Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

Learning How to ACT UP

Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

I first saw the documentary United in Anger: A History of ACT UP a year ago. As I watched the film, I was engrossed in the story of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. I was inspired by the successes of this movement that made it possible for an HIV diagnosis to not be an immediate death sentence. But I was also moved to tears by the footage of activists scattering the ashes of those who lost their lives to the virus. When I reflected on the film though, what struck me the most was the willingness of the filmmaker, Jim Hubbard, to explore the internal divisions and debates that ACT UP struggled to manage in the midst of its fight against widespread indifference by the government, researchers and healthcare industry. Although it would have been tempting to overlook the internal strife in service of a triumphant narrative about ACT UP, this complexity made the film both refreshing and instructive.

I found the film’s honesty in showing the movement’s disagreements and tensions refreshing because we are too often provided with clean, tidy histories of past movements. When our history of the civil rights movement glosses over the strategic disagreements that put Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in conflict with Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Committee, we miss out on lessons about the value of youthful outrage and impatience that gave the movement a needed boost in the 1960s. Activists and organizers regularly struggle with internal debates between factions that sometimes work together and other times at cross purposes. So when the film reflects – and honors – those real internal debates in ACT UP, it reminds us of how complicated it is to make change.

The film’s focus on ACT UP as an organization – how it was formed and organized, how activists carried out direct action tactics, etc. – was instructive because we often see images of huge rallies and marches, with little explanation of the on-the-ground organizing required to turnout thousands of people. United in Anger not only devotes screen time to ACT UP’s alternative, non-hierarchical structure, but puts their use of affinity groups in a historical context, honoring both the women’s movement and civil rights movement that used similar organizing strategies.

When I shared the documentary with my friend and colleague Aliya Rahman – field director at Equality Ohio – we agreed that United in Anger is a true organizer’s film, and set about creating a discussion guide so that organizations and activists groups could use the documentary in their organizing, base building and political education efforts. Having spent years training together in previous jobs, we believed that reflection on the example of ACT UP would help groups both re-affirm their commitment to direct action, and strategize about how to integrate lessons from ACT UP into their work today. So we created two modes for exploring the film: a single session where the film is viewed in its entirety, and a version that splits the film up into four distinct sections for groups who want to dig more deeply over the course of multiple meetings. We hope that both guides will help groups of organizers, activists and change agents to create the space in the midst of their work to learn and reflect on the example of ACT UP, and use those lessons to inject fresh energy and urgency into the movements of today.

To download the discussion guide packet, and order a version of the DVD for activists and nonprofit groups, go here. Also, please let me know how you use the film and discussion guides in your own work by sending your story to sthomas-breitfeld@demos.org.

Movement Building activism LGBT organizing social movements