The Night Larry Kramer Punched Me
On a spring evening two years ago, hundreds of AIDS activists and their supporters met at the Hyatt Regency in downtown San Francisco for Project Inform's 10th anniversary dinner. The $100-a-plate event was a benefit for Project Inform, a nonprofit that has established itself nationally as a resource for information and advocacy on the diagnosis and treatment of AIDS.
The program was deliberately low-key — not a celebration, merely a gathering to mark what most activists considered the end of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic. Project Inform had invited two significant figures of the AIDS era to speak: Tony Faucci, a pioneering AIDS doctor, and playwright/author Larry Kramer, founder of AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT UP.
Faucci had just begun his speech when a dozen members of the San Francisco chapter of ACT UP burst through a side entrance and stormed into the ballroom, shouting “Shame! Shame!” among other epithets. The interlopers ran through the room, overturning tables as they passed. A fight broke out, and one man went to the hospital with a gash in his arm.
During the melee, an intruder from ACT UP S.F., Michael Bellefountaine, yanked the tablecloth from Larry Kramer's table. Kramer pounced on Bellefountaine and punched him. Kramer remembers the moment well:
“I said, 'I am the founder of this organization, and I am ashamed of you.' ”
Attacking The Orthodoxy
Over the past two years, Michael Bellefountaine and David Pasquarelli have emerged as the leaders of a small group of people who believe that the only hope for those infected with the human immunodeficiency virus is a chemical used in the photographic developing process. The chemical — dinitrochlorobenzyne, or DNCB — has no proven medical effectiveness, and is advocated by no responsible medical authority as an AIDS treatment.
Bellefountaine, Pasquarelli, and their supporters have spat at, thrown disgusting liquids and solids on, shoved, threatened, and assaulted a whole host of people who do not believe in DNCB and who would, in the rational order of things, be ACT UP S.F. allies. ACT UP S.F. has managed not just to alienate, but to horrify community AIDS organizations, doctors who are experts in AIDS treatment and research, and the head of the city's Health Department, along with other activists, including ACT UP Golden Gate, the city's other ACT UP chapter.
To ACT UP S.F., all of these groups and people are part of “The Orthodoxy,” a group composed of virtually every AIDS organization in the city. The Orthodoxy, ACT UP S.F. believes, has sold out to the pharmaceutical industry. Even ACT UP Golden Gate has sold out, in Pasquarelli's estimation.
“I think their approach is very sinister,” says the 29-year-old, who describes himself as a liberal fag. “They're partially responsible for the enormous amount of deaths that are occurring now, and they can never be forgiven for it. And their sole function, make no mistake, is to promote drugs.”
According to Pasquarelli et al., the groups that compose The Orthodoxy are paid to “push” the combination of drugs — protease inhibitors, AZT, ddI, and others — that, most medical researchers agree, now offer the first real hope for greatly extending the lives of those infected with HIV. Without offering anything that would pass for scientific proof, Pasquarelli calls these drugs “unproven, potentially toxic therapies” that are killing people. Therefore, he believes, those who support use of the drugs are murderers whom ACT UP S.F. must hold accountable.
From its beginnings in New York in March 1987, ACT UP made its name using guerrilla-style demonstrations: its die-ins and its “zaps.” ACT UP's “Silence=Death” slogan, and the group's emblem — an inverted pink triangle — became hallmarks of AIDS activism. The group's often-outrageous brand of activism successfully pressed pharmaceutical companies to lower the price of AZT and persuaded the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to accelerate the drug approval process.
Now, though, a whole host of AIDS activists say ACT UP S.F. is engaging in behavior that exceeds the bounds of human decency, interferes with the dissemination of life-saving information, and spreads unproven and perhaps dangerous folklore in its place. ACT UP founder Larry Kramer says the San Francisco chapter has forfeited any right to attach itself to the ACT UP legacy.
“What they're doing is a perversion of our goals,” Kramer says. “They've taken the name of a distinguished organization and shamed it. We're not talking about rational activism here. We're talking about hooliganism.
“I think these guys are mentally deficient and should either be hospitalized or jailed.”
Aggravating other community organizations — and even Kramer — doesn't seem to bother Bellefountaine. Actually, he likes it.
“That reputation is giving us power,” he says gleefully. “They created us — the whole Orthodoxy. They're validating our tactics by raising them to the level of community debate. It's better than if we could describe ourselves.”
Spitting, and Other Methods of Communication
With his baby-blue eyes and honey-blond, cherubic curls, Michael Bellefountaine is the very picture of innocence. The 30-year-old activist sits at a Steiner Street cafe, demurely sipping a tall glass of hot chocolate as he explains what compels ACT UP San Francisco to yell and scream.
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. [page]
“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.
ACT UP Tampa Bay wanted the Hillsborough County School Board to revise its sex education curriculum to include information on AIDS. Pasquarelli took the lead on the project, spending hours reviewing the school board's videos and written materials. The school board seemed receptive, so Pasquarelli and ACT UP Tampa Bay submitted a detailed proposal.
But board members, unaccustomed to discussing condoms, needle exchange, and other AIDS-related topics, hesitated. Pasquarelli got mad.
In May 1992, he, Bellefountaine, and other ACT UP Tampa Bay members dressed up as skeletons, complete with black cloaks and painted faces, and stormed a board meeting. They carried coffins, shouted, “Shame, Shame, Shame!” and pelted board members with (unused) condoms. Police arrived and escorted the skeletons outside.
Until that point, Dave Pasquarelli had a reputation as a thoughtful activist. Nadine Smith, one of the co-founders of ACT UP Tampa Bay, describes the early Pasquarelli as “polite to a fault with people, and very soft-spoken.”
“There was no indication that his behavior would change so dramatically. He was a reasonable guy,” says Smith, who co-chaired the 1993 Gay and Lesbian March on Washington. “But gradually, he would launch these attacks.”
From the school board meeting onward, Smith and other Tampa activists say, Pasquarelli's actions became increasingly extreme and destructive. Media attention seemed to be his paramount consideration. He began staging actions and speaking to reporters as a representative of ACT UP Tampa Bay without, former members say, the group's discussion or consent. And even when ACT UP discussed one of Pasquarelli's ideas and rejected it, he often went ahead anyway. [page]
As Pasquarelli's “actions” escalated, several Tampa activists say they began to see a pattern emerging.
“He would seize on something, he would fume about it, and he would raise hell completely,” says one of ACT UP Tampa's founders, who did not want his name used for fear of retaliation. “He'd never let the facts get in his way.”
Nadine Smith says Pasquarelli criticized her for including ACT UP in her resume when she ran for city council in 1991. Later, she says, he accused her of the opposite sin — trying to hide her association with the group.
“He just wanted confrontation,” says Smith. “It didn't matter what the facts were anymore.”
The incident at the school board had essentially deep-sixed ACT UP's sex education proposal. Pasquarelli's subsequent actions began to alienate people within the gay and AIDS communities. Gradually, these groups began to disassociate themselves from ACT UP Tampa Bay.
“Every other gay organization was afraid to get near them,” says activist Don Bentz, who now heads Greater Tampa Bay Pride. “Thanks to some of the actions that Dave did, it was like, 'They're radical, they're insane. And lord forbid, if you do something they disagree with, they're going to come after you with a machete.'
“There comes a time when you just have to look at what you're doing and ask how effective you're being. There was no real message. It was just, 'I'm David Pasquarelli, and I'm angry.' ”
For many in the Tampa activist community, the final straw fell in November 1992. Pasquarelli and several associates held a rally and painted the doors of City Hall red after Tampa voters decided against reinstating a part of the city's human rights ordinance that protected people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The morning after the election, Pasquarelli and his friends drove at single-digit speeds across the bridge that links Tampa and Hillsborough County with adjoining Pinellas County, blocking two lanes of traffic during the morning commute. Pinellas County residents were furious; they hadn't even voted on the measure.
A gay newspaper, the Suncoast Encounter, ran a commentary that satirized the protests.
And that made Pasquarelli mad, again — so mad that, according to Suncoast Publisher Mike Sheldon, Pasquarelli and another man collected hundreds of copies of the paper and drove to Sheldon's home at 3 a.m. They placed the papers on a low wall bordering the home's front lawn and doused them with gasoline. Sheldon says he called the police and ran outside just as the two were ready to set the papers on fire.
Two months later, Pasquarelli and Bellefountaine left Florida, bound for San Francisco.
California, Here They Come
Bellefountaine says he and Pasquarelli moved to San Francisco because his friend and cohort was offered a job there. Pasquarelli makes no mention of the job, instead pointing to Tampa's religious right as the reason for the move.
“It came to the point where these organizations were coming to attack me personally. … They were coming to the place where I worked,” says Pasquarelli. “Every aspect of my life was under scrutiny because of these radical right people. In conservative rural America, it was really hard to exist as a queer.”
Several people in Tampa remember things differently.
“He was basically ousted,” says Bentz. “ACT UP Tampa Bay was really upset that he was shooting his mouth off to the press on issues the group hadn't discussed.”
Whatever the reason or reasons for the move, Bellefountaine and Pasquarelli linked with ACT UP S.F. shortly after arriving in the city. It was a group in need of new blood.
At the peak of the ACT UP movement, ACT UP San Francisco was one of 100 chapters nationwide, and the local organization had as many as 70 members. The San Francisco group was regularly involved in well-publicized actions, or “zaps” in ACT UP parlance, that ranged from a protest of drug approval processes at the FDA's headquarters in Rockville, Md., to a week of demonstrations during the sixth International Conference on AIDS in San Francisco in 1990.
Although membership swelled that summer, by year's end, philosophical differences had divided the San Francisco group in two.
Those who preferred to focus on AIDS treatment and access to new drug therapies formed a new chapter, ACT UP Golden Gate. Those who remained as ACT UP S.F. focused on broader political and social issues around AIDS.
“The Boys From Florida” (as Pasquarelli and Bellefountaine would later become known) arrived early in 1993, during a down period for ACT UP S.F. In San Francisco, as in cities across the country, many of the best and brightest AIDS activists had died. Some had moved on to other pursuits. Others were simply burned out. ACT UP S.F. had dwindled to about 10 members.
“We were exhausted. The fewer people there were, the more work each of us had to do,” remembers former ACT UP member Rebecca Hensler. “We were 10 tired people.”
She and other ACT UP members recall that the group was initially receptive to the newcomers. But that sentiment soon faded. Former members say the Boys From Florida joined forces with a wing of ACT UP S.F., the Alternative Treatments Committee, and began aggressively pushing for the widespread use of DNCB — a chemical solution commonly used for developing color film — as a treatment for HIV.
There is no scientific proof that DNCB works. Dr. Steven Miles, a researcher with the National Institutes of Health, says that advocating the exclusive use of DNCB over AIDS treatments with proven clinical value is — to put it simply — dangerous. [page]
“There is no evidence that DNCB decreases opportunistic infections, or increases T cells, or delays the onset of AIDS,” says Miles, who heads the Clinical AIDS Research and Education Clinic at the University of California at Los Angeles. “To mislead people into believing that is a gross misrepresentation.”
Miles says the existing data on DNCB is unreliable because the studies report only selected results from selected patients. Says Miles: “I'm singularly unimpressed.”
ACT UP S.F. frequently cites Dr. Raphael Stricker, one of the very few medical “authorities” to publicly endorse DNCB. But Stricker's professional track record speaks for itself: He was fired from the University of California at San Francisco in 1990 for falsifying results of an AIDS study in an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Supporters of DNCB cite testimonials of AIDS patients as evidence that the drug boosts immune function. Some people have reported feeling “better” after applying the substance to their skin. Others have reported severe rashes, burns, and blistering.
The Boys From Florida, however, were convinced of DNCB's effectiveness and decided that the rest of ACT UP S.F. needed convincing, too. The DNCB group began holding its own community forums to promote the use of the photoactive drug, which ACT UP S.F. now distributes for “suggested donations” of $5 to $20, depending on the quantity supplied.
DNCB has hardly been a moneymaking venture. ACT UP S.F. gives away more of the chemical than it sells and profits from sales are negligible: Pasquarelli still works at Kinko's, and Bellefountaine weighs marijuana at a buyers club twice a week.
Former ACT UP S.F. members say Pasquarelli and Bellefountaine increasingly seemed more interested in DNCB than the group's political goals. Discussions became shouting matches. Disagreements deteriorated to insults and obscenities.
“They would scream at people, they would curse at them,” says former ACT UP S.F. member Laura Thomas. “They would present themselves as somehow being persecuted. It made it a really unpleasant room to sit in for a couple of hours.”
Bellefountaine maintains that the members of ACT UP S.F. were simply “not supportive of new ideas or new people. They seemed suspicious.”
Longtime members began to leave the group. Rebecca Hensler decided she'd had enough in the summer of 1994. “We had gotten so far from the days when we could all disagree and still put our lives and bodies on the line for each other,” says Hensler, brushing tears from her eyes, “it was making me completely miserable. I had to leave.”
By the end of that summer, none of the original members of ACT UP San Francisco remained.
“All the sane, rational, committed people left the group,” says Thomas. “They were basically chased out, or they decided that they could do the work they wanted to on AIDS without being screamed at about DNCB by Pasquarelli and Bellefountaine.”
These days, ACT UP S.F. meets each Monday night at the Epicenter Zone, a punk collective and music store on Valencia Street. This evening in March, 14 people sit on sagging sofas arranged in a rectangle at the rear of the store. The meeting begins without Dave Pasquarelli, who is home sick with a cold.
Michael Bellefountaine pulls out a yellow ACT UP Planning Calendar. A face — AIDS Foundation Director Pat Christen's — is on the calendar, with a few slight alterations. Christen has been drawn to look like a cat. The calendar is a larger version of the stickers, captioned “Dump Fat Cat Pat,” that ACT UP S.F. plastered throughout the Castro neighborhood a few months ago. Ronnie, the kitty-litter activist, and Kay, a woman with fluffy gray and mauve hair, facilitate the meeting.
Bellefountaine hands out proposed budgets for an animal rights protest to be held later this month, on World Animal Rights Day, in Atlanta. He is excited to announce that singer Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, who met ACT UP S.F. members last year at an animal rights protest in Washington, has just donated $5,000 to the group. Bellefountaine says the money will go toward the Atlanta trip. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) will pay his airfare, as they did last year for the D.C. trip.
The unusual connection between ACT UP S.F. and PETA originated two years ago, when ACT UP S.F. decided it would add animal research to the list of evils perpetrated by AIDS researchers and the pharmaceutical industry. The group has since joined forces with PETA to protest, among other things, the hyperpublicized transplant of baboon bone marrow into an Oakland man with AIDS — a procedure that, incidentally, ACT UP Golden Gate supports.
Kay says she has done some research on the Atlanta police: “I heard the cops are wusses compared to San Francisco, so if you want to get arrested, you're going to have to work really hard!” she laughs. This prompts Medea, a woman with long, jet black and royal blue braids, to talk animatedly, and in full, bloody, intestinal detail, about the evils of animal vivisection.
Although there is a written agenda, the discussion meanders. Todd, the treasurer, encourages his colleagues to follow his example and engage in “bigot busting” — that is, a spitting campaign directed against Mormons.
A few members take turns rubber-stamping Pat Christen's feline countenance on stacks of postage-paid remittance cards — registration cards for an AIDS dance-a-thon sponsored by Mobilization Against AIDS. ACT UP S.F. is protesting the dance because income from the event, Todd says, will be used to pay the salaries of fat cats like Christen, who are, he claims, profiting from the AIDS epidemic.
ACT UP S.F. is discussing plans for obtaining news coverage of abysmal living conditions at a single resident occupancy hotel in the Tenderloin that houses indigent AIDS patients when the meeting is interrupted. A round-shouldered employee from the city's Department of Public Works sheepishly asks who is in charge; he needs to issue a citation and a bill for removing ACT UP S.F. stickers that have been plastered on city No Parking signs. [page]
A half-dozen voices respond, one over another:
“No one's in charge.”
“We're a consensus organization.”
“Right now we're in the middle of a meeting.”
“Right now we're fighting AIDS.”
“If you're looking for someone to cite, you can fucking cite me, honey,” says Bellefountaine finally, shooing an invisible fly with one hand. Then he adds an aside: “It's like the fucking Nazis.”
The DPW man blinks helplessly at Bellefountaine and leaves without writing the citation.
Ends and Mean
Like all good zealots, Bellefountaine and Pasquarelli believe history will remember them fondly.
“People will soon start reflecting on this whole colossal blunder,” Pasquarelli predicts. “People will no longer believe the hype of the pharmaceutical industry. People will see that AIDS was not what it was made out to be.
“They know we're right. I think that is scaring the hell out of so many people.”
He and Bellefountaine see the community's loathing of ACT UP S.F. as a natural result of the group's good work — part of the dialectic of history, if you will. They say the question of whether their tactics are violent is one for philosophers and theorists, not activists, to answer. He and Pasquarelli show no remorse for their actions because, Bellefountaine says, in this matter the ends really do justify the means. With the lives of tens of thousands on the line, not one of ACT UP S.F.'s actions has been too extreme. Not one.
“We are part of the dissenters' movement, honey,” Bellefountaine says, waving away further questions with a dismissive flick of a hand. “We embrace it like it's a fucking royal title.