INTERVIEW DAVID PASQUARELLI
AIDS Activist and Political Prisoner
By Mark Gabrish Conlan
Zenger's Newsmagazine April 2002
San Francisco alternative AIDS activists David Pasquarelli and Michael
Petrelis were arrested on November 28, 2001 and charged with conspiracy
to commit terrorism. They were held on a combined $1.1 million bail for
nothing more than an alleged series of phone calls to the homes and
offices of local government officials and reporters. In this exclusive
interview, Pasquarelli offers his view of life in jail and the danger
people with AIDS and HIV face from quarantine programs like the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control's Model State Emergency Health Powers Act
(available at http://www.publichealthlaw.net).
It all started on October 30, 2001 with a press release from David
Pasquarelli and Todd Swindell of ACT UP San Francisco. The release
attacked Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, head of the sexually-transmitted disease
prevention unit of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. It
claimed Dr. Klausner was distorting statistics of syphilis cases among
the city's Gay and Bisexual men in an effort to create the false
impression that a syphilis epidemic was sweeping San Francisco's Gay
community. It called for a "phone zap" against Dr. Klausner and
published not only his office phone number but his home number as well.
ACT UP San Francisco soon broadened its campaign to include other city
health officials and reporters for the local media, particularly the San
Francisco Chronicle and the Queer-oriented Bay Area Reporter, whom the
group felt were being too uncritical of Dr. Klausner's statistics and
reporting his allegedly scientifically shaky conclusions as hard fact.
The San Francisco establishment struck back against ACT UP San Francisco
not only in civil court — where various AIDS service organizations and
treatment providers had been getting stay-away injunctions against ACT
UP members for over two years — but through the criminal justice system
as well. On November 28, as they were leaving a civil court hearing,
Pasquarelli and Michael Petrelis — an alternative AIDS activist who
doesn't belong to ACT UP San Francisco but works with them on some
issues — were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism.
Pasquarelli and Petrelis were held on bail of $500,000 each and
subjected to a barrage of adverse publicity. San Francisco district
attorney Terrence Hallinan (ironically, the son of a legendary
progressive attorney who had long attacked the conspiracy laws Hallinan
Jr. was now using against the two activists) publicly claimed that the
two had called bomb threats into the Chronicle offices and thrown bricks
through reporters' windows. Officials from the AIDS treatment unit at
the University of California at San Francisco claimed to have been the
victims of additional harassment from Pasquarelli and got his bail
increased to $600,000. They also unsuccessfully lobbied the FBI to have
him prosecuted as a terrorist under the newly passed PATRIOT Act.
ACT UP San Francisco has long earned the enmity of establishment AIDS
organizations both in the city and nationwide. The group was always one
of the most radical ones in the loosely knit ACT UP network, and once
Pasquarelli and fellow activist Michael Bellefountaine arrived in San
Francisco from Tampa, Florida in the early 1990's it moved even farther
away from the AIDS mainstream. The group embraces the dissident views of
scientists like Peter Duesberg, Kary Mullis, David Rasnick, Charles
Thomas and others who believe AIDS cannot possibly be an infectious
disease caused by the so-called Human Immunodeficiency Virus [HIV].
Working with other dissident organizations like the Los Angeles-based
Alive and Well and the international network H.E.A.L. [Health,
Education, AIDS Liaison], ACT UP San Francisco uses the confrontational
direct-action tactics of the original ACT UP but for a very different
issue agenda. Instead of seeking faster approval for HIV medications,
ACT UP San Francisco argues that the existing drugs are killing people
and doing them little or no good. Instead of urging people to take the
HIV antibody test, the group denounces the test as too unspecific and
too prone to false-positives to be a viable marker for anything. And
instead of seeking more government and private money for AIDS, it argues
that the AIDS establishment is already too bloated with money and needs
to be defunded.
Pasquarelli and Petrelis spent 72 days in jail before their long-delayed
preliminary hearing finally concluded in early February. The judge in
that hearing, Perker Meeks, Jr., agreed to allow the charges against
them to come to trial but reduced their bail to $120,000 for Pasquarelli
and $100,000 for Petrelis. Pasquarelli gave the following interview,
which will appear in the April 2002 issue of Zenger's Newsmagazine, two
weeks after his release — the soonest he felt up to the strain after the
debilitating effects of 2 1/2 months in jail on his health. In the
interview, he talked about life in jail and the threats he sees on the
horizon to the civil liberties of HIV-positive people and Queer men in
general — specifically from the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act
being sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control [CDC], whose
opponents describe it as doing to personal freedom for health care what
the PATRIOT Act is doing to Americans' civil liberties.
Zenger's: What was the issue with Jeffrey Klausner, and what made you
target him specifically in your original press release?
David Pasquarelli: Regarding the issue of Jeffrey Klausner and the Gay
community, there's been long-standing controversy over his presiding
over the STD control unit here in San Francisco, and what the purpose of
the STD control unit is, the methods that they use to inform the
community about sexually-transmitted diseases, and really whether the
methods that they use are meant to inform us and respect us, or really
are a mechanism to terrorize the Gay community and just bring more
funding in to the STD control unit, which he oversees.
The issue with Jeffrey Klausner over the years is that we've seen, time
and time again, that we do not have public meeting to inform the Gay
community of any rises or falls in STD's before that department goes to
the media. It's always the same alarmist scare stories that aren't
backed up by scientific data, reported directly to the media and then
broadcast all over the country — indeed, all over the world. The problem
with that is there's no respect for Gay men. We don't have public
meetings first to determine what we need to do. We're just browbeaten by
the media, and I think it's very harmful to Gay men.
Zenger's: How would you define an STD prevention program that would
respect the rights of Gay men? What would it do differently?
Pasquarelli: First of all, we would look at exactly what causes a
sexually-transmitted disease in a person. We're always so focused on
bacteria and viruses, some of which are very real, others of which —
like HIV, I believe — are totally fabricated. We need to have
grass-roots community involvement at all levels. Before any of these
alarmist stories go out to the media, the statistics upon which they're
based need to be independently verified, because the conflict of
interest is running so deep in these government agencies that I don't
really think we can trust their data.
The syphilis scare that was promoted for the past two years proves that.
The STD department literally put full-page ads with ticking time bombs
in our community newspaper, and when it was all sorted out at the end
there was one extra syphilis case. That's just routine. They keep
scaring us, and they don't have the science to back it up.
The other thing is public meetings. I don't know why we're not having
the public meetings that need to be had where all ideas can be debated
and dialogue can occur. Instead, this government agency is just pushing
this propaganda down our throats at every turn. The Gay community needs
to be involved — and a Gay community that is not thoroughly compromised
by the pharmaceutical industry. We need activists. We need health-care
people. We need Gay men that can objectively look at these things and
say, "This is what we need to do for our community's health and safety."
And that's not happening.
Zenger's: One of the broader political accusations made against ACT UP
San Francisco has been that it's essentially because of your actions
that public meetings are not occurring: that these folks don't want to
go to the Gay community and hold meetings for fear that you would
disrupt them. How would you answer that?
Pasquarelli: I can give you an example. Jeffrey Klausner had a public
meeting a couple of years ago, after we were making a lot of noise about
the syphilis scare. For some reason, this "public meeting" that they
decided to hold about science was held in the Fillmore, far away from
where most Gay people live. It attracted about a dozen people, total,
and over half of those people were members of ACT UP San Francisco. It
wasn't put in the newspapers and promoted as a way to get input from the
community. There'd be maybe one small quarter-page ad in the Gay
community newspaper that no one would ever read because they're so
poorly designed. And no one showed up.
I really don't think there's a commitment on behalf of the Department of
Public Health to get the rank-and-file Gays and Lesbians to meetings
where we can have open, honest dialogue. And if they're now saying,
"Well, the reason is because ACT UP San Francisco's too scary," or, "We
don't want to come out because ACT UP San Francisco is crazy, because
they don't believe that HIV causes AIDS," it's not our fault. They're
projecting that onto us.
Why are these people, in positions of power, so prone to censor a
viewpoint they don't like? They have an obligation to the public to hold
meetings that inform us, especially before putting anti-Gay or
homophobic newspaper stories throughout the United States. Because it's
bad enough here, but the ramifications in rural America are even worse.
And that's where the harassment, the homophobia, the violence, the
Gay-bashings occur, because this perception that Gay men are harboring
and spreading disease is coming out of San Francisco.
And all that we're looking at is viruses and bacteria. We're not looking
at the environmental factors that are compromising Gay men's immune
systems. Instead we're just stigmatizing them, demonizing them. And they
don't have the statistics to back it up. Then you get into the whole
realm of HIV, which I think is one of the most anti-Gay propaganda
campaigns ever. As Gay men, we're constantly on the losing end of this
Zenger's: If the HIV/AIDS model is a propaganda weapon aimed at the Gay
community, why is there such near-total Gay community support for it?
Pasquarelli: I would argue there are three reasons. One is the financial
corruption. AIDS organizations, and virtually all Gay organizations at
this point, are so tainted by federal government or pharmaceutical
money, that they must unequivocally support the HIV/AIDS model and treat
it as beyond discussion or debate. Our leadership is weak. In fact, I
would argue that we have virtually no political clout as a Gay community
locally, in the state, or nationally. We have a bunch of sell-outs in
office, and those people aren't out to protect our interests as Gay men
and Lesbians. They're out to further the interests of the corporate
agenda, especially when it comes to pharmaceuticals.
The second reason why the Gay community will not relinquish this is that
they've been brainwashed. We've all been brainwashed. Whether you're Gay
or straight, for 20 years in the United States of America we have read
in countless millions of newspaper articles, "AIDS, caused by the virus
HIV. HIV causes AIDS. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. End of story."
When you're bombarded with that for so long, you don't even think to
begin to question it. I think that's how it's been for a lot of Gay people.
Third and last, I'm sorry to say, is that the AIDS model, the HIV model,
really fits in to the victimization we have all been subjected to as Gay
men and Lesbians. Since we've been born we've been told that we need to
be ashamed. We've been told that we need to be lonely, and that we're
sick, depraved individuals and if we don't change our ways, we're going
to die a terrible, lonely death because of our "sin." That's just been
transferred onto the HIV/AIDS model.
It's only now that some people are beginning to get out from under it
and say, "If we're ever going to have self-esteem, if we're ever going
to have sexual freedom, then we're going to have to relinquish this
HIV/AIDS lie." And I think it's incumbent upon all young homosexuals to
do that: to reject it and resist it. Because ultimately I think it's
going to lead to our community's annihilation. I mean, 400,000 people
are already dead, and now they're talking about quarantine. And that
really scares me.
Zenger's: How serious do you think the risk of a quarantine of
HIV-positives really is?
Pasquarelli: I think, in this day and age, right now with the cultural
climate that we're in, we are one smallpox case away from implementing
quarantine nationally. The Model State Emergency Health Powers Act is
working its way through states everywhere. And we're not hearing a peep
about it. Except for Zenger's and one article in the Chronicle, we're
really having a media blackout, and the Gay and AIDS organizations
aren't talking about it at all.
And this idea that ACT UP is crazy for bringing it up: well, I'm sure
there was a time in Nazi Germany when the townspeople in the small towns
outside of Auschwitz and Treblinka were saying the same thing. And then
guess what? Isolation camps popped up, concentration camps popped up,
and then before you know it, 6 to 10 million people are dead.
The history is clear on how these things unfold. You have propaganda
campaigns demonizing people as "unfit" and "dangerous to the public
health," and before you know it, they take action, especially when the
economy's bad and there's a trauma to a country where people feel a
fervent nationalism that they need to rally around. All the signs are
looking very ominous right now.
Lyndon LaRouche was pushing this kind of notion 20 years ago, and people
were screaming against it. Basically, his plan has been implemented 20
years later. We have mandatory names reporting. We have contact tracing.
The only piece of the puzzle that's left to be put in place is isolation
camps, and the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act allows that
completely. That's why I believe that the bill needs to be killed,
because it's dangerous for all of us.
Zenger's: Any idea why you personally were singled out for arrest in
this case; and any idea why you've been put into this odd-couple linkage
with Michael Petrelis, who is not an AIDS dissident, believes in the
HIV/AIDS model and takes the AIDS drugs himself?
Pasquarelli: I think I should answer the last part of that question
first. The odd linkage between Michael Petrelis and me is the very real
fact that we attend the same meetings frequently. We're both AIDS
activists, although we come from a different philosophical and political
perspective. But the corruption throughout the AIDS industry and the
amount of money needlessly being squandered is a concern that unites us.
The issue of being singled out, you know: ACT UP San Francisco has been
very high-profile. We have not shied away from the controversial issues,
be it opening the bathhouses; be it taking on the AIDS industry,
including researchers like Margaret Fischl and Paul Volberding over the
AZT fiasco; or the issue of the statistics and the HIV antibody test
with our local Health Department.
What the people in power are seeing is that we're having an effect.
There's a new generation of young Queers that is rejecting the HIV/AIDS
hypothesis, doesn't want HIV antibody testing, doesn't feel the need to
be pressured into suicide with these drugs. And it's costing them money.
The bottom line is it comes down to the money. Millions of dollars are
going be lost. We're already seeing the Ryan White CARE Act flat-funded.
We're not going to get the kinds of millions of dollars pouring into
this city that we have in the past. Because it's all based on a lie, and
it's reaching up to the highest levels of government, like
[Congressmember] Nancy Pelosi [D-San Francisco]. She's spent her career
creating these formulations that bring AIDS dollars to our city, based
on the numbers of people who have died long ago. That's being readjusted
— as it rightly should be.
The members of the political infrastructure of this city are not
tolerating losing that funding. They are going on a witchhunt, and they
are persecuting people. I believe that Michael Petrelis and I are just
the first two, and that everyone needs to be concerned. The message is
clear from what happened to us: if you speak out, and if you speak out
loudly, we're going to shut you up for a long time. And I think that 72
days in jail is a very long time.
Zenger's: Would you say, then, that you consider yourself a political prisoner?
Pasquarelli: I did, yes. For 72 days I was a political prisoner. Michael
Petrelis was, too. It's cruel.
Zenger's: Could you tell me a little about your actual experiences in
jail for 72 days? How did you manage to hold up for that long?
Pasquarelli: The whole ordeal really began at the [November 28] civil
hearing, where we were ambushed by an inspector and police officers, and
were arrested right there in front of all the media. Of course, the case
was then broadcast, reported in the most sensationalistic manner in the
Chronicle's pages, accusing us of being stalkers and issuing bomb
threats, and all this craziness that I would argue was completely fabricated.
The time in jail was extremely difficult. My health suffered severely. I
think the Sheriff's Department does a good job of keeping people safe in
jail, but the stress of being put into a housing area with 100 other
men, all of different backgrounds and none of whom want to be there,
creates a stress and a compromising of the health that is undeniable.
Michael Petrelis experienced it. I experienced it, and I'm still
There's really not much help from the medical system in jail, especially
if you're HIV-positive and you buck the system. If you don't want to
have your [blood] counts done, or don't want to take the AIDS drugs, you
have to be very careful because you're under the watchful eye of the
system, and the system wants to get medicines into you and take your
blood for blood tests. For an AIDS dissident to be in jail and have to
stand up repeatedly to medical people and say, "I don't want those
pills, I don't want to be injected with that," it takes a lot of
fortitude, especially when you're not getting the nutrition you need.
Jail is not a place for anybody who's immune-compromised. It's not a
place for anybody who's healthy to try to keep their well-being up, but
for people that have had immune problems in the past, it's devastating.
There are a lot of problems in the jail. I think some of the conditions
in the housing areas are admirable, and the Sheriff's Department should
be applauded. But when you get out of the housing areas and you're being
transported around and put in holding pens, things of that sort, the
conditions are simply inhumane. They would have so many men crowded into
a holding pen that had no running water, and you would be there for
hours. They would open the door and just toss bags of food in, and
people would eat them like they were animals. There are some real
problems with the San Francisco County Jail that need to be fixed. And
if you're immune-compromised, it's 100 times worse.
Zenger's: Can you tell me about the reports I've heard that you were
actually being awakened in the middle of the night and served with
additional court papers while you were in jail?
Pasquarelli: Yes. For the first two weeks we were in jail, people came
in and pulled us out of bed in the middle of the night on numerous
occasions and served papers that should in fact have been served to our
lawyers. These were mostly papers that pertained to UCSF's complaints
against us. Michael Petrelis, at one point, was pulled out of a shower
and had to stand there and sign for the papers without any clothes on.
It really alarmed our attorneys, who put a stop to it really quickly.
But that was the kind of methodology that was being used to intimidate
us even while we were in custody. I think it's tragic that that was
allowed to happen.
I was frightened. I'm not going to lie about it. They have everything
under control when it comes to your freedom, and you have no say. You
can't complain about it. You just have to be awakened three times in a
night to be served papers, pulled out of the shower. And that's what
happened to us.
The setting of the bail was punitive. It was ludicrous. To give two
prominent AIDS activists who have a history in the community, who aren't
going to flee, that aren't a danger, that have no violent criminal
convictions, a $1.1 million combined bail is out of control. The only
way that that happened was due to rumors and allegations, including the
alleged bomb threat and the brick supposedly thrown through a reporter's
window, that were misrepresented to the court as "facts."
Zenger's: When you were in jail, how much access did you have to outside
news, both about your case and in general about the issues that concern you?
Pasquarelli: I had very little. The deputies would get newspapers, and
then they would throw them away, and inmates would pick them out of the
trash, and then they'd sort of float around and people would read them.
ACT UP folks sent me press clippings that I was able to look at, so I
kept pretty well aware of what was going on with our case — but we did
not, for instance, have the Chronicle or the Examiner every day to read.
Everybody had a story. Their stories were fascinating, and we shared
information. There was a real camaraderie in jail. I don't want to deny
that. I didn't ever feel that my safety was in jeopardy. The deputies
did a really good job. The inmates were really supportive of each other,
and really helpful to share information and pass the time. For that I
was grateful. But it was kind of shocking to walk into jail and see
these high-profile people that you've been reading about in the paper
for so long, some of whom have been in custody for up to two years.
Zenger's: How did the other prisoners react to you and your stories?
Pasquarelli: Well, they wanted to know what was going on. With the
September 11 calamity, people were kind of on edge about the issue of
terrorism, and to be labeled a terrorist in jail was not a comfortable
feeling. There's a rule in jail that you don't really push people to
talk about their case. You give people a lot of space. You don't invade
their privacy. And people were really respectful of that. But it's
really hard not to talk about it when the San Francisco Bay Guardian is
sitting there with both of our pictures on it that says, "Are these guys
So we'd engage in discussion, and once they heard the story they would
just be appalled that we could be in for this outrageous bail. They
would offer up their own stories about people that they knew who had
raped and beaten women and their children, and were in with $1,500 bail,
and then got out two days later.
It was startling to me to see the targeting of African-American and
Latino communities by the police; and the kind of gang laws that are
being used to persecute African-American and Latino men, and make them
really wards of the state. They stay in jail for so long, then they get
out with these crazy probation contingencies, and finally they wind up
in jail again because they simply had "police contact" through no fault
of their own. A police officer approached them; that's considered
"police contact," a violation of their probation, and they're back in
The prison population overall is about 70 percent Black and Latino, I
would say. There are very few white people overall, and you know that's
not reflective of the general population. There's just something wrong
when you look at the San Francisco County Jail inmate population, and it
is so highly African-American and Latino. These communities are
deliberately being targeted.
It's just not right. It's a crime in and of itself, and the whole
incarceration system needs to be reworked. We can no longer as a society
deny that it is racist, what's going on. Communities are being crushed.
Their spirits are being crushed by taking their men away and throwing
them in jail, taking their women away and throwing them in jail, at a
rate that's unprecedented.
The kinds of propaganda that continually demonize Blacks and Latinos as
gang members and as threats to public safety are very similar to the
propaganda campaigns against Gay men. The only difference is that
African-Americans and Latinos are being accused of spreading crime —
and, in the case of Latinos, being "illegal immigrants" just by being
here — where the anti-Gay propaganda accuses us of spreading disease. It
really seems like the forces that be have set up wonderful propaganda
channels to point the finger at certain groups and put them away.
Zenger's: When, and in what context, did you first hear about William
Dobbs's open letter [demanding a reduction in the bail amounts on the
basis that the prosecution of Pasquarelli and Petrelis was an attack on
all activism], and what did you think of it?
Pasquarelli: The first I heard of it was when I was in jail. Somebody
said that there was an open letter of support, and then read me the
initial 30 names. I think it included Harvey Fierstein, and I was really
encouraged that people were saying, "We see this as a civil-rights
problem. Regardless of what we think of ACT UP or the ideas of the AIDS
dissidents, we're going to come together and say, 'We feel like activism
is in jeopardy.'"
I really feel it bridged the gap between the dissidents and the
mainstream people. They may hate each other in terms of their politics,
but they came together. When you can have a list with [dissident
professor] Charles Geshekter on the same list as Ann Northrop of ACT UP,
finally we've identified the common ground that we can start working
from, and maybe start debating or dialoguing these issues.
I'm forever grateful to Bill Dobbs. I think it was a marvelous way to
re-energize Gay politics, and I think it circumvented the established or
official Gay leadership, which is dismal, and said, "We as a community
have power. By uniting ourselves on a letter, or coming out in a
protest, we have power individually through uniting our rank-and-file
support." We haven't seen that for a long time in the Gay community.
Zenger's: Is it true that at present you are not allowed inside the ACT
UP San Francisco space?
Pasquarelli: Yes, that is true. The way it materialized is a restraining
order was put in place against me from all UCSF locations and their
affiliates, one of which happens to be the AIDS Health Project, which is
about a block and a half away from the ACT UP San Francisco workspace.
For some reason, these restraining orders told us to keep 150 yards from
any of their locations, instead of the usual 25 to 50 years. So it
encompassed the space, or the distance within which the ACT UP San
Francisco space is located. So I can't get near it.
Zenger's: That in itself seems rather bizarre — maybe a minor issue
compared with everything else you've gone through, but still it seems an
extraordinary abuse of civil court to keep someone out of their place of
Pasquarelli: You want to hear a better one? The court instructed that I
am not allowed to attend any governmental public meetings in San
Francisco, period. They couldn't figure out if the restraining orders
would apply to HPPC [HIV Prevention Planning Council], or Ryan White, or
into the Board of Supervisors. So I just have a blanket prohibition that
I'm not allowed to go to any public meetings in the city of San
Francisco — which I will completely abide by, because I don't want to
disrespect the court and that's the court's decision. But I think
there's some real Constitutional issues with that as a citizen.
Zenger's: It reminds me of the way the apartheid government of South
Africa used simply to declare people "banned."
Pasquarelli: Yes, I think I'm "banned" now. We joke about it at ACT UP
now, but in a way it's O.K. I don't want to sound like I'm letting them
win, but I think in a lot of ways we've done our job. We've alerted the
public to what is going on.
There is a whole new generation of AIDS dissidents that are coming on:
young people who aren't buying it. Those are the people we're trying to
affect, because there's a whole previous generation of Gay men that are
just lost. They're under the spell. They're brainwashed. They're going
to commit slow suicide. They've got this Judy Garland syndrome where
they've got to swoon in order to get attention.
We're beyond that. We're sick of it. There's a group of Gay men that
says, "We're sick of the stereotypes. We're sick of the stigmatization.
And we're sick of AIDS." And I think, if our actions in the past have
prompted a new generation to stand up and say, "No more!," that's a good