Lessons Learned from an AIDS Activist

February 13, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Rafael Pi Roman interviews Peter Staley.

In this week’s edition of MetroFocus, anchor Rafael Pi Roman interviews Peter Staley, an activist featured prominently in the Oscar-nominated documentary, “How to Survive a Plague.”

Film still from How to Survive a Plague, William Lucas Walker

The film, which won the 2012 IFP Gotham Award for best documentary and is currently playing in theaters, is filled with rarely-before-seen footage of New York-based ACT UP’s early days organizing against and ultimately fighting the FDA, the NIH and major drug companies.

As depicted in the film, ACT UP’s tactics proved successful and helped transform AIDS in the 1980s and 90s from a death sentence to a manageable disease.

How to Survive a Plague poster

Pi Roman spoke to Staley, asking him at one point whether ACT UP’s confrontational tactics were necessary. Staley said they were, explaining that his group’s chief strategy was, “to keep the pressure on by having large demonstrations, having people with HIV willing to put their bodies on the line, lay down on the street.” He added, “That was a very shocking thing for the American people to see, and that created the political environment to go in and be heard.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney called the film “a useful template for any fledgling activist movement, demonstrating the effectiveness of inside/ outside strategy.”

Asked by Pi Roman how the lessons he learned by working with ACT UP could inspire organizations struggling for racial equality and economic justice, Staley said the key today was for activists to not just do their movements through social media, which everyone’s focused on today. “There’s no substitute for those weekly meetings where everyone gets in a room and talks it out,” he said. “I have yet to see the Internet provide a tool where people can strategize and feel the emotions as they brain storm and figure out who to target and what to do… Get in a room together, have a weekly meeting, and get momentum going that way.”

Plague” is competing for this year’s Best Documentary Oscar in a extremely strong field.

Top rivals for the award are the emotionally uplifting “Searching for Sugar Man,” about the remarkable search for the singer-songwriter known as Rodriguez; “The Gatekeepers,” about Israel’s counterterrorism agency; and “The Invisible War,” about sexual assault in the U.S. Military. The fifth nominee is “5 Broken Cameras,” a first-hand account of non-violent resistance in Bil’in, a West Bank village threatened by Israeli settlements.

The Academy Awards will be held February 24 in Los Angeles.

In this web exclusive, Peter Staley expands on his experiences working with the AIDS activist group, ACT UP.


Footage courtesy of “How to Survive a Plague” and Sundance Selects.
Still photos in web extra video by William Lucas Walke, Rick Reinhard, and Donna Binder.