Why the Ashes of People With AIDS on the White House Lawn Matter

Twenty years ago, in response to government officials' failure to adequately respond to AIDS, ACT UP brought the bodies their inaction murdered to a place they couldn't be ignored—their front lawn.

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Aug 29 2016, 6:01pm

ACT UP protestors at the Ashes Action in 1992. Photo by Saskia Scheffer

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Nearly twenty years ago, on October 13, 1996, David Reid marched with three hundred AIDS activists from the Capitol Building to the White House lawn, where he helped scatter the ashes of his friend, Connie Norman. Connie, a radio host and member of the LA branch of the AIDS activist group ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), had died earlier that year. She had been, to use ACT UP's words, "murdered by AIDS and killed by government neglect." But if the government was able to neglect people with AIDS in life (through their silence and laughter, refusal to pass the AIDS Cure Act, inaction on drug profiteering, and unwillingness to establish a federal needle exchange program), protesters would force them to acknowledge the unvarnished reality of their deaths.

"The government had ignored their funerals," Reid told VICE. The Ashes Actions at the White House made that impossible. "If you won't come to the funeral," he said, "we'll bring the funeral to you."

Four years earlier, on October 11, 1992, ACT UP, which had previously disrupted the FDA and the New York Stock Exchange, first marched to the White House fence to scatter the ashes of their loved ones. The first action was inspired by David Robinson, who originally planned to send the ashes of his partner, Warren, to President George HW Bush. But when he mentioned his plans to ACT UP New York, they decided instead to fulfill Warren's wish to use his body in death as he used it in life—to protest the policies that killed him and his friends. "He had said, as he was getting sicker, that I should do some kind of political funeral with his body," Robinson said.

Robinson, as many other activists, had been inspired by David Wojnarowicz's 1991 memoir Close to the Knives, which imagined "what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to Washington DC and blast through the gates of the White House and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps." (Wojnarowicz's own ashes were scattered on the White House lawn during the 1996 Ashes Action.) They were also inspired by the political funerals of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, in which murdered activists were given mass burials.

ACT UP put out a national call for anyone with ashes of those who had died from AIDS to join them. Theatrics and props, such as empty coffins and tombstones, had been weapons of choice in the group's protests before—they rapidly communicated messages and were media magnets. But this action would be different. "We weren't going to do anything symbolic," Robinson told VICE. "The point was these are the actual ashes. This is the literal physical result of the Bush administration's AIDS policies."

It was a logical if painful next step to bring the real bodies of those who died from AIDS to the politicians who could have fought to save them but didn't. "It was just a process of escalating our rage," Eric Sawyer, a founding member of ACT UP and the civil society partnerships advisor for UNAIDS, told VICE. "Carrying a wooden coffin in the streets doesn't seem to be getting your attention. How about we dump ashes and bone fragments from our friends who died of AIDS on your lawn? How about we literally carry our dead bodies that you condemned to death to your door? Will that get your attention? Part of it was a warning: We will literally start dumping our dead on your doorsteps unless you get your fucking act together."

Both Ashes Actions were timed for maximum attention—they were held during displays of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and before presidential elections. Though the quilt was deeply meaningful, some activists took issue with it, given its aesthetic beauty. "This is a way of showing there is nothing beautiful about it—this is what I'm left with, a box full of ashes and bone chips," Robinson said before the action.

But to get to the White House fence, they needed to cross a line of police officers. "We didn't want to show up sneakily," Shane Butler, a main organizer of the 1992 action and currently the chair of the department of classics at Johns Hopkins University, told VICE. "We wanted to march."

ACT UP Protestors at the Ashes Action in 1992. Photo by Saskia Scheffer

They had drums play a funeral cadence. They chanted—Bringing our dead to your door / We won't take it anymore and Out of the quilt and into the streets / Join us, join us. Unlike other protests, the Ashes Actions were not only meant to shock an uninterested public into empathy—they were meant as releases of grief for the activists themselves. "There was lots of room to scream and yell," Butler said, "but it wasn't always conducive to the work of mourning. I knew none of the people whose ashes we were carrying, but I remember when the ashes went over the fence of the White House. I just don't remember convulsive grief like the grief I felt in that moment."

Recently, footage of the Ashes Action was featured in the documentaries How to Survive a Plague (2012) and United in Anger (2012). Yet the White House itself has yet to establish an official commemoration, such as a plaque, even though the White House lawn is the gravesite of at least eighteen members and loved ones of ACT UP, the group directly responsible for speeding up the approval process of new drugs, forcing companies to slash the prices of old drugs, and saving countless lives. In 2013, Garance Franke-Ruta, a former member of ACT UP, suggested that there should be a plaque. Officials in the White House's Office of National AIDS Policy did not respond to multiple requests for comment about whether they planned to officially commemorate the action.

But there certainly should be a sign there, one honoring the dead who helped change forever how the nation's most powerful institutions operate. "We were furious, the world was against us," Butler said, "but we thought we could make a difference and save ourselves and our friends."

Jason Silverstein is a lecturer and writer-in-residence in the department of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School. Follow him on Twitter.

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