Fed up with radical activists' antics, they call for pot-club boycott

By Ulysses Torassa

San Francisco Examiner 22 Sept. 2000

It's a typical Monday night at ACT UP/San Francisco's headquarters on Market Street. A half-dozen men and women sit on ratty furniture and go over a meager agenda -- a positive article in an African magazine, an upcoming community festival, and a recent "spoken word" evening are brought up as people nod in approval.

Afterward, there's free pizza.

It may seem odd, but this is the same group whose members dumped used cat litter on the director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, regularly disrupt public meetings with angry screeds and displays of pornography, and are now being prosecuted for battery.

After years of taunts and disruptions, local AIDS professionals, people with AIDS and grass-roots AIDS activists announced in full-page ads and at a press conference Thursday that they are ready to take on ACT UP/SF, starting with a boycott of the group's $1.6-million-a-year pot club.

The city's director of public health and the AIDS group Project Inform also are pursuing criminal charges against ACT UP/SF members for their behavior at two public meetings.

Members of this renegade ACT UP chapter believe HIV does not cause AIDS, that those who think so are out to demonize gay sex, and that AIDS drugs are poison. Recently, they have announced that "AIDS is over." As a sideline, they also advocate animal liberation and medical marijuana.

Earlier this year, the group's message got a lot of exposure from the attention of government officials in South Africa, who are desperate for a solution to the AIDS crisis that doesn't involve expensive drugs.

Public health officials believe that message is increasingly dangerous in a city where new HIV infections in young gay men appear to be on the rise.

"This message winds up in the general population and people wind up actually believing this kind of stuff, to the point where they push back their treatment options," said Will Carter, former co-chair of The City's Ryan White Care Council, which oversees much of the spending on AIDS in San Francisco. He is one of 194 people who signed the ad running in two gay publications.

Activists like Carter are incensed that the group's medical marijuana outlet has become a $100,000-per-month business, with the profits going to finance its political activities.

"This is one of the things about the justice system that drives people of color crazy. Most of these people are Caucasian, and we live in a state where most people who are busted and sent to jail for drugs are people of color," said Carter, who is African American. "It's a horrendous mess, allowing these people to operate a marijuana club. They are in your face. They pay no taxes, no payroll taxes. They are saying, 'Come and get us.'"

But Carter and the others know they have an uphill fight. The district attorney's office filed misdemeanor battery charges against ACT UP/SF members, but DA Terence Hallinan has made it clear that he supports the city's pot clubs and isn't eager to embark on a crackdown.

And ACT UP/SFers are hardly quaking in their shoes.

"We've always been condemned as brownshirts, thugs, fanatics," said member Michael Bellefountaine. "If the gay and lesbian community -- not the 'leadership' -- didn't want us in this city, we wouldn't be here."

As for hurting their pot sales with a boycott, Bellefountaine said their 1,300 customers already know about the group's politics and tactics and choose to buy there anyway.

ACT UP/SF was the target of similar ads and criminal charges in 1996 after one of its members dumped cat litter and feces on the head of Pat Christen, executive director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

That incident and another disruption at Davies Medical Center that same year led to criminal charges against four members of the group. A judge dismissed many of the counts and gave just one member 25 hours of community service. Community service penalties were also meted out for a 1995 trashing of The City's Republican Party headquarters.

Public Health Director Mitchell Katz said he's had to comfort distraught employees several times after harassment from ACT UP/SF members. In August, Katz instigated battery charges against two ACT UP/SF members who sprayed him with Silly String and threw paper at him during a city hearing.

Other activists say they've been chased down the street or taunted on Muni with chants of "AIDS whore," and worse.

To ACT UP/SF, their tactics amount to nothing more than standard "street theater." They deny accusations of stalking, but acknowledge confronting activists and officials in public, yelling accusations and obscenities.

ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was founded in New York City in the late 1980s to take direct action, against institutions believed to be standing in the way of progress against AIDS.

Local chapters operate autonomously, however. Bellefountaine and fellow member David Pasquarelli were both active in the Tampa, Florida branch before moving here in 1993.

At the time, ACT UP/San Francisco had separated into two groups, with a new ACT UP/Golden Gate pursuing issues related to treatment.

The pair joined the dwindling ACT UP/San Francisco branch and championed the use of the photo developing chemical DNCB, which they claimed boosted the immune system. According to former ACT UP/SF member Rebecca Hensler, the two harassed and intimidated frail and ailing members out of the group and then recast it as an advocate for DNCB and against the use of standard AIDS therapies.

The group now claims HIV does not cause AIDS, and that AIDS is over. Their cause has also broadened to include animal liberation and medical marijuana, which has added a few extra bodies to the core membership of about seven.

Most members work at the marijuana store, earning $15 per hour as "independent contractors," not official employees, to a maximum of $450 a week, according to Bellefountaine. Financial summaries and other transaction documents, which they say are open to anyone, show they grossed $1.6 million in the past year.

Their prices are usually the cheapest of any of The City's pot clubs and they do not verify a doctor's prescription. Instead, buyers sign a notarized form saying they need marijuana for medical reasons and that their doctor approves.

They say 80 percent of the money goes to the pot growers and that after paying rent, salaries and the cost of charity give-aways, there is about $5,000 a month left for political activities. All sales are cash and many growers don't want to be identified in records, so verifying the figures is impossible.

The set-up leaves the group in a enviable position among activist groups. Besides the steady income, the store space doubles as an office and meeting place. Members who staff the operation are free from having to work at full-time jobs elsewhere.

The group has a Web site and publishes Magnus, which runs hard-core images along with interviews and articles attacking the "AIDS myth."

At a recent Board of Supervisors hearing, before a repulsed audience, they used audiovisual equipment to project the image of a penis about to be inserted into an anus.

This year, they sent appeals to every member of Congress to stop federal spending on AIDS. They also sent information packets to 200 ambassadors to the United Nations, claiming HIV is a myth.

Along the way, they worked in concert with conservative Republicans who also want AIDS funding slashed. Their most generous supporter is self-described venture capitalist Robert Leppo of San Francisco, who also contributes to many Republican causes. Leppo questions whether HIV causes AIDS, and put up the money to allow members of ACT UP/SF, in the form of a trust, to buy their building at Market and Laguna streets.

The purchase was last November, but it wasn't disclosed until May after an article about it ran in the Bay Area Reporter.

Efforts to confront ACT UP/SF began in May after some members allegedly turned over tables, threw pills and created a panic at a forum sponsored by Project Inform.

Project Inform is pursuing both criminal charges and civil restraining orders in connection with the incident.

After that meeting, Michael Lauro of the group Survive AIDS (formerly ACT UP/Golden Gate) said he and other activists began meeting to discuss how to fight back.

Momentum built and their last meeting brought out 30 people, he said. They collected enough money from individuals to run the ad in the Bay Area Reporter and Frontiers Magazine.

But they are also pressing on other fronts. Lauro said he's trying to get the IRS interested in their tax status. He also wants to know why The City hasn't insisted they get a business license and how they can get away with paying people as independent contractors, rather than as employees.

"We're calling on the city power structure to enforce the law," Lauro said.

ACT UP/SF has recently taken steps that may insulate it from some legal hassles. Besides the trust formed to own the building, Bellefountaine says they've separated the marijuana dispensary from ACT UP/SF. They have also filed for official nonprofit status under the name ACT UP/SF Educational Foundation so that they can accept grants and get tax-deductible donations.

Besides, Pasquarelli said, "if they want to shut us down, they've got to be ready to provide marijuana to 1,300 sick people."

And despite threats from outside, they say they have big plans. In a recent statement they said they intend to establish scholarships for queer youth, a sanctuary for abused animals and community programs to foster militant direct action against 'the corporate, racist, sexist, queer-hating, meat-eating, earth-raping, elitist, greed-based system that attempts to enslave us all."