On Wednesday, students around the country walked out of their schools for 17 minutes to honor the lives of the 17 students who died in the Parkland, Florida shooting one month ago. The national walkout garnered national attention with wall-to-wall coverage on news networks and channels like MTV, BET, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon halting programming during the rally times in solidarity with the estimated tens of thousands of students.
Many students held posters with messages against President Donald Trump and Congress, with at least one student’s sign echoing back to one of the most iconic images from the AIDS activism movement. A student in Washington, DC, held a sign reading “If I die in a school shooting, drop my body on the steps of the CDC.” On Twitter, Mic staff writer Anna Swartz shared the photo of the student taken by Brooklyn filmmaker Emily Watson next to the famous image of artist and activist David Wojnarowicz wearing a denim jacket with the words, “If I die of AIDS, forget burial Just drop my body on the steps of the FDA.” The words are laid over the pink triangle, most famously associated with the words “Silence=Death,” an iconic rallying activist cry during the AIDS epidemic.
— Anna Swartz (@Anna_Snackz) March 14, 2018
The juxtaposition of the two images clearly means to show the lineage between the direct action taken by ACT UP and others AIDS activist groups during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the life-or-death situation many American students find themselves in today.
But, how great is that link?Both involve a stunning amount of government neglect for its citizens, with Republicans especially acting as a roadblock between American citizens and their own livelihoods.
In October 1988, ACT UP and national network ACT NOW teamed up and confronted the FDA on its inaction toward getting “drugs into bodies,” as their iconix maxim went. In preparation, ACT UP went through several months of preparation. They learned how to speak to the media about their talking points and they had a whole handbook about the action and why it was necessary. (The handbook is still available on ACT UP’s archival website.)
Together, the groups advocated for a shorter drug approval process, an end to double-blind placebo trials, adding women, people of color, children, drug users, and other heavily HIV-affected groups to the trials and more.
Just as AIDS activists fought a neglectful FDA, the Parkland-inspired student sign shows that government neglect is once again the culprit at work in our nation’s gun violence epidemic. Starting in 1995, the NRA funded an effort to stop Congress from giving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention money to study gun violence, according to the New York Times. The NRA’s spending led to the passage of the Dicket Amendment, which led to the passage of the Dickey Amendment, which bars the CDC and the National Institutes of Health from any research that might result in gun control measurements.
Former president Barack Obama brought this exact point up in an infamous viral clip from a PBS town hall.
Republicans played a central antagonistic role in both struggles. During a town hall aired on CNN, students from Parkland confronted Florida state senator Marco Rubio on his stance on guns.
However, this is where the clear differences start to appear. While Republicans will sit in a town hall with these students, most people with AIDS and activists were not even able to hold court with those in power.
“There’s zero comparison,” Alexis Danzig, who joined ACT UP in 1988 and now trains activists in civil disobedience, told INTO. While Rubio would show up and at least spout NRA talking points to the Parkland students, it took five years of the AIDS epidemic before Reagan even said the word “AIDS” in public.
According to the Atlantic, Republican California representative Bill Dannemeyer delivered a speech on the house floor titled “What Homosexuals Do,” which included graphic depictions of sexual acts. He also wanted to create a registry of HIV-positive Americans, mostly to implement either quarantines or deportations. And who can forget Ronald Reagan’s press secretary laughing as he spoke about people dying of AIDS-related illnesses?
While some of the students involved in the gun violence epidemic, including the movement’s media frontwoman Emma Gonzalez, identify within the LGBTQ community, the group is not wholly a “despised sexual minority,” a phrase Danzig used to describe protesters during the 1980s.
“The [movements are] similar in that young people dying in different governments, and unfortunately, that’s kinda where the similarity ends,” said Danzig.
Aside from them not having the same social status as Americans who were affected by HIV, including poor people and people of color, rallying students are speaking up about an issue that most Americans care about. Currently, 90% of Americans support background checks for all gun sales. As of February, 66% of Americans also supported more stringent gun laws.
By 1993, more than a decade after AIDS had first been reported in the New York Times, 36% of people surveyed by the University of California said they believed people with HIV should be separated from the rest of the population. Thirty percent of respondents felt the names of PLWHIV should be made public.
To that end, Danzig pointed out that these children are walking into an environment with fully-formed networks ready to address the gun violence epidemic. They have Everytown for Gun Safety and Gays Against Guns. AIDS activists, she noted, had to start from scratch.
“It’s definitely David and Goliath,” Danzig tells INTO, “but they’re also walking into a landscape which is dotted with organized groups that already exist who want to support and help them.”
Some people online critiqued the use of the sign and any association between the two movements.
“Love you kids, but we don’t need to appropriate different movement’s watershed moments and signs, regardless if you’re queer or not,” one Twitter user wrote.
Love you kids, but we don’t need to appropriate different movement’s watershed moments and signs, regardless if you’re queer or not. pic.twitter.com/nULVAkUx2o
— Majin Bourgeoise (@onebrightlight) March 15, 2018
When I dropped the image into a group of ACT UP alumni, their reactions varied wildly.
“I’m really struck by these two images. There’s something beautiful and sad about the adoption of that slogan,” one person said.
Another person said they should organize workshops with students to share their knowledge.
And another, when talking about the connection, said there was none.
“Anger and action,” one person responded. “There’s plenty.”