ACT UP Oral History Project (actuporalhistory.org) debuted in November 2003. Its co-founders Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman see a widespread myth about social activism, that activists need big money and large numbers before they can make change happen. It is a false and debilitating assumption. Real social change comes from low-to-no-budget grassroots organizing, and the critical mass driving that change more often requires a handful of people acting quickly, independently and using diverse strategies and tactics, than television’s grand, elegant marches on the U.S. Capitol.
In few instances is this reality clearer than in the success of ACT UP. Despite limited resources and membership, ACT UP built a powerful coalition across lines of class, race, and gender that successfully ended the U.S. government’s malign neglect of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. They proposed and forced the enactment of reforms of the FDA, fought for the expansion of health care and social services for the poor and sick, and created new art and media forms to communicate their radical agenda. In short, ACT UP saved millions of lives and transformed U.S. society for the better.
The ongoing ACT UP OHP has produced and made available over 150 video interviews and transcripts with surviving ACT UP members, offering an intimate look at the nuts-and-bolts of successful social agitation, in the words of the people who carried those demonstrations out. It offers an almost unprecedented collection of civil-disobedience tactics, providing in-depth and wide-ranging strategies and step-by-step breakdowns of many of ACT UP’s large-scale demonstrations and zaps (rapid and dramatic confrontations with public targets, carried out by small groups of people).
In fall of 2011, as Occupy Wall Street raged two blocks from his office, Jim Hubbard synthesized information gathered through the project and finished his feature doc United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. Hailed by the New York Times for being “as scrappy and passionate as the actions it documents,” the film premiered at MoMA before beginning its international tour in Ramallah, in the West Bank. From there Hubbard & Schulman traveled with the film to Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, bringing its message directly to the queer movement across Israel/Palestine. They turned down large, institutionally run and Israeli-funded venues, choosing instead small, people-run spaces, like art galleries, anarchist vegan collectives, and women’s centers, so their message could make personal contact with activists fighting against HIV/AIDS and Israeli apartheid.
The project’s website has seen 16,000 video views, 49,000 transcripts downloaded, and over 1.2 million visits. Hubbard and Schulman continue to exhibit the project and give talks about social activism, in places as diverse as Harvard University, White Columns alternative art space in New York, the National Library of Medicine, and the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance. If your organization would like to host them, email Jim Hubbard at: email@example.com