Ronnie Burk’s AZT Death Grove

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The history of AIDS drug development is rife with conflict of interest and greed. While the last ten years has seen improved success with the efficacy and tolerance of AIDS treatments, it’s important to remember the complacency and corruption that preceded it– a fact made clear by the lethal legacy of AZT.

When the AIDS Memorial Grove was established in Golden Gate Park in 1996, ACT UP SF member Ronnie Burk saw a chance to call attention to the lives lost to AIDS drug toxicity. AZT, the first federally approved AIDS treatment, was authorized on the basis of 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

Chicano Surrealist poet Ronnie Burk reclaims the AIDS Memorial Grove in memory of the lives lost to AZT poisoning. Photo by Mira Ingram.

Chicano Surrealist poet Ronnie Burk reclaims the AIDS Memorial Grove in memory of the lives lost to AZT poisoning. Photo by Mira Ingram © 1996

Having lost a companion to AZT poisoning in the late 1980s, Ronnie felt an urgency to honor the horrible truth behind these deaths. A cancer chemotherapy that was shelved for being too toxic, AZT was dusted off in 1987 and aggressively promoted to a sick and desperate community. Many people with AIDS and HIV were pressured into taking AZT by organizations who received grants from its manufacturer. Anemia and weight loss were among its debilitating side effects. After its use in the gay community waned, AZT was exported to Africa and administered to pregnant women despite being known to cause birth defects.

Flyer by ACT UP SF member Ronnie Burk in response to the 1998 Intl. AIDS Conference in Geneva.

Flyer by ACT UP SF member Ronnie Burk in response to the 1998 Intl. AIDS Conference in Geneva. Click to enlarge.

As a Chicano Surrealist poet, Ronnie brought a theatrical element to his informed and impassioned activism. Using the imagery of skulls and black cloth associated with Día de los Muertos, Ronnie visited the grove early on the foggy morning of Nov. 4, 1996 to transform it into a haunting tribute to the many lives needlessly sacrificed for profit and greed. There are those who feel strongly that we should not look back at the brutal legacy of AIDS drug development but instead simply be grateful for the longevity of people with AIDS living today. ACT UP Archives seeks to dispel such divisive viewpoints with an understanding that there is not only room but need for both when it comes to telling the history of AIDS.

Appreciation is given to ACT UP SF member Mira Ingram who filmed the action and generously provided the footage to the ACT UP Archives.

Photo by Mira Ingram.

Photo by Mira Ingram © 1996

Collage by Ronnie Burk for Día des los Muertos 1995.

Collage by Ronnie Burk for Día de los Muertos © 1995

For more information about the AZT scandal, this 1993 exposé for UK’s Meditel program Dispatches remains an excellent resource:

ACT UP San Francisco Press Release — November 4, 1996

ACT UP San Francisco Protestors Transform National AIDS Monument Into “AZT Death Grove”
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AIDS activists’ somber Day of the Dead action at AIDS Memorial Grove mourns those lost to AZT poisoning; protests aggressive marketing of experimental treatments.

San Francisco – Shrouded by dense fog in the early morning hours, members of ACT UP SF made their way to the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park, draped the monument with black cloth and renamed the site “The AZT Grove” in observance of Day Of the Dead. AIDS activists from the militant, direct action organization staked paper skulls looking like Aztec glyphs and death certificates condemning San Francisco Health Director Sandra Hernandez’s promotion of toxic, experimental agents around the nationally recognized monument.

“AZT and other toxic AIDS drugs have killed off a whole generation of my friends and lovers. We will not stand in silence and watch the medical establishment and the pharmaceutical industry murder another generation of young men all for profit,” said HIV-positive activist and artist Ronnie Burk who conceptualized the action.

ACT UP members are upset that the San Francisco Department of Public Health is railroading an eight million dollar package this coming week for pharmaceutical and administrative services for the promotion and dispensing of the experimental protease inhibitors.

“Sanctioned murder is still murder,” commented ACT UP demonstrator Mira Ingram. “It is insidious that the DPH is rushing ahead to squander millions on drugs that not only don’t cure but kill.” ACT UP SF has demanded that City Supervisors and DPH officials participate in an immediate public debate on the merits and dangers of antiviral therapy. Recent comments from Donald Abrams, Head of the FDA Antiviral Committee and Director of the AIDS Program at SF General Hospital, revealed that his patients “have watched friends go on the antiviral bandwagon and die so they’ve chosen not to take any antiretrovirals.” Despite such grim reports, Dr. Sandra Hernandez has stated publicly that she is ready to instruct her department to set system wide standards for provision of viral load testing and protease inhibitor drugs “by whatever means necessary” ACT UP members say this mixed message from city AIDS leaders signals a new wave of deadly toxic immunosuppressive therapies within the SF health care system.

“Dr. Hernandez has given us all ever more reasons for commemorating Day of the Dead. A year from now SF will return to the killing fields of the mid-80s. I remember it all too clearly. ACT UP SF will resist this force-feeding of poisons to the HIV positive, as in Dr. Hernandez’s words “by whatever means necessary,” stated 41 year old Burk as he placed paper skulls around the monument.

Press photos of the “AZT Death Grove” are available.

Queers Bash Back: Nuns Pie Homophobic Rev. Fred Phelps

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“We must confront religious hypocrites and let them know we will no longer be their victims. The gay community must unite to protect our safety and well being,” Sister Thelma of ACT UP SF’s Holy Order of Pieing Nuns (HOPN).

Thankfully this year has seen the death of homophobic preacher, the Reverend Fred Phelps. This maniacal leader of a mutant clan of so-called Christians from Topeka, Kansas made a name for himself by traveling with his family, many of whom are lawyers, across the nation preaching against “sodomite sin” with their neon colored signs proclaiming God Hates Fags. Several years ago, members of the family (Phelps had 13 children) who had left the church gave gruesome reports of the abuse they suffered.

When Phelps and his brood arrived at San Francisco’s City Hall in March,1999 to protest Mayor Willie Brown’s officiating of a mass domestic partner ceremony, ACT UP San Francisco decided to serve some just desserts in solidarity with the Biotic Baking Brigade. At the time three members of the BBB, including ACT UP SF member Gerry Livernois, were in jail for pieing Mayor Brown in protest of his discriminatory homeless policies.

Establishing the affinity group Holy Order of Pieing Nuns (HOPN), Sisters Thelma (Todd Swindell) and Louise (Victoria Grace) took to the streets of San Francisco armed with vegan pies in costumed resistance to the violent rhetoric of fundamentalist religious bigots. The following exclusive footage was generously provided to the ACT UP Archives by Agent Apple of the BBB:

Sisters Thelma and Louise of ACT UP San Francisco's Holy Order of Pieing Nuns (HOPN)

Sisters Thelma and Louise of ACT UP San Francisco’s Holy Order of Pieing Nuns (HOPN). Photo by David Pasquarelli © 1999

As radical queer activists, there is a proud tradition of pie throwing as non-violent political protest. Pieing seeks to deflate the position of power from which these destructive forces of bigorty operate by making them objects of ridicule. It empowers the LGBTQ community as a form of spiritual activism by transferring guilt and shame back to the true perpetrators of evil.

On Oct. 14,1977 in Des Moines, Iowa, gay pagan Thom Higgins threw a pie in the face of right-wing spokesperson Anita Bryant who was on a homophobic crusade to “save the children” from “dangerous queers” by eliminating our civil rights thereby condoning violent attacks against the LGBTQ community.

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Homophobic bigot Anita Bryant after being pied by gay activist Thom Higgins in Des Moines, Iowa, Oct. 14, 1977. Photo by Flint Born.

San Francisco Sentinel Nov. 3, 1977 — Page 8

Bay Area Reporter article from April 1, 1999 — Pages 1,19. Click images to enlarge.

Bay Area Reporter — April 1, 1999 Page 1

Bay Area Reporter — April 1, 1999 Page 1. Click image to enlarge.

Bay Area Reporter — April 1, 1999 Page 1 & 19

Bay Area Reporter — April 1, 1999 Page 1 & 19. Click image to enlarge.

ACT UP San Francisco Press Release — March 26, 1999

Pieing Nuns Cream Homophobic Reverend—————————————————————————     Fred Phelps targeted for ongoing campaign that incites violence against Queers

SAN FRANCISCO — An offshoot of the controversial direct action organization ACT UP San Francisco pied supporters of homophobic Reverend Fred Phelps this evening. Dessert was served by a duo known as the Holy Order of Pieing Nuns to protest the recent violent murders of gay men across the nation. Phelps and his clan held a rally tonight, carrying neon signs emblazoned with hate messages like “AIDS Cures Fags” and “GAY: Got AIDS Yet?” to protest Mayor Willie Brown’s officiating of a mass domestic partners ceremony at City Hall.

In defiance of the recent six month jail sentence handed down to Biotic Baking Brigade members who pied Mayor Brown, two activists dressed in nun’s habits tossed four organic vegan banana tofu pies into the Phelps’ entourage twisted faces of hate as part of “Operation: Second Phelping.” Citing heinous attacks on queers nationwide and the repression of political pie-protest in San Francisco, Sister Agents Thelma and Louise demanded that community members respond with anger and power to the very real and immediate threat of the religious right-wing.

No stranger to San Francisco, in 1994 Phelps attempted to picket the funeral of Randy Shilts, but was met by hundreds of angry and vocal demonstrators who, within seconds of his arrival, forced Phelps and his family to flee back to Topeka, Kansas. Recently Phelps, who travels to these “demonstrations” with his children and grandchildren, picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard. Shepard was tied to a fence post, beaten, and left to die in Wyoming last year. Last summer, having picketed Metropolitan Community Church in the Castro, Phelps was met with paint balls from a concerned citizen.

“Queers have been tossing pies since Anita Bryant’s homophobic attacks on gays and lesbians in the late 1970’s. The venom spewed forth by Phelps and his ilk is no different,” stated pieing nun Sister Thelma. “From the vicious stabbing of Robert Hillsborough in the Mission district twenty years ago to last week’s slaying of Henry Northington, whose decapitated head was found impaled on a Virginia bridge, the hatred and violence remains. We must confront religious hypocrites and let them know we will no longer be their victims. The gay community must unite to protect our safety and well being.”