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.”

Eviction- Video Poem about San Francisco Gentrification

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Though technically not from the ACT UP archives, I’m posting this clip as it fits in with ACT UP’s themes of working in coalition and resistance to oppression. Poet Neeli Cherkovski’s “Eviction: One More Beautiful Day” is a powerful evocation of what’s being lost in the rise of greed and evictions in San Francisco. It’s also a testament to the spirit of those citizens who continue to protest the unstoppable corporatization of the city. Inspired by Neeli’s poem, I sought to bring his words to life on the streets of the city, through the voices of friends active in challenging the economic forces responsible for selling out the soul of San Francisco.

Eviction: One More Beautiful Day

one more beautiful day
in the City of San Francisco
with its bridges and the bay
famous cuisine and picturesque
Chinatown, sprawling park
with green lawns…

a new layer of fog
mantled over Twin Peaks
to the trolley tracks on Market
five gulls tackled by a steady breeze

perfect hour for an eviction
a clear, stern decision handed down
on a quiet avenue where the Google Bus purrs cat-like, contented
picking up young crusaders
with matching back packs, newly armed

the gulls hardly notice as the buses
pull out for a green campus to the south

eviction –
an elder? a family?
single mother? houseful of orderlies? the
clerk who hands out change at the local market?

four gulls circling the intersection
and then a sky of crows,
avian order quite sublime
under a veneer of cumulus,
the city still has skunks and badgers,
feral cats, coyote

thousands and thousands
replaced by monolithic technology

ah, there’s no turning back – architects
feast on air rights

oh San Francisco,
once the city of poets

Presidio swept clean – museums expanded –
old hotels purified of the poor, shadows vaulted
into unknown precincts beyond the gate
picture pristine and proper neighborhoods
enjoy sterile rows of research and development –
learn to live forever and never face decrepitude –

a new breed of chefs
concoct salmon salad on an arugula bedding,
Zinfandel secreted in a rib eye steak –
wine bars where the decision-makers
nod as the wine is poured, sloshed in a glass,
yes excellent

attend the symphony gala
as the vulnerable sink, as many go hungry
in a grid of wealth, in a town of banks
and commerce

dispossession is a misery the rich do not need to see,
they may root for the Giants – take pride in the signs
of progress – hit the ball out of the park
and hearts swell past a vacated room that once gave shelter

those of you who must go
leave in silence, please make the premises
clean as you walk out of the front door,
don’t steal anything

lost, dizzied by unfeeling hands
you may walk for a moment
in the glorious neighborhoods
soon to be renamed, the Mission now the Quad,
all the cafes shaped like laptops
for the divine children of privilege
you may stay for a moment
but then you must leave, vanish

gulls come out of the fog
with bracelets of air on their claws
and the crows have re-grouped
a civil city no more

Neeli Cherkovski
© April 2014

Protesting Ban of Gay & Lesbian Biographies in Orange County Schools – 2001

The last fifteen years has seen unprecedented legal gains for American queers. While participation in marriage and the military are now options for gays and lesbians who value such institutions, the increasing visibility of queer youth in public schools is proving to be one of the most revolutionary aspects of such anti discrimination legislation. When we protect the rights of youth to express their developing sexuality and gender, we create a more compassionate and just world. Society benefits from the unique gifts these people can contribute to an increasingly monolithic culture.

In 2001, when I heard that a series of biographies about notable gays and lesbians in history were not being allowed on the library shelf at Orangeview Junior High School, the issue couldn’t have hit closer to home. Not only was I a graduate of the Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD) but also my Mother was a high school English teacher in the district. Orangeview was located directly across the street from the Methodist church where I was an acolyte as a youth. Though the ACLU had become involved, I knew that the issue needed to be taken to the street.

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Protestors and students gather outside Orangeview Jr. High on Feb. 1, 2001 to protest the banning of lesbian and gay biographies from the school’s library. Photo by Todd Swindell © 2001

Thanks to my dear queer comrade Mira Ingram, also an OC native, a demonstration was planned outside the school. It was imperative that students and administrators know this issue resonated with folks outside the Republican confines of Orange County. The controversy at Orangeview spoke to the issue of representation. Both the head and assistant librarians for the school were lesbian and gay respectively. It was becoming clear that the assumption by heterosexual educators that positive queer role models could be bleached from the school system was waning. No longer could they hold control of the cultural representation of queer people.

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Orangeview Jr High student’s sign questions the administrations banning of lesbian and gay biographies. Photo by Todd Swindell © 2001

Here is an audio clip from an interview I did to promote the demonstration. I’ve left in a number of the pro-censorship callers in the second half of the piece, as they illustrate the true agenda of such bigotry. The argument that twelve-year-old students are too young to be “exposed” to such material shows the callers’ entrenched homophobia. In their darkened minds the material is a direct route to gay recruitment to such a vulnerable age group. How is it possible to understand the life of James Baldwin or Martina Navratilova without mentioning their homosexuality? Better to just remove it is their viewpoint.

The books stayed on the shelf but at the high school level. The demonstration gathered  local press coverage and gave at least this one queer a chance to channel an attack on free speech and queer history into an open dialogue about what best serves the needs of queer youth navigating their way through a treacherous education system.

ACT UP San Francisco Press Release — February 1, 2001

OC Activists Say School’s Out for Homophobia
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Heated discussion turns to spirited dialogue as students join in protesting homophobic book ban at Orangeview Junior High

ANAHEIM – A group of fifty people protested against the homophobic book banning at Orangeview Junior High with Ban the Ban on Thursday, February 1. Protesters included people from such organizations as Liberate Orange County, ACT UP San Francisco, Queer Nation, PFLAG, Libertarian Party, OC Youth Drop-In Center, Loyola Marymount University Gay/Straight Alliance, teachers from several Orange County school districts and students from several Orange County schools.

As Orangeview students left school, protesters cheerfully greeted them with balloons, fake tattoos, stickers, rainbow-colored pencils that read “Don’t Censor Me!,” and flyers that explained the book ban at their school, with a list of 100 famous lesbians and gay men on the back. Flyers and pencils were so popular with students, all were handed out within the first ten minutes. Demonstrators held signs that read, “Ban Bigotry, Not Biographies,” “End Censorship,” and “Open Books, Not Closed Minds.” What had been planned as a brief 30-minute action turned in to a 90 minute dialogue and discussion between students and protesters.

Chelsea House, who publishes the series of banned books, donated biographies of poet Sappho, actress Marlene Dietrich, and economist John Maynard Keynes to Ban the Ban to distribute at the protest. The books are part of the series “Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians” that was banned from the school library by the Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD). The AUHSD claims the books were banned because they are too complex for junior high students. Additionally they claim students who check them out could be bullied, despite a recent California law prohibiting harassment of students on the basis of sexual orientation. Protesters demanded the books be returned to the library, and that the school enforce anti-gay harassment law.

Activists were shocked to learn the school administration had announced on the school PA system that students were to immediately go home after school. Administrators also warned students not to talk protesters or the media, despite the fact that the protest took place after school and off school property.

“If it’s not on school time or property, the school has no right to tell students who they can or can’t talk to,” said Mira Ingram of Liberate Orange County. “I was pleasantly surprised at the response of students who said they wanted the series of books on their library shelves. Many of the students were fully aware that their school is trying to violate their civil rights.”

School officials were punishing some students with Saturday School, four hour Saturday detention, for talking to protesters and the media. Despite these threats, 150 students joined the protest and made their own signs. One student-made sign read, “Gay is Cool,” and another asked “What Next, Ban the Bible?” While protesters answered questions from some students, other students spontaneously started their own chants. Dancing students chanted, “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Censorship Has Got to Go,” and “Teach, Don’t Preach.”

One student told protesters she was there because her uncle was fired from his job for being gay. Many others expressed similar sentiments. Students lined up to sign a petition for the AUHSD school board demanding they return the banned books to the school library.

“What surprised me most was how eager students were to know more about what’s going on,” said Queer Nation’s Todd Swindell, an Orange County native who came down from San Francisco to attend the protest. “In fact, some of the most vocal supporters were straight students. They appreciated being listened to rather than being lectured. Let the students make up their own minds.”

Energized activists vowed to remain vocal on the issue until the books are returned to the Orangeview library. In addition, they are donating the biographies from Chelsea House to the Orange County Youth Drop-In Center, where youth will be free to read them without the threat of them being banned.