Men Behaving Viciously

How ACT UP San Francisco spreads spit, fake blood, used cat litter, and potentially deadly misinformation through the AIDS community

And, of course, spit.
"Spitting is kind of evening the playing field. People don't want to be spat on, so they'll listen to me," Bellefountaine, who says he is HIV-positive, insists brightly. "I'm hoping one day I won't have to spit on people to be heard."

But if spitting is a favorite mode of communication for ACT UP San Francisco, it is not the only one. Yelling and throwing disgusting things -- fake blood and kitty litter, for example -- are popular too.

At the 11th International Conference on AIDS in Vancouver, Canada, last July, ACT UP S.F. members stormed a panel discussion and doused two doctors, AIDS pioneers Paul Volberding and Margaret Fischl, with gallons of a cranberry juice solution concocted to look like blood while jumping on tables, tearing down microphones, and shouting obscenities. Later, San Francisco journalist Tim Kingston asked Bellefountaine about a disagreement he'd had with another activist. Bellefountaine spat in the reporter's face.

"I took that as 'No comment,' " says Kingston.
Three months later, at a forum on AIDS issues for candidates running for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, ACT UP S.F. member Ronnie Burk dumped 25 pounds of used kitty litter on the director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, yelling, "Straight white woman, you should die! Pat Christen, you should die!" The assault could have exposed HIV-positive people in the audience to toxoplasmosis, a potentially lethal disease often spread by contact with infected cat feces. Two days later, the AIDS Foundation placed full-page ads in two of the city's gay newspapers, denouncing "violence perpetuated in the name of activism."

When asked where the feline waste originated, Bellefountaine coyly replies, "My girls."

Christen later received an e-mail message that said, "Pat Christen, you are a shit bag and like all shit bags the time has come to flush you down the commode."

The AIDS Foundation has since won restraining orders against Bellefountaine and Burk. Criminal charges -- a total of 14, including misdemeanor charges for trespass, battery, and creating a public disturbance -- are pending against Bellefountaine, Burk, David Pasquarelli, and Todd Swindell, another ACT UP member, in connection with the candidates' forum and three other incidents.

ACT UP S.F. has faced criminal charges before. In 1995, Pasquarelli, Bellefountaine, and two others were charged with vandalism, burglary, and conspiracy for plastering San Francisco Republican Party headquarters with bloody handprints and trashing the party's computers in protest against delays in the reauthorization of federal AIDS funding. Eventually, the charges were reduced from felonies to misdemeanors, and the protesters were sentenced to community service rather than jail.

More than a dozen people have filed reports with Community United Against Violence, an organization that helps victims of violence in San Francisco's lesbian and gay community, saying they have been harassed or threatened by Bellefountaine, Pasquarelli, or other ACT UP S.F. members. A standard method of harassment involves the repeated shouting of epithets such as "fucking queer killer" and "Nazi" at someone walking down the street.

Criminal charges, restraining orders, and multiple complaints notwithstanding, Bellefountaine and Pasquarelli insist their actions are not violent. Pasquarelli, who says he is also infected with HIV, defines spitting as "a political tactic that is entirely within the rights of HIV-positive people."

But Bellefountaine acknowledges, "I think we do things that people might perceive as being a threat. We don't hesitate to walk up to people and confront them and ask them, 'Why are you a queer killer?' "

When Michael Met Dave: Florida
In 1991, Michael Bellefountaine decided he'd had enough of New England winters and left his hometown of Gorham, Maine (population 4,000), to move to Sarasota, Fla., where he took a job as a waiter. He had discovered a taste for activism while attending the University of Maine at Portland-Gorham, protesting for migrant-worker rights during a lumber mill strike. He later took up the fight against AIDS. Once in Florida, he joined ACT UP Sarasota (now defunct), eager to carry on the kind of activism he had seen during more than a year with ACT UP Maine.

The same year, David Pasquarelli, fresh out of college with a graphic arts degree, left Pittsburgh to become a resident director at St. Leo's College, a small coed Catholic school in Dade City, Fla. Pasquarelli had been active in the Lesbian, Gay Student Alliance at Penn State; at St. Leo's, he sought out the gay activist community in nearby Tampa. With a handful of other people, Pasquarelli founded ACT UP Tampa Bay (now also defunct). When his job at St. Leo's ended, he moved to Tampa and took work at a Kinko's photocopying shop.

Pasquarelli and Bellefountaine met at a gathering for left-leaning political activists at Sarasota's ultraliberal New College. It's a meeting that Bellefountaine remembers fondly.

"Some libertarian came up and told us being gay was a victimless crime. He was trying to be supportive," Bellefountaine says, rolling his eyes. "It ended in a shouting match, and we basically drove him away. We've been fast friends ever since."

It was the beginning of a partnership that activists across the country call one of the most destructive forces in AIDS advocacy today. Observers in the Tampa Bay area point to the duo's first "action" -- at a 1992 school board meeting on AIDS education -- as a turning point in the evolution of activism, Bellefountaine- and Pasquarelli-style.

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