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These Harrowing Pictures Capture The War Against The AIDS Crisis

By the end of the 1980s, some 100,000 people were diagnosed with AIDS in the US. ACT UP made it its mission to fight back.

Posted on June 25, 2019, at 1:22 p.m. ET

Michael Abramson / Getty Images

Larry Kramer, founder of ACT UP, embraces his friend Vito Russo, who was then diagnosed with AIDS, at his home in 1990.

By the end of the 1980s, the CDC had acknowledged 100,000 reported cases of AIDS in the United States — a number that represented only the minimum amount of infected people due to widespread unreported cases and common misdiagnosis. With the virus disproportionally affecting the LGBTQ community and with the price of treatment inflating to unreasonable levels, the fight against AIDS was not just a public health emergency, but also a flashpoint for LGBTQ civil rights.

In 1987, during a panel discussion at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City, writer Larry Kramer addressed his audience by asking, “Do we want to start a new organization devoted to political action?” The answer was the beginning of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a grassroots political group whose guerrilla tactics and confrontational protest methods were used to wage war against policymakers, pharmaceutical companies, and the media alike.

Inspired by the radical dissidence of the 1969 Stonewall riots, ACT UP played an enormous role in helping to shift public perception of the AIDS crisis and advocating for visibility among the LGBTQ community. These pictures capture the tactics used by ACT UP and the people who raised their voices at a time when it felt like nobody was listening.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Police officers remove members of ACT UP, who staged a sit-in inside the hallway of the New York State Capitol in Albany on March 28, 1990.

AP Photo

Left: People in San Francisco protest a proposed funding cut to an AIDS emergency relief bill before the United States Senate on Oct. 6, 1990. Right: ACT UP members burn an American flag outside the White House on Oct. 11, 1992. The group burned the flag as part of a protest to demand more funding for AIDS research.

Mark Reinstein / Getty Images

ACT UP demonstrators smear fake blood on and chain themselves to the northwest gate of the White House on Sept. 30, 1991.

Mark Reinstein / Corbis via Getty Images

ACT UP demonstrators chain themselves to the White House (left) and are apprehended by Capitol Police (right) on Sept. 30, 1991.

Paul Sakuma / AP

ACT UP disrupts the opening ceremonies of the Sixth International Conference on AIDS in San Francisco on June 20, 1990.

Ron Frehm / AP

ACT UP members hang a banner across the train schedule board in New York’s Grand Central Terminal on Jan. 24, 1991. Hundreds of protesters marched through the station during rush hour to protest unfair spending for the Gulf War over AIDS treatment.

John Swart / AP

Chicago police officers arrest a demonstrator outside the hotel where the American Medical Association is holding its annual meeting, June 24, 1991.

AP Photo

Left: Police attempt to move members of ACT UP as they block the entrance of New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel on July 24, 1990, as then-president George Bush addresses a Republican fundraising event inside. Right: A Kansas City, Missouri, police officer holds a protester in place while waiting for handcuffs to arrive on Sept. 17, 1990.

Jeffrey Markowitz / Getty Images

ACT UP activists stage a die-in on the lawn in front of the Capitol building in Washington, DC, on May 12, 1992.

Joe Marquette / AP

Members of ACT UP place a coffin containing the body of activist Tim Bailey into a van in Washington, DC, on July 1, 1993. Bailey was carried through Washington as part of a political funeral for Bailey who died of AIDS on June 28.

Millrock Productions / Getty Images

The body of activist Steve Michael on view in front of the White House in 1998.

Doug Mills / AP

Luke Montgomery of ACT UP is led away from president Bill Clinton at the Georgetown University Medical Center on Dec. 1, 1993. Clinton was visiting with AIDS victims at the center when Montgomery yelled “lots of talk, no action” at the president.

Philippe Wojazer

A giant condom is lowered over the obelisk monument in Paris’s Place de la Concorde on Dec. 1, 1993.

Christine Grunnet

French ACT UP activists take part in the annual pride march through central Paris on June 18, 1994.

Mousse Mousse / Reuters

The president of ACT UP, Christophe Martet, confronts French culture minister Philippe Douste-Blazy (left) during a nationally televised AIDS awareness evening June 7, 1996.

Mary Altaffer / AP

Members of ACT UP march down Fifth Avenue protesting George W. Bush’s AIDS policy during New York City’s Pride March on June 27, 2004.

New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images

Members of ACT UP bare their sentiments during a demonstration near Madison Square Garden in New York City, where the Republican National Convention is being held, Aug. 26, 2004.

Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images

Members of ACT UP demonstrate in New York City against remarks made Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Peter Pace on March 15, 2007. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, Pace said he supported the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy because homosexual acts are “immoral.”

Pacific Press / Getty Images

Hundreds gather in New York City to celebrate ACT UP’s 30th anniversary on March 30, 2017.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.