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31 Years Of ACT UP: The Movement Is As Relevant Now As Ever

Three decades of bold action and activism.

It's fitting that March 24—a day when a half million protesters are expected to descend upon Washington, D.C., for the March For Our Lives rally against gun violence—also marks the anniversary of another grassroots movement: It was 31 years ago that ACT UP launched its first direct action in response to government administration’s inaction in the face of the AIDS crisis.

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26th March 1987: Portrait of American author, AIDS campaigner and gay rights activist Larry Kramer, founder of ACT-UP and the Gay Men's Health Crisis group, sitting in front of a bookshelf at home, New York City. (Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images)

Founded by Larry Kramer, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power began at the LGBT Center in downtown Manhattan as a non-violent direct-action group responding to the AIDS epidemic and President Reagan’s grossly negligent mishandling of the growing health crisis. Eventually chapters popped up in Paris, London and elsewhere around the world.

ACT UP's rallying cry, “Silence = Death,” is still synonymous with the war on HIV/AIDS.

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ROCKVILLE - OCTOBER 11: Members of AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) hold up signs of George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Jesse Helms and other with the word "Guilty" stamped on their foreheads, along with a banner stating "Silence Equals Death" at a protest at the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on October 11, 1988 in Rockville, Maryland. The action, called SEIZE CONTROL OF THE FDA by the group, shut down the FDA for the day. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

On March 24, 1987, some 250 activists blocked rush-hour traffic in front of the FDA's Wall Street offices, protesting the agency's slow progress on approving effective medications. Ultimately 17 people were arrested.

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ROCKVILLE - OCTOBER 11: AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) protest at the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on October 11, 1988 in Rockville, Maryland. The action, called SEIZE CONTROL OF THE FDA by the group, shut down the FDA for the day. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

The following October, ACT UP succeeded in closing down FDA headquarters outside D.C., where more more than 1,000 activists picketed. (That action resulted in 180 arrests). Later that same year, protesters gathered outside Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan to object to tax breaks for wealthy real estate developers at a time when people with AIDS were being denied housing.

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TIMES SQUARE, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2017/11/29: ACT UP New York took to the streets in outrage to draw attention to World AIDS Day, an international recognition of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. ACT UP NY in alliance with fellow direct action groups, Rise and Resist, and Voices4, staged a diein and speak out on November 29, 2017 in Times Square to emphasize: people with HIV and AIDS are still here. We are here, and we are fighting for the end of the AIDS epidemic in New York, the US, and around the world. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In December 1989, ACT UP and the Women’s Health Action and Mobilization (WHAM!) gathered 4,500 protesters for a “Stop the Church” rally outside of NYC’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral to denounce the Church’s stance against safer sex education, abortion, and LGBT rights. The incident became one of the group's most famous—and controversial—when a member stomped on a communion wafer in an act of personal protest.

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AIDS AND PRO-CHOICE demonstrators stage protest at St. Patrick's Cathedral. 111 were arrested, including 43 inside the cathedral who disrupted Mass. (Photo By: Jack Smith/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Three years later, activists converged in Houston to march outside of a hotel where homophobic televangelist Jerry Falwell was staying. Seven people were arrested for interrupting his speech to the Christian Action Network with the chant, “Your family values are killing us.”

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HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 19: A protester shouts slogans 19 August 1992 as he marches in front of a Houston hotel where the Rev. Jerry Falwell was speaking about religion and family values. The demonstration was organized by Queer Nation/Houston and the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). (Photo credit should read WALT FRERCK/AFP/Getty Images)

Then, in September 1991, Pete Staley and activists from TAG (Treatment Action Group, an ACT UP off-shoot) wrapped a giant yellow condom over Jesse Helms' home in Arlington, Virginia. In addition to a stream of anti-LGBT rhetoric, Helms was responsible for an amendment that prohibited the CDC from funding AIDS programs that "promote, encourage or condone homosexual activities."

The giant prophylactic, which had the words "A CONDOM TO STOP UNSAFE POLITICS: HELMS IS DEADLIER THAN A VIRUS" printed on the front, covered the house for about an hour before police arrived and ordered it removed. There was no damage to the residence and Helms opted not to press charges.

In 1994 thousands of ACT UP members took to Fifth Avenue for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

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Act Up demonstrates for an AIDS cure at the 25th Annual Gay and Lesbian Parade, New York, New York, June 26, 1994. (Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images)

Then in 2003, protesters congregated in front of the White House with a giant puppet of President Bush, calling for an increase in funding for AIDS drugs.

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A year later, members stripped their clothes off outside Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention was being held a few days later.

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UNITED STATES - AUGUST 26: Members of the AIDS awareness group ACT UP bare their sentiments during a demonstration at Eighth Ave. and W. 33rd St., near Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention gets underway next week. (Photo by Mike Albans/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

In 2017, the group honored its 30th anniversary with a rally in New York’s West Village. Demonstrators gathered with signs and chanted “Act up! Fight back! Fight AIDS!” as they had done for decades.

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NEW YORK CITY AIDS MEMORIAL, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2017/03/30: Hundreds gathered on a rally at the AIDS Memorial on West 12th Street, New York City to celebrate ACT UP 30th Anniversary, followed by a march around the West Village to the open plaza in Union Square at East 17th Street. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Today, ACT UP remains active with thousands of members in hundreds of chapters around the globe who continue to protest the ongoing global AIDS crisis, as well as homophobia, gun violence, and other urgent issues.

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NYC AIDS MEMORIAL, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2017/12/01: ACT UP NY sponsored the annual Out of Darkness Candlelight Vigil at the NYC AIDS Memorial on December 1, 2017; to remember those lost on World AIDS Day. The vigil was followed by a march to St. Johns Church at 81 Christopher Street. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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