ACTIVISTS SPLIT OVER JAILED AIDS PROTESTERS
By Charles Ornstein
Los Angeles Times 28 Dec. 2001
Two aggressive AIDS activists jailed in San Francisco are finding support
from an improbable source: those who call their theories "crackpot" and
consider their tactics indecent and abhorrent.
Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli are jailed in lieu of a combined
$1.1-million bail on charges of harassing, stalking and making criminal
threats against newspaper reporters, public health officials and AIDS
Many mainstream activists disagree with the men's methods and their beliefs
that AIDS-prevention messages stigmatize gay sex. But in the past two weeks,
about 200 people--including gay activists and cultural icons--have signed an
"open letter" on the Internet opposing the protesters' bail and the felony
charges against them. Signers include Tony Award-winning playwright and
actor Harvey Fierstein; Peter Cashman, a founding member of ACT UP Los
Angeles; Poz magazine founder Sean Strub; Patricia Nell Warren, who wrote
the gay-themed bestseller "The Front Runner"; and Andy Humm, a cable TV host
and former member of the New York City Commission on Human Rights.
"Seems to me there is a shortage of sanity and perspective in this matter,"
wrote Fierstein, author and star of the hit play "Torch Song Trilogy," in an
e-mail to The Times.
"I, like everyone I know, abhor most of the messages and tactics" of
Petrelis and Pasquarelli, he wrote. "However . . . I fear the bullying of
The Nov. 28 arrest of Petrelis and Pasquarelli has, in fact, caused a rift
among more mainstream AIDS activists.
Some believe the two men belong just where they are--in jail.
Kate Sorensen, a Philadelphia activist who was held in lieu of $1-million
bond for protesting at the 2000 Republican National Convention, is among
"I will fight for our right to demonstrate," Sorensen wrote to the two men
on the Internet after refusing to sign the open letter. "I will fight for
our right to free speech. I will fight this police state, but I will not
fight for you."
Sorensen further derided the men for "damaging the good work that real AIDS
activists have done for years" by criticizing prevention efforts and
disrupting meetings and workshops.
Others say the officials' response to the two men's tactics has been too
"It has caused a lot more people to ponder whether the bail is too high and
whether the charges are overblown," said William Dobbs, a New York AIDS
activist who drafted the open letter.
The pair are charged with a total of nearly three dozen felonies and
misdemeanors. Dobbs said the bail--$500,000 for Petrelis, $600,000 for
Pasquarelli--is higher than for some suspected rapists and murderers.
Reginald Smith, a manager in the San Francisco district attorney's office,
said the bail is consistent with standard judicial practice and is justified
because the alleged offenses continued despite warnings to stop.
"They have been jailed before. They've been released. They've been admonished
not to do anything. And they've done it again," Smith said.
'This Is Really AIDS Anarchism'
One top San Francisco health official said he can understand why some
outsiders may not understand the gravity of the charges or the need for hefty
bail. But they haven't experienced the fear that the duo instills in their
targets, said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, who oversees control of sexually
transmitted diseases in the city.
"I think they would probably feel quite differently if these threats were
affecting themselves or their family members," he said.
In court papers, Klausner claims that both men called his home, and one asked
his wife whether Klausner had syphilis. Klausner notes that the decision on
bail rests with impartial courts, and "three judges [separately] have either
sustained or increased the bail."
"This is not about AIDS activism," he said. "This is really AIDS anarchism
and trying to destabilize the public health movement."
Petrelis and Pasquarelli acknowledge making--or encouraging others to
make--late-night phone calls using sexually explicit language to newspaper
reporters, public health officials and AIDS researchers. They deny
threatening those people.
Before their arrests, the men told The Times that they were upset by reports
from Klausner's office, printed in the San Francisco Chronicle, showing
syphilis rates on the rise among men who have sex with men. They said they
believed those statistics were concocted to collect more federal money for
In addition, the two men said they were angry about a magazine article in
which Klausner discussed the possibility of quarantining AIDS patients who
persistently engage in unsafe sex and pass the infection along to others. The
author later wrote a clarification saying that neither Klausner nor his
agency advocates such an approach.
Pasquarelli is a spokesman for ACT UP San Francisco, a breakaway group not
affiliated with the national or Los Angeles ACT UP. The Bay Area group
contends that AIDS is caused by the side effects of HIV treatment rather than
the human immunodeficiency virus itself.
Petrelis, who is not a member of ACT UP San Francisco, disagrees with those
views but shares the group's belief that federal AIDS funds are being
misspent on unnecessarily frightening and sexually graphic prevention
Signers Concerned About Free Speech
Many AIDS activists who signed the open letter stressed that their decision
had more to do with protecting free speech than endorsing the jailed
"You'll be very hard pressed to find anyone who supports their tactics," said
Steve Ault, a longtime activist who helped organize the 1979 gay march on
Washington. "My concern is very simply and directly a matter of civil
liberties. I'm concerned that their civil liberties are being denied at this
Another concern among activists is that the men's actions have been likened
by authorities to terrorism.
"If you want to know what terrorism is about, one just needs to go about 2
1/2 miles from my apartment, and there's a huge, gaping hole of carnage,"
said Ault, who lives in Brooklyn. "When the word terrorism is used to
describe what they have done, I think it's way out of place."
Bay Area prisoner rights activist Judy Greenspan said she has been on the
receiving end of angry phone calls from ACT UP San Francisco over her support
for prisoner access to HIV medications. Although calling the tactics "totally
misguided," she nonetheless signed the letter calling for lower bail and
"We need to expose them and we need to do what we can to disarm them as
disrupters," she said. "But I don't think we need to depend upon the D.A.'s
office to do that. This is a very convenient case that will be used against
all of us that protest the actions of government."