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.”

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“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!”