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!”

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 presentation of a poem “Listen, whiteman!” which, again, speaks prophetically to the challenges the world faces in this day and age.

Celebrating Ronnie Burk’s 60th Birthday

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                                   photo
                                   Photo-Mantic
                                   I was Born
                                   bonsai-ed
                                   in a Texas Town
                                   fifty years
                                   before the Great War
                                   burnt holes
                                   in the ceiling of
                                   the World
                                                   – from the poem “1996” by Ronnie Burk

 

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Ronnie Burk, Marin Headlands. Photo © 1999 Tate Swindell

Is it any wonder that a number of ACT UP activists were astrological fire signs? Continuing our salute to the impulsive, impassioned, battling horns of the ram that is Aries, this ACT UP Archives post is in honor of the 60th birthday of Ronnie Burk- April Fool, Surrealist, Chicano, Poet, Bad Ass Motherfucker.

Since his death a dozen years ago, there has recently begun a renaissance of Ronnie’s legacy as a prophetic artist and fearless activist as academic scholars who have discovered his voice and vision are bringing new insights into the power of Ronnie Burk’s work.

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Untitled Collage by Ronnie Burk

In spite of the hardship of his troubled adolescence in racist and homophobic South Texas, Ronnie’s alchemical artistry and belief in the magical allowed him to transcend society’s prohibitions in order to create a body of work that pushed the forms of Surrealist imagination and radical political activism. Ronnie was among the first students at Naropa University in the mid-1970s where he studied the teachings of Tibetan Rinpoche Chögyam Trungpa, met Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso as well as Diane Di Prima, who became one of his mentors.

After his summertime stints in Boulder, Ronnie returned to San Antonio to participate in the cultural and political activities in the Chicano community. In 1977 his first poems were published in Caracol: La Revista de la Raza, which was founded and edited by Cecilio García-Camarillo and Mia Kirsi Sategberg. Together they traveled to the fourth Floricanto Festival (a national festival of Chicano literature) where he met poet and editor Lorna Dee Cervantes. She later published Ronnie’s first chapbook En el Jardín de los Noplaes (In the Garden of Prickly Pear Trees, 1979) as a Mango Publication. This activity brought him into contact with Chicana poet and novelist Ana Castillo.

In the early 1980s, Ronnie lived in New York City where he became friends with the Surrealist poet Charles Henri Ford and the photographer, filmmaker and poet Ira Cohen. He was also involved with many of the then young filmmakers of the Lower East Side including Richard Kern, David Wojnarowicz and Ronnie’s close friend Tommy Turner. Ronnie also participated in the Nuyorican Poets Café with Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero and attended performances by the Living Theater.

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Ronnie Burk reading at ACT UP SF’s Open Revolt poetry reading, Aug. 2000. Photo © Victoria Grace.

Though he was adept at creating collage in the spirit of Max Ernst and assemblages that recalled that playful wonder of Joseph Cornell, Ronnie’s true calling was that of the poet. Like his great inspiration, André Breton, Ronnie sought liberation through the transformative disruption of Surrealism through which he created a magical connection with traditions that came from being north of the border and Indigenous Mexican descent- that is Nahuatl poetics.

I first Ronnie met in 1996 as a member of ACT UP San Francisco- the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Having lost friends in the late-’80s to AZT poisoning and been exploited by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation when seeking emergency housing, he was turned on by the group’s aggressive, theatrical demonstrations that challenged complacency, conflict of interest and greed within the AIDS industry. During the ten years he lived in San Francisco, Ronnie transited between poetic and political circles. Among his friends were surrealist poets Phillip Lamantia and Will Alexander.

In 2012 Kolourmeim Press published Sky*Boat, a collection of his poems and collages. Ronnie left behind an extensive amount of writing and critical analysis as a member of ACT UP San Francisco. Crafting incisive political broadsides and letters to the editor, impassioned public comment at the Board of Supervisors, to taking the bullhorn at animal liberation demonstrations, Ronnie’s fervent advocacy on behalf of the poor, marginalized and oppressed continues to reverberate. Through a combination of theater and ritual, he remained an omnipresent thorn in the side of the gay political elite, challenging their absurd petit-bourgeois conformist values.

In a previous post, ACT UP Archives examined how Ronnie combined theater, ritual and civil disobedience as part of his political protest. There remains an abundance of material from Ronnie’s bold and controversial activism as an HIV-positive gay man of Indigenous Mexican descent, a court jester to the AIDS industry, that will be highlighted in future posts. For now, we suggest a few ways to remember Ronnie on the anniversary of his birth.

Listen- Sun Ra, Nina Hagen, MC5 and Billie Holiday
Watch- Grey Gardens, Modern Times, Brain Candy and
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Read- Mina Loy, Harry Crosby, Ana Castillo and Federico Garcia Lorca
Remember- Sitting Bull, Assata Shakur, Alex Nieto and Marilyn Buck

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“Pat Christen Goes on Record” featuring the cartoon “Jerome’s on the rampage!” Miss Thang Productions. A comic strip by Ronnie Burk SF Aug. 1997.

 

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Letter to the editor. Bay Area Reporter. May 1, 1997.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.