Time to Remember French AIDS Activism

This week in North Philly Notes, Christophe Broqua, author of Action = Vie, writes about Act Up-Paris.

Since the end of 2018, large-scale mobilizations in France by activist groups have challenged the authorities and demanded more social justice. The “Yellow Vest” movement holds demonstrations every Saturday in Paris. Among the streets that they have regularly occupied—sometimes without providing advance notice to the Prefecture (as prescribed by French law)—is the famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées, which stretches from Place de la Concorde to Place de l’Étoile, where the Arc de Triomphe is located, an area largely inaccessible for street demonstrations.

Action=Vie_SMTwenty-five years earlier, on December 1, 1993, the AIDS organization Act Up-Paris braved the difficulty of demonstrating in this same area by placing a giant condom on the Obélisque de la Concorde. They also blocked the top of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées on December 1, 1994, an action illustrated by the photo on the cover of Action = Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France. At the time, Act Up-Paris was considered one of the major social movements in France. The organization met with considerable success in terms of mobilization as well as media coverage and political impact—contrary to the predictions of failure that it had initially inspired.

Indeed, when Act Up-Paris was formed in 1989, the vast majority of local commentators thought the organization, based on the American model, could not succeed. They reproached it for being a lame copy, unsuited to the French context. That it was linked to the gay and lesbian community undoubtedly added to mistrust and discrediting of the organization. The success of Act-Up-Paris, however, continues the long French protest tradition—it reached its peak in the mid 1990s. The criticism was indicative of the tense relationship between the French and the United States, rather than of the relevance (or not) of political activism in the face of the epidemic in France. Indeed, France is dominated by an ideology that claims to reject “communitarianism” in favor of “republican universalism,” but which, in reality, fears political organization of oppressed or stigmatized minorities more than anything.

Nevertheless, the success of Act Up-Paris had some limitations, particularly when new treatments led to a drop in HIV/AIDS-related mortality, at least in the Global North. Little by little, without ever disappearing, the organization got smaller, while the other dominant AIDS organization in France, AIDES—inspired by the Gay MHC (New York) and the Terrence Higgins Trust (London)—succeeded due to their commitment to helping individuals. In contrast, Act Up defined its actions as strictly political. In the 1990s, Act Up-Paris had become a major player in the AIDS fight and gay rights movements, but lost its media visibility in the following decade and was virtually unknown to new generations.

MV5BZWM2NTcxM2QtOTYxMC00OTllLWJhN2MtODBjNjA2Y2FjYmU1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQzNzQxNzI@._V1_UY268_CR3,0,182,268_AL_This progressive erasure and oblivion slowed in 2017 with the release of the film, BPM (Beats Per Minute). Directed and co-written by Robin Campillo a former member of Act Up-Paris, the film retraced the first years of the organization in a fictional but very realistic way. It also included a tragic love story between two activists, Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Debuting at the Cannes Film Festival, the film won the prestigious Jury Grand Prize. From the outset, critics were ecstatic in their support of the film and the emotions it stirred. When it was released in cinemas, it was a huge success; in just a few months more than 800,000 tickets were sold. This tremendous response to a past that was largely forgotten, especially among the new generation, was impressive. For younger viewers, it was the discovery of a heroic past that many people did not know about; for older viewers, the film stirred memories of difficult times or the feeling of having missed out on history.

Overall, the film enabled society to indulge in a kind of collective redemption in the face of what it had not wanted to see—i.e., an epidemic affecting stigmatized minorities who used forms of political action to survive. Far from being an isolated phenomenon, the movie success was part of a larger remembrance process affecting both the history of the fight against AIDS as well as the mobilization of sexual and gender minorities in various European and North American countries.

Alas, this rediscovery of Act Up-Paris was focused mainly in France, as the film BPM did not enjoy the same commercial success in the United States, though it fared well critically.

French history is strongly connected to American history: the founder and several important activists of Act Up-Paris went through Act Up New York, which also represented an important model for the French group. Later, Act Up-Paris became the largest Act Up group in the world.

Now that time has passed, will its history finally be discovered beyond the French borders?

Celebrating Filipino American History Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase a dozen Temple University Press titles focusing on Filipino American lives and culture.

Temple University Press is proud to be publishing these two new titles from our Fall list:

Invisible_People_smInvisible People: Stories of Lives at the Margin, by Alex Tizon, Edited by Sam Howe Verhovek, with a Foreword by Antonio Vargas, provides unforgettable profiles of immigrants, natives, loners, villains, eccentrics, and oracles.

The late Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Alex Tizon told the epic stories of marginalized people—from lonely immigrants struggling to forge a new American identity to a high school custodian who penned a New Yorker short story. Edited by Tizon’s friend and former colleague Sam Howe Verhovek, Invisible People collects the best of Tizon’s rich, empathetic accounts—including “My Family’s Slave,” the Atlantic magazine cover story about the woman who raised him and his siblings under conditions that amounted to indentured servitude.

Mining his Filipino American background, Tizon tells the stories of immigrants from Cambodia and Laos. He gives a fascinating account of the Beltway sniper and insightful profiles of Surfers for Jesus and a man who tracks UFOs. His articles—many originally published in the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times—are brimming with enlightening details about people who existed outside the mainstream’s field of vision.

Campaigns_of_Knowledge_SMCampaigns of Knowledge: U.S. Pedagogies of Colonialism and Occupation in the Philippines and Japanby Malini Johar Schueller, makes visible the afterlives of U.S. colonial and occupational tutelage in the Philippines and Japan.

In Campaigns of Knowledge, Malini Schueller contrapuntally reads state-sanctioned proclamations, educational agendas, and school textbooks alongside political cartoons, novels, short stories, and films by Filipino and Filipino Americans, Japanese and Japanese Americans to demonstrate how the U.S. tutelary project was rerouted, appropriated, reinterpreted, and resisted. In doing so, she highlights how schooling was conceived as a process of subjectification, creating particular modes of thought, behaviors, aspirations, and desires that would render the natives docile subjects amenable to American-style colonialism in the Philippines and occupation in Japan.

Here are ten additional Temple University Press books on Filipino American life and culture: 

The Cry and the Dedication, Carlos Bulosan and E. San Juan, Jr. This previously unpublished novel chronicles the adventures of seven Filipino guerrillas rebelling against U.S. domination.

The Day the Dancers Stayed: Performing in the Filipino/American Diasporaby Theodore S. Gonzalves. This book explores the way that cultural celebrations challenge official accounts of the past while reinventing culture and history for Filipino American college students.

Discrepant Histories: Translocal Essays on Filipino Cultures, edited by Vincent Rafael. This volume of essays explores postcolonial issues of identity, social control, power, representation, and culture.

Filipino American Livesby Yen Le Espiritu. This book provides first-person narratives by Filipino Americans that reveal the range of their experiencesbefore and after immigration.

Locating Filipino Americans: Ethnicity and the Cultural Politics of Space, by Rick Bonus. This book defines ethnic identity and social space for Filipino Americans.

On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan, by Carlos Bulosan, edited by E. San Juan, Jr. This book is a collection of writings by a prolific and political Filipino American writer.

The Philippine Temptation: Dialectics of Philippines-U.S. Literary Relations, by E. San Juan, Jr. This book is a passionate discussion of the history of oppositional writing in the Philippines.

Pinoy Capital: The Filipino Nation in Daly City, by Benito M. Vergara, Jr. This book examines the double lives of Filipino American immigrants.

Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourseedited by Antonio T. Tiongson, Ric V. Gutierrez, and Ed V. Gutierrez. This volume collects essays that challenge conventional narratives of Filipino American history and culture.

San Francisco’s International Hotel: Mobilizing the Filipino American Community in the Anti-Eviction Movement, by Estella Habal. This book shows how a protest galvanized a cultural identity for Filipino Americans.

What happens when the protests end?

In this blog entry, Harold McDougall, author of Black Baltimore, looks at growing civic infrastructure from family and neighborhood connections to show the “powers that be” that little people matter

Recent events in Baltimore are a reminder of the need to build “civic infrastructure” in inner-city communities like Sandtown, the neighborhood in which Freddie Gray lived, a neighborhood I studied closely when writing Black Baltimore, more than twenty years ago.

Sandtown then was home to many community-based, self-help efforts that provided examples of what participatory democracy, on a small scale, should look like. News reports from Sandtown in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death show they are still there—Rev. A.C. Vaughn’s Sharon Baptist Church, the New Song Community school, the Sandtown-Winchester Improvement Association, ”helicopter” parents and grandparents, trying to guide their kids through the maze.

black baltimoreI celebrated the indigenous social capital of these small-scale efforts in the book, calling them “base communities” because they reminded me of the Christian study circles organized by liberation theologists in Latin America. Groups of no more than twenty, seminar-size, where people could connect, reason together, figure things out and take action.

Friends and colleagues challenged my idea, arguing that while intimate and powerful, these small groups were not scaled to solve the problems they could see. Employment? Education? Police misconduct? Environmental damage? How could a group of twenty people respond to such large-scale issues?

So I went back to the drawing board, trying to figure out how to take base communities to a scale large enough so they could impact the issues people in neighborhoods like Sandtown face without sacrificing the intimacy and trust that made them so powerful, so important, so precious.

It was quite an undertaking, assisted by serendipity and caring people as much as by scholarship and hard study. It’s taken a long time.

The process started at a National Civic League annual meeting I attended, where former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley gave a speech comparing American society to a three-legged stool. There is a government leg, a business leg, and a community leg, he said. Bradley got the audience’s attention by declaring that the government and business legs are very long while the community leg is very short, making the stool—and the society—unstable.

How can community be lengthened, strengthened, so that it can balance business and government? Episodic flare-ups, through demonstrations, protests and other forms of mobilization, are not enough. Once grievances have been addressed, or the protesters silenced or co-opted, activity tends to subside. Civil society needs an ongoing civic infrastructure if it is to impact government beyond periodic elections, and business beyond individual consumer choice.

But how to build that infrastructure, how to knit those base communities together?

Then I met Don Anderson, a lawyer and social activist who was also an African-American descendant of Thomas Jefferson. He had come across some of his ancestor’s writing on “Citizen’s Assemblies.” The assemblies were to be sized to a Congressional district, and would select their Member through a series of caucuses. The Assembly’s most intriguing aspect, however, was its structure, and its potential to do a lot more than elect a Member of Congress.

The building block of Jefferson’s assembly was a neighborhood council of seven families, comprised of one representative from each family. Each council in turn selects its own representative, and these seven people meet as a “conference” representing seven councils (49 families). Finally, each conference sends a representative to an assembly representing all the conferences in the congressional district. The assembly conveys information—and instructions—from the constituent base to the member of Congress. (The model’s democracy was apparently a bit too direct for the Founding Fathers, and it never left the drawing board.)

This was what I was looking for.

Today, Sandtown numbers approximately 9,000 people. A Sandtown Citizen’s Assembly could aggregate families directly, and empower the people of the neighborhood. Such an Assembly could hold local government more closely accountable—schools, the police, elected officials—not from the distance of the voting booth but up close and personal. The Assembly could also perform some functions parallel to government, such as community mediation. (I called this the “politics of parallelism” in Black Baltimore)

The Sandtown Citizen’s Assembly could also check businesses and banks engaging in exploitative or high-handed practices. Past examples include the boycotts and selective buying campaigns of the civil rights movement, and labor’s boycotts and public shaming campaigns. Co-ops such as those Gar Alperovitz has described [http://democracycollaborative.org/] could round out the Assembly portfolio, creating “social” businesses, micro-enterprises, and other “off-the-grid” sources of income.

Protests emerging from the hassles people in neighborhoods like Sandtown face every day have erupted all across the country.  These protests are, at bottom, about a political and economic system that just doesn’t care about little people until, like Lilliputians, they get organized.

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