AIDS GROUPS STRIKE BACK AT ACT UP
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
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
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
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 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
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."