be much different. Resisting the hard sell by Dr. Toby Dyner at Health Center #1 in the Castro, Ronnie searched for information that was not directly influenced by pharmaceutical funding.

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When news that members of ACT UP San Francisco had disrupted a panel of physicians with ties to the pharmaceutical industry at the 1996 International AIDS Conference in Vancouver by throwing beet juice on AIDS doctors, Ronnie was intent on learning more about the renegade group demanding the deadly AIDS drug AZT be pulled from the market while challenging researchers to pull their financial ties with the drug companies and focus on boosting the cell-mediated immune system.

After just three months of regular attendance at Monday night general body meetings, Ronnie was ready to take action. He had moved to SF in the early 1990s after friends had told him it was the model city for HIV services. In a time of great need he went to the SF AIDS Foundation to obtain emergency housing. Given a voucher to a Mission District hotel room filled with roaches, Ronnie was mugged in the hallway at knife point. When he learned that the SFAF’s executive director, a heterosexual white woman named Pat Christen, made more than the President of the United States, his response was certain to create controversy.

“Burk’s beliefs did not develop in a vacuum, however. The rise of the AIDS dissident movement in San Francisco not only gestures to the fractured political and medical landscape of the city at the start of the new millennium but to the homogeneity of HIV/AIDS discourse in North America.”

At a public event where Christen (dubbed Fat Cat Pat) was moderating a panel, Ronnie took the stage and dumped a bag of cat feces upon “her detestable person.” It ignited a shitstorm that lasted for years in the local gay paper Bay Area Reporter‘s letters to the editor about the discrepancy of services versus salaries– a tenet of ACT UP SF’s call for AIDS accountability.

The ensuing controversy is at the heart of an essay recently published online at the European Journal of American Studies. “Profit, Porn, and Protease Inhibitors: Ronnie Burk’s Radical Activism in “Post-AIDS” San Francisco” is written by Victoria Carroll, a Research Fellow at King’s College London. 

Dr. Carroll’s essay (which can be read in full at this link) is an extensive piece that examines the intersections of Ronnie Burk’s politics and poetry through his experience as a gay man of Mexican and Indigenous American descent surviving oppression and resisting homogenization. Her work breaks new ground as the first academic article to delve into the still taboo history of the dissident voice in San Francisco’s militant queer response to AIDS. Such a well researched and written essay could only have come from someone living outside America, where radical dissent of HIV positive gay men remains submerged under the weight of neoliberal AIDS nostalgia.

“Burk refocused the HIV/AIDS debate in San Francisco, in gay communities, in the demands of grassroots activists at a time when the establishment were looking away from America and towards Africa, when HIV/AIDS was symbolically transforming from a death sentence placed upon the heads of “deviants” to a chronic but manageable (and vastly lucrative) illness affecting those unable to procure expensive, life-extending drugs.”

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I strongly encourage readers of the ACT UP Archives blog to bookmark the essay and invest time in reading the lengthy piece. Be forewarned that some of the political protest imagery contains graphic content. But then we are looking at Ronnie Burk, ACT UP San Francisco and the devastating and influential legacy of queer insurrection to AIDS complacency. It’s my fervent hope that this truly ground breaking piece heralds a new field of AIDS activist scholarship.

To quote from the conclusion of Dr. Carroll’s article, “And while the mainstream press and prominent members of San Francisco’s LGBT and HIV/AIDS communities denounced Burk as an irresponsible and misguided threat, he emerged in early twenty-first century Latino/a cultural production as a witty, passionate street activist, loyal friend and electric poet, thumbing his nose at the pallid conformity and exploitative agendas of heteronormative Anglo-America.

I asked Dr. Carroll to share some thoughts about her ongoing interest in Ronnie:

Memories of a Stranger

I cannot for the life of me remember how I first discovered Ronnie Burk. But he has been my daily companion for the past 3 years.

In 2010 I began a PhD charting the cultural responses of gay Latino men to the early HIV/AIDS crisis in America. Over the course of my studies I had the terrible privilege of accessing and consuming an achingly evocative and incomparable archive of novels, poetry, drama, art, and performance created by an underrepresented array of unapologetically queer Latino men with HIV and AIDS, battling and creating in the face of flagrant racism, homophobia, erasure and death. Perhaps it was inevitable that Ronnie should inch his way into my field of (tunnel) vision. That he has put down roots and contoured my current scholarship is testament to his compelling, complex, controversial art and activism, to his message and his persona, and the incredible images and words that he has left behind.

I may never be able to adequately articulate my response to Ronnie and the things that he has done. He remains a character that I cannot pin down (which I suspect he would like). I access him in pieces, through the vitriol of commentators and the loving memories of friends. Running the gamut of identity difference, inhabiting numerous planes of social, political, and economic inequality, forever antithetical, Ronnie is endlessly reconfigured by my intellect and my emotions. I accrue an image of a person I have never met and can never meet, a shifting mosaic of fallible impressions: scrappy, determined, pugnacious (has to be), a man-boy with a wicked grin and scholarly frown, a lick of flame, a thin blade at the knife’s edge. Hopeful. Beaten down. Gentle. Apoplectic. Instigator. Agitator. Ally. Question mark.

It is only fitting that, like the man, the life has been difficult to assemble. Beginning on that shadowy, far-off day when I must have first read Ronnie’s name, I have been sifting through diverse and dispersed sources, deciphering clues. I have been gathering the scraps of Ronnie’s life that are strewn haphazardly across the web, embalmed in archives, and preserved in books. Ronnie has yet to find his way into academic scholarship so my endeavour has felt, at times, like a shot in the dark. I have been galvanised by my discoveries and undone by my newfound knowledge. I have been tickled by surreal coincidences, like the day a friend showed me one of Ronnie’s collages (a jostling parade of Arthur Rimbauds), sent to her by an amused colleague in Texas…an image offered up to me before my friend even knew I had begun to research Ronnie. I smile at the thought of his art dredged up from a solemn archive, zipping electronically across the Atlantic and impishly finding its way to me.

Contacting Todd in the summer of 2014 was the breakthrough moment. From our first email Todd has furnished Ronnie with an anatomy, a pumping heart. He has helped me to excavate a rationale, an agenda, a life, a man from the pages of biographical inserts, heartfelt dedications, and irascible editorials. In turn I think, I hope, I have helped him to approach Ronnie’s art and legacy in new ways. Todd has given of himself and his resources unreservedly and unstintingly. He has given his memories to temper my ignorance. He was read with a nuanced critical eye and listened with a sympathetic ear. He was been a fountain of seemingly inexhaustible knowledge. To be privy to such a compassionate, candid correspondence has been a lifeline and a gift.

The article that has emerged is necessarily partial. It aims to give a snapshot of the strained political and medical landscape of San Francisco at the turn of the twenty-first century, to shed a light on the competing narratives that have cleaved to and constructed the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America. It aims to be provocative, to engender a response, a new conversation. There is, inevitably, more work to be done and more facets of Ronnie’s life, art, and activism to be revived and preserved, commemorated, reconfigured. Then reconfigured again. For me, Ronnie will always be the contradiction that refuses to be reconciled.

 

Celebrating Michael Bellefountaine’s 50th Birthday with the Ebook Release of A Lavender Look at the Temple

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It’s a happy coincidence the occasion of what would have been the 50th birthday of ACT UP San Francisco activist Michael Bellefountaine coincides with the ebook release of his book A Lavender Look at the Temple: A Gay Perspective of the Peoples Temple. Last year’s birthday post recalled Michael’s formative days as an AIDS activist by looking at his participation in ACT UP Maine during the Bush presidency of the early 1990s.

PortlandPrideMarch

AIDS activist Michael Bellefountaine marches in Portland, Maine’s gay pride march circa 1990.

LavenderLookPFS copyDuring the last years of his life, Michael was enrolled in the history department at San Francisco State University. There he involved himself in a number of projects that included documenting the stories of those buried at Mission Dolores. For many years he had become interested in the Peoples Temple.

Known mostly for the 1978 mass suicide of its members who had exiled themselves to the jungles of Guyana, Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple had been an undeniable influence on the progressive agenda that defined San Francisco politics of the 1970s from George Moscone to Willie Brown.

As Michael began to research the Peoples Temple story beyond the horrific and histrionic headlines that dominated media representation, he was surprised to learn of an ongoing connection to Harvey Milk.

Harvey Milk in front of his Castro Street Camera Store, circa 1977, photo by Dan Nicoletta.

Harvey Milk in front of his Castro Street Camera Store, circa 1977, photo by Dan Nicoletta.

Frustrated with the dismissive treatment of the subject by Randy Shilts in his biography The Mayor of Castro Street, which had Harvey describing Temple members as “weird” and “dangerous”, Michael decided to dig deeper into the story especially after he discovered an extensive involvement of gays and lesbians within the Peoples Temple.

He interviewed associates of Harvey Milk, such as photographer Daniel Nicoletta, and connected with The Jonestown Project whose website states “its primary purpose is to present information about Peoples Temple as accurately and objectively as possible. In an effort to be impartial, we offer many diverse views and opinions about the Temple and the events in Jonestown.”

LavenderLookPRS copyMichael’s intended to write a full length work but was unable to complete the book before his untimely death in 2007. Thanks to the tireless effort of his mother Dora, his book was self-published in 2011 in both paper and hardback editions. A Lavender Look at the Temple can now be purchased as an ebook at this link.

A quote from an online review of Michael’s book:

The book also examines how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Peoples Temple members faired in their community during a hostile time in history.

In the last years of his short life, the author, Michael Bellefontaine, was a staunch gay rights and AIDS activist in San Francisco, California but he was also part of the Peoples Temple and Jonestown history.

While other writers have long dismissed Milk’s relationship with the Peoples Temple, Bellefontaine not only addresses it but attacks and analyzes the information from reliable sources regarding their association.

First, you have to understand the lure of the Peoples Temple. It was welcoming of people from all walks of life including races, genders, ethnicities, sexual orientation, and religions. Rev. Jim Jones was charismatic and fooled people into believing that he had special powers to read minds and cure people. But it wasn’t just Jim Jones that lured it’s members.

Season-Of-The-Witch-CoverThe People Temple offered services such as drug and alcohol rehablitation; a food pantry and soup kitchen; counseling; a school; elder care and day centers; and other facilities widely staffed and run by it’s members. The Peoples Temple welcomed people of all walks of life including the ostracized, the outcasts, criminals, etc. into their world.

Michael’s talent as a writer comes not only from his thorough and thoughtful research but also his skill at relaying the personal experience of gay and lesbian Temple members through a gripping narrative. In fact, Michael’s research was included by San Francisco journalist David Talbot in Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love, Talbot’s book about the city during the 1970s and 1980s.

While it’s unfortunate Michael wasn’t able to further develop his research on the Peoples Temple (not to mention the other areas he would have explored as a historian and researcher) we can remain grateful his mother Dora made sure that this brief but potent document is preserved and available. Happy 50th Birthday Michael Bellefountaine!

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ACT UP member Michael Bellefountaine participating in Critical Mass bike ride in San Francisco, circa 2002.