The Ashes on the Lawn
(Lush, profound, quiet music pulses. It continues with the sounds of an electric forest: echoing synthesizers as birds, trilling cricket-like buzzes.)
Julia Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment. And this week, we’re revisiting a story reported a while back by correspondent Tracie Hunte.
Longoria: Okay, so—if you can remember—why did you originally do this story?
Tracie Hunte: Around April 2020, we were in the middle of a pandemic, and I was like, “Hey, remember the last time we were in the middle of a pandemic?” [Laughs.] You know, like …
Longoria: It’s a story she reported for the show Radiolab last summer, when the pandemic was raging all over the country.
Hunte: You know there was all this, like—obviously—grief and mourning for actual deaths, but also just, like, how much our way of life was changing.
Longoria: And in the midst of all that, people all over the country started taking to the streets.
Hunte: You know, the protests broke out that summer in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. There were literally protests right outside my window.
Longoria: And in the midst of all of that tragedy and conflict, people all over the country were demanding change—saying, “This isn’t working!” in every way they could: through protests, through op-eds, through expressions of grief. And Tracie had a question.
Hunte: What actually works to make a change?
Longoria: How do you actually get people in power to pay attention and make change?
In this story, Tracie looks back to the AIDS epidemic, another time when people in our country demanded action in every way they could think of. Here’s that story, reported by Tracie Hunte and hosted by Radiolab’s Lulu Miller.
(Music plays out.)
Lulu Miller: Before we start, just letting you know there is some explicit language in this story.
(The Radiolab introduction plays.)
Unidentified person No. 1: Wait, wait. You’re listening … (Laughs.)
Unidentified person No. 2: Okay.
Person No. 1: All right.
Person No. 2: Okay.
Person No. 1: All right. (Clears throat.)
Person No. 2: You’re listening ...
Person No. 1: Listening ...
Person No. 2: To Radiolab … (Echoes.)
Unidentified person No. 3: Radiolab …
Unidentified people: From WNYC.
Unidentified Person No. 4: “C”?
Person No. 1: Yup. (Laughter.)
Miller: Hello. This is Radiolab. I’m Lulu Miller, and today we have a story from reporter Tracie Hunte.
Miller: Where does this story start?
Hunte: So I’m going to start you off in New York City.
(Sounds from a parade play, including whistles, cheering, honking, and clapping.)
Hunte: June 25, 1989.
(Funky, upbeat music plays. It’s synthesizer-heavy and jubilant.)
Hunte: It was the gay-pride parade, but it was also the very first time that David Robinson—
David Robinson: (As if enjoying a delicious meal.) Mmm.
Hunte: —ever laid eyes on Warren Krause.
Robinson: I noticed this guy I thought was incredibly hot [Chuckles.] marching by with a group of people.
He was shirtless and muscly. And he had blond hair, but it was buzzed, like, really short—
Robinson: —except these two ... like, uh, what Wolverine had! (Laughs.)
Robinson: There were almost, like, these little rings up there! [Hunte laughs.] He just looked amazing. I remember just thinking, [Revved up.] Oh my gosh!
(A mix of the parade and music plays up for a moment—it’s fun!—then out.)
Robinson: But, you know, he was marching by with a group of people, and I remember thinking, Oh well. I’ll never see him again.
Hunte: But the next day, David was at an AIDS-activists meeting ...
Robinson: And [Laughs.] who should be in the front row but this guy?
(New music plays in. It’s delightful: light, fanciful, full of possibility.)
Robinson: So, uh, yeah. And he invited me to have lunch with him the next day at the apartment where he was staying. And I did go over there, and we didn’t, in fact, have lunch. [Hunte laughs.] But we had a lovely, lovely time.
Hunte: Right away, David was like, “Okay, this is it. You’re the one.”
Robinson: He had grown up on a small dairy farm in Connecticut. It had been a—a very joyless and sometimes abusive upbringing.
He was kicked out at 17 for being gay, and he ended up having his own—[Inhales.] gosh, I don’t know—just unique way of being in the world. So it’s a little hard to talk about, ’cause, uh, I feel he got cheated so, so badly.
(The music takes a turn towards the somber and meditative.)
Hunte: Warren had told David when they first got together that he was HIV-positive.
Robinson: And it was less than half a year after we moved out to San Francisco that the infections started coming, fast and furious.
By the last, you know, several months of his life, he was just, you know, pretty much homebound. Last two months, uh, he had dementia; the last thing he got ended up causing dementia, and he was—he was in the hospital for much of that time. I took him home.
His last months, until he had dementia, he was really angry.
Hunte: David and Warren would sit around their apartment, talking about that anger and talking about the fact that they both knew Warren was going to die.
Robinson: You know, we would talk, and he would express that it was his wish to, you know, make a difference beyond his death.
Hunte: Warren died April 1992.
You know, this was a moment when the AIDS epidemic had been going on now for about 10 years. Research into treatments had basically stalled. There was no cure in sight. More and more people were getting sick and dying.
Larry Kramer: We are in the middle of a fucking plague!
Hunte: And it looked like the Bush administration was just not paying attention.
Kramer: (Emphatically.) Forty million infected people is a fucking plague, and nobody acts as it is.
Hunte: And people like Larry Kramer, who co-founded ACT UP—an activist group that David was a part of—they were at their wits’ end.
Kramer: We are in the worst shape we have ever, ever, ever been in.
Hunte: They had spent years protesting and demonstrating and just trying to get people to pay attention, trying to get the government to just do something.
Kramer: Nobody knows what to do next!
(The music slowly fades out.)
Hunte: And that was David’s question too. “What do I do next? What would Warren want me to do?”
Robinson: He wanted to be able to continue to make a difference, um, even after he died.
Hunte: And so David was sitting in their San Francisco apartment alone with a box of Warren’s ashes.
Robinson: And inside was just, you know, the plastic bag with the ashes and bone chips, and …
Hunte: And, eventually, he decided that he needed to use what was left of Warren’s body to make people pay attention.
(Heavy, looping drums play alone. They mean business.)
Hunte: So in October of 1992, David and about 150 other people, many of them members of ACT UP, met in D.C., right in front of the Capitol.
Robinson: You know, I remember lining up with these other people. And some were people I knew very well from ACT UP, and some were people I had never met.
Shane Butler: I mean, it was so visceral …
Hunte: Shane Butler, a student at the time …
Butler: The drama and the people …
(The drums keep playing, almost oppressively.)
Alexis Danzig: I remember it being hot—
Hunte: Alexis Danzig, she had lost her father to AIDS.
Danzig: —and the crunch of the gravel under our feet as we walked down the Mall.
Hunte: They started marching down the path along the D.C. Mall. And as they marched, they started to chant.
Protesters: (Chanting, in a call-and-response with each phrase.) Bringing the dead to your door—we won’t take it anymore! Bringing the dead to your door …
Hunte: “We’re bringing our dead to your door. We won’t take it anymore.”
Robinson: One of my strongest memories is just of how sore my throat—I lost my voice and just pushed through it.
(A light, ringing music lays a foundation under the conversation.)
Danzig: I was in a line of people who were carrying their beloved person’s ashes in a variety of different kinds of vessels.
Danzig: Some had ashes in a baggie.
Hunte: What was your ashes in?
Danzig: I had—I had created a box. It was painted black with gold line drawings on it.
Robinson: And then for, like, the last section of the march, as we were getting closer to the White House—
(A heavy tone plays, interrupting the music ominously.)
Robinson: —I just remember almost a grim feeling.
Hunte: And as the White House came into view, they could see …
Butler: A line of mounted police.
Robinson: The police had prepared by showing up on their horses.
Butler: Twenty feet away from the White House gate, surrounding the entire perimeter of the White House.
(The music picks up speed and intensity.)
Hunte: When you look at videos of this, it’s terrifying. There’s these cops, like, high up on their horses, and it looks like the horses are going to stampede them or something.
Protesters: (Chanting urgently.) The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!
Hunte: But the protesters had a strategy.
Butler: The Romans called it the cuneus: the “wedge.”
Hunte: They formed a triangle with a couple of people up in front, pointing directly at the mounted police.
(A brief audio glimpse back into the protest.)
Hunte: Behind them are all the people carrying the ashes.
Butler: All you gotta do is get the front of the triangle through the straight line of the enemy, and they begin to turn around to see what’s happening.
Hunte: The protesters got the tip of that triangle between two of the mounted police and pushed through.
(The cheering from the protest merges with hopeful, droning music. Something is happening.)
Butler: And that gave everyone else an opening to get through.
Robinson: The line of us—the group of us who had ashes—could get right up to the fence.
Danzig: You know, all of a sudden, I remember being at the fence.
Butler: Physically crammed into one another as we all tried to get as close as possible.
(The protest sounds play up, then slowly distort.)
Danzig: Things became very quick and very slow all at the same time.
Butler: The people with the urns began to hurl those ashes onto the lawn.
Robinson: I remember opening this box, and reaching in and the feel of the—the bag, and turning it over and shaking it.
Danzig: I shook the box out.
Robinson: And feeling—seeing these ashes …
Danzig: This wave of ash in the air.
Robinson: Some of them just falling, and some going on the wind.
Butler: Wafted back over us and began to coat us.
Robinson: Then some getting on my arm.
Butler: The feel of those ashes, even the taste of them on your face and lips—I can remember, you know, having to clean my glasses because I—I couldn’t see.
Robinson: And … it was somewhere in the process of this that I went from that grim feeling to just this—just fierce—I don’t know—feeling, like, an embodiment of ...
(The protest audio slips back in for a moment as Robinson looks for the right words, as if it’s cheering him on.)
Robinson: Enraged grief.
Danzig: This incredible release of energy out into the universe.
(The protest audio dissipates, and the music also slowly makes its way out.)
Miller: Wow. God, I had never heard about this.
Miller: I didn’t know this happened.
Hunte: Yeah. I think, when I first heard this, I think the dominant thing that I was, like, feeling and thinking was, um, That’s so metal! [Laughs.] Like, it’s so—like, I just—I can’t think of a more pure response to that sort of anger and that disgrace.
Hunte: But at the same time, you know, it just didn’t—there wasn’t any meaningful response from the White House. It didn’t get a lot of media attention at the time. And, I think, if you weren’t in D.C. that day at that moment, you probably wouldn’t have known that it happened.
Miller: Man. It’s like, how loud do you have to—
Hunte: Like, what does it take?
Hunte: And honestly, that’s the thing about ACT UP, the group that David was part of that made the Ashes Action happen … Because when you look at all the other things that ACT UP did, they’re just constantly trying to punch through and get people to see them. Like, for example, they did this die-in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Miller: What did that look like?
Unidentified person No. 5: This is Jesus Christ. I’m in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday. We’re here reporting ...
Hunte: Some of the people I talked to, they said that the plan was: Go into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, just lie down like they were dying or dead—you know, simple, quiet.
Unidentified person No. 6: (Yelling.) You’re murdering us!
Hunte: But some of the protesters went off script.
Person No. 6: (Yelling.) Stop killing us! Stop killing us! We’re not ...
Hunte: Someone smashed the communion wafers.
Person No. 6: (Yelling.) You’re killing us! Stop it! Stop it!
Hunte: Someone else started heckling the priest.
Person No. 6: (Screaming.) Stop it!
Hunte: And unlike the Ashes Action, this one got a lot of attention—but not good attention.
Unidentified person 7: Um, when people from ACT UP started standing on pews and screaming, it really alienated the people who were praying. I saw people get very angry and upset.
Hunte: You know, when I learned this, I—I couldn’t not think about our current moment, you know? Coronavirus is happening—
Hunte: —And then the protests over the summer started to happen: this expression of the grief and anger that people were carrying with them. There were all these conversations about “What’s the right way to protest? Can a protest actually hurt the movement that you’re protesting for?”
Miller: Like, by being too, just, extreme or …?
Hunte: Yeah, or, like, too in-your-face, or, you know … I just was wondering. And I know I’m not really supposed to wonder this, because I’m a journalist and journalists are just supposed to cover these sorts of things.
But, you know, I feel like any citizen or activist or anybody has this question in their heart, which is, like, “What would work? What would make—you know, how do you make change?”
Hunte: And the amazing thing about the early AIDS movement is that there were so many different kinds of protests going on that it’s just, like, this perfect little petri dish for this question.
Miller: What do you mean?
Hunte: Well—okay, so, just to get started, let’s go back to that very same day that the ACT UP activists were doing the ashes demonstration …
Protesters: (Chanting.) Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame, shame, shame!
Hunte: Because right next to where they were marching on the Mall, there was another AIDS demonstration: unfurling the AIDS quilt.
Unidentified person No. 8: Gary Barnhill …
Miller: I’ve heard of that one!
Hunte: Yes, yes.
Person No. 8: David Calgaro …
Hunte: They did these showings of the quilt, you know, every few years.
Person No. 8: Bobbi Campbell, James Martin Case …
Hunte: That day, in 1992, there were—
Person No. 8: Paul Castro …
Hunte: —20,000 of these three-by-six-foot sections of quilt—
Person No. 8: Bill Cathcart, Bob Greenwood …
Hunte: —that had Barbie dolls and leather jackets and soccer trophies.
Person No. 8: Douglas Lowery …
Hunte: All these mementos of people that had died.
Person No. 8: Felix Velarde-Muñoz …
Hunte: There were no speeches or anything like that, just …
Unidentified person No. 9: Nicasio Trevenio Borjas …
Hunte: People reading names.
Person No. 9: Mark S. Bowles …
Hunte: Each person with their own patch of quilt—
Person No. 9: Billy Allen, Dan Allen, Clayton Barry …
Hunte: —made by family members or loved ones.
Person No. 9: Raymond Case, Dave Castro …
Mike Smith: You know, you think of your grandmother taking care of you when you’re sick. You think of chicken soup and tucked in bed.
Hunte: So I ended up talking to Mike Smith.
Smith: My name is Mike Smith. I’m the co-founder of the AIDS Quilt. (Fades under.)
Hunte: He was there from the beginning, and he told me that when the quilt first started, it also came from an angry place.
Smith: If you back up to its inception, many of the earliest panels were made out of anger and desperation.
Probably the best-known of the angry ones is literally white vinyl with red oil paint, and the red kind of ran down in drips. Along the bottom, it says, “Ronald Reagan, his blood is on your hands.”
Um, but then about four weeks before the display, we’d had some coverage in The New Yorker and a few … (Fades out.)
Hunte: Mike says right before the display in 1987, they had been putting out newsletters and doing all kinds of press.
Smith: We’d said, “If you get us a panel by October—by September 15, we would get it into the event on the Mall a month later.” And on the three days around September 15, we had 800 pieces of overnight mail—
Hunte: Oh, wow.
Mike Smith: —from every state. And they weren’t from the gay men in the urban cores. They were from mothers.
Hunte: It was all these, like, midwestern ladies whose sons died of AIDS, and they had no one to talk about it with.
Miller: Oh man.
Hunte: They couldn’t really talk about it—maybe—with their families.
Smith: They couldn’t even tell their church group what their son had died of. First of all, how much—how isolated and desolate do you have to be to create a beautiful, loving fabric memorial for your son, and then box it up and send it to a bunch of gay men you don’t know 3,000 miles away? But we tapped into this nationwide sense of grief.
Hunte: And that’s when the panels he was seeing started to get really, really beautiful.
Smith: Bomber jackets and high-school track medals and things that Mom put on [Laughs.] that really tell the story of the person. And it changed everything. By the time we got the quilt out there on the Mall, this wasn’t a protest banner. It was literally all of America saying, “Wake up! Our sons are dying.”
(A serious-sounding, patriotic news station horns fanfare plays.)
Hunte: You know, when it came to talk about media attention, there was, like, a ton of media attention on the AIDS quilt!
(A montage of news coverage.)
Unidentified reporter No. 1: Good morning. It’s sunrise here in Washington, D.C. I’m at the Capitol Mall, where the Names Project AIDS quilt is to be unveiled.
Unidentified reporter No. 2: A quilt, a dark reminder of AIDS and its victims was unfurled, each panel representing a death.
Smith: And it cracked open some political movement. I bet two-thirds of the members of Congress—at some point—had a mother standing in their office with a quilt panel and that, within a few years, the Ryan White Act provided $2 billion to sustain public-health systems in hospitals across the country that were buckling from the weight of all of these dying people. And the fact that we could do it in a way that was also colorful and loving and warm and spoke to Middle America made us a little bit of a Trojan horse.
Hunte: But not everyone agreed with that approach.
Bob Rafsky: … angry funeral, not a sad one. The quilt makes our dying look beautiful, but it’s not beautiful! It’s ugly, and we have to fight for our lives. (Applause.)
Hunte: And, you know, one thing that ACT UP members were reacting to at the time was that a lot of the funerals of people who died of AIDS, they were being covered in, like, the arts section of a lot of major newspapers. And, as one person told me, it was sort of like the world was seeing their deaths as aesthetic events, and not as political events.
Hunte: Like, instead of their deaths being treated as news and politics, it was just a cultural event or something. And David in particular felt like that was what was happening with the quilt.
Robinson: (From an archived recording.) I think the quilt itself does good stuff, and it’s moving. Still, it’s, like, making something beautiful out of the epidemic.
Robinson: Once I saw that the people who organized the quilt and the quilt showings would allow anyone to read names—including President Bush—it was just so clear to me that we needed to demonstrate what the actual result of AIDS was. There was nothing beautiful about it.
Robinson: (From an archived recording.) This is what I’m left with. I’ve got a box full of ashes and bone chips, you know? There’s no beauty in that.
Robinson: (Periodically stamping his hand onto a table for emphasis.) I know I was adamant that I didn’t want this to be symbolic. The power in what we were doing was the utterly unvarnished truth.
Hunte: And I guess, you know, when I think about these two approaches—maybe it’s sort of a false choice, and you need both, or whatever. But it feels like a dilemma. I’m—I know that I feel pulled towards the raw truth and expression of anger in the Ashes Action.
Hunte: But I can also see the beauty of the quilt and the pragmatic political power it had. And in the midst of our current moments of pain and protest, I think that’s a real question, especially for the people in pain. Like, where do you put your energy?
Hunte: But what I found—and we’ll get right into this after the break—is a couple of moments in this movement that just totally unraveled that question.
(Meandering music plays.)
Miller: All right. More in just a moment.
(The flourish ends and drops into the break.)
Miller: This is Radiolab. I’m Lulu Miller, and we are back with our story about protests from Tracie Hunte.
Hunte: Okay. So I’m starting a whole new story now.
Hunte: And this is getting at, like: If you’re trying to push a government—or the world—to pay attention and make change, how do you do that? How do you do that while also being true to yourself, your experience, your emotions, your ideals?
Hunte: So I was looking for parallels for what we’re going through now, and a familiar name popped up.
Hunte: Hello. Good morning. Sorry. (Laughs.)
Anthony Fauci: Good morning. (Laughs.)
Hunte: A Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Hunte: I wasn’t expecting you to pick up, like, immediately. (Fades under.)
Miller: The Fauch.
Hunte: The Fauch.
Miller: The Fauch is in this story?
Fauci: Well, I’m here. If you want me to go away, I’ll leave. (Both chuckle lightly.)
Hunte: No. No, do not—please don’t go away.
Hunte: The Fauch is actually a big part of this story.
Fauci: Well, I mean, yeah ...
Hunte: Back in the ’80s, early in the AIDS crisis, he had the exact same job that he has now.
Miller: Like, truly the same title?
Hunte: The exact same title, job, everything.
Miller: (Shocked.) Wow!
Hunte: The head of NIAID. And back then, he was studying immunology—the molecular architecture of fevers. Then he heard about this weird disease—
Fauci: HIV/AIDS, before we knew it was HIV.
Hunte: —that, in the United States at the time, was afflicting mostly white, young, gay men.
Fauci: You know, who would have thought, back in the ’80s, that you would have 78 million infections and 37 million deaths from a disease that no one wanted to pay attention to?
Hunte: His mentors at the time were like, “What are you doing? You’re on this path to success. Why do you want to work with AIDS patients?”
Fauci: But I had a great deal of empathy for these gay young men.
(Peppy, upbeat, and dated talk-show music plays.)
Hunte: So he ignored his mentors.
TV-show host: Now let’s go to the lecture and join Dr. Anthony Fauci as he talks about AIDS.
Hunte: And he turned his career to focus almost completely on AIDS research.
Fauci: (From the archives.) I’m working directly on AIDS, both clinically and from a basic science standpoint.
Fauci: It was a transforming time in my life …
Fauci: (From the archives.) The amount of effort and energy that’s being put into it by biomedical science.
Fauci: As a scientist and as a physician taking care of these patients.
Hunte: And, under his guidance, the NIH started to make huge leaps and bounds in AIDS research.
TV-show voice-over: Dr. Anthony Fauci is hopeful that the answer to this dreaded disease may be in sight.
Hunte: You know, you hear that story, and you’re like, “Wow, Fauci. Great man—a great man then, a great man now. So brave. Wow.” (Laughs.)
Hunte: AIDS activists at the time—
Garance Franke-Ruta: (Over the sounds of a protest.) … NIH research: stupidity, incompetence, and ...
Hunte: —didn’t fuck with Fauci like that.
Franke-Ruta: (Over the continuing protest.) Dr. Anthony Fauci is deciding the research priorities …
Hunte: Can I read you a little of Larry Kramer’s open letter to you? ’Cause it’s so mean, so I feel like I have to ask permission first. (Laughs.)
Fauci: (Lightly.) No, no, no. Of course! [Hunte laughs.] I mean, that was the famous San Francisco Examiner “open letter to an incompetent idiot,” right? Murderer, right?
Hunte: Right. Yeah. It’s like, “Anthony Fauci, you are a murderer. Your refusal to hear the screams of AIDS activists early in the crisis resulted in the deaths of thousands of queers. With 270,000 dead from AIDS and millions more infected with HIV, you should not be honored at a dinner. You should be put before a firing squad.”
Fauci: Right. That, that. I would say he was trying to gain my attention. And he certainly accomplished his goal. He got my attention.
Hunte: Yeah. So that letter was published in 1988.
Miller: Wait. But—okay. So before we go on with Fauci, I mean, so, was he doing—like, he made this move to go work on it, but then was he somehow doing something …
Hunte: Something wrong?
Miller: Dangerous? Yeah.
Peter Staley: Well, there were a bunch of issues.
Hunte: This is Peter Staley.
Staley: Long-term AIDS activist and LGBTQ-rights activist.
Hunte: He was a big-time member of the ACT UP community. And he says that, sure, yes, Dr. Fauci was doing a lot of work on AIDS. But …
Staley: He was head of NIAID, and they were the primary institute at NIH that handled the bulk of AIDS research back then. So, in essence, he was the head of AIDS research for the U.S. government.
Staley: And we had problems with that effort.
Hunte: Back in the ’80s, the drug trials that they were running—
Staley: They had a pretty disgraceful track record of not enrolling the full diversity of patients.
Hunte: —tended to be really white and really male, even though the numbers of infected women and African Americans was increasing. And so, like, we’re getting drugs that we don’t even know if they work on anyone who’s not a gay white man. And the board was also making all these decisions without the input of people who actually were living with AIDS. You know, the board was just these doctors and researchers who were playing it …
Staley: Kind of safe, frankly. You know, we had AZT. We had the first drug.
Hunte: But AZT was toxic. It had all these terrible side effects. And Peter Staley and others thought that there were lots of other drugs out there that could be even more useful.
Staley: And we wanted a robust research effort on those drugs.
Hunte: But Fauci and his team …
Staley: They just started testing the wazoo outta AZT.
Hunte: And the few times when they did have a new drug, it took years and years for it to make it to anybody with AIDS who could actually benefit from it. And activists were like, “People are dying now. He’s not moving fast enough on the things we want.”
So they put together a list of demands, and they set their sights on Fauci. It’s time to storm the NIH.
Miller: Okay. In ACT UP–land, that can’t be as simple as showing up.
Staley: On a beautiful, crisp morning ...
Hunte: In Bethesda, Maryland, onto the serene campus of the NIH, all these people …
Staley: Over a thousand demonstrators from all around the country …
(Protest sounds, loud and angry and full of life, play.)
Hunte: Showed up and started marching.
Staley: The cops were all ready. Cops on horseback—they were quite prepared.
Hunte: There were also TV cameras and reporters. And Peter knew that if we put on a really big, fancy display, that gives the media …
Staley: A really colorful picture. You increased your odds of appearing on the front page.
Hunte: And he had these colored-smoke bombs …
Staley: Surplus-military smoke grenades …
Hunte: Hidden behind protest signs …
Staley: On the top of really long bamboo poles.
Hunte: So they marched along with others. But then, at the right moment, all at the same time …
(Over the protest noise, lightly positive music enters. It builds with anticipation.)
Staley: We dropped our poles, ripped off the signs, pulled the pins on these things, and then raised the poles back up. And these plumages of huge, thick, red, orange, blue, purple …
Hunte: And pinks and greens …
Staley: Started pouring out of the top of these poles.
Hunte: And beneath this massive rainbow war cloud, they charged …
Staley: Through the crowd. And the crowd erupted.
(Cheering enters, ebullient. A moment as the cheering dips under.)
Hunte: And then it was just an entire day of well-orchestrated chaos.
(Under a series of archival tapes, fast-paced and excited keyboard music plays.)
News host: This was a major day of protest by AIDS activists in this country. One thousand … (Fades out.)
Hunte: I mean, everywhere you looked, something was happening.
Phyllis Sharpe: (Over the protest.) My name is Phyllis Sharpe. I was diagnosed …
Hunte: People were giving speeches.
Sharpe: The only medication that’s offered is AZT.
Hunte: Black women talking about their experiences living with AIDS.
Fake-scientist protester: … scientific institution!
Hunte: There were people dressed up in lab coats—
Fake-scientist protester: You don’t fit our profile.
Hunte: —making fun of scientists.
Protesters: (Singing.) When the gays scream …
Hunte: There was singing …
Protesters: (Chanting.) Women die six times faster!
Hunte: Die-ins. One section of the lawn was transformed into a graveyard. [An air horn plays.] Air horns punctured the noise of the crowd.
Unidentified person No. 12: (Speaking as if to a journalist.) Basically, what we’re doing is blasting the horns every 12 minutes to remind people that, statistically, right now, every 12 minutes, someone in America is dying from AIDS.
(The protest noise and music give way completely to a solemn, intense drone.)
Hunte: And at the center of all this noise and color stood four people dressed in hooded black robes. And they carried a black coffin that had the words “Fuck you, Fauci,” written on its side. They also had a really giant Fauci head impaled on a spike, and there was blood coming out of his ears, nose and mouth, and his eyes.
(The protest noise suddenly comes back.)
Hunte: And then they burned him in effigy.
Miller: (Shocked.) They burned him in effigy?
Protesters: (Chanting.) No more secret trials!
Hunte: ACT UP was publicly...
Protesters: (Chanting.) Run trials for women!
Hunte: Taking that list of demands ...
Protesters: (Chanting.) NIH scientists need to work with activists.
Hunte: Shaking it in Fauci’s face ...
Protesters: (Chanting.) You test mice while women die!
Hunte: And nailing it to his door.
(An air horn blares.)
Miller: Whoa, that is intense.
Hunte: Yeah. And Fauci is sitting up in his office, several floors up ...
Hunte: Looking out the window.
Fauci: They were really confronting me in a very, very, uh, aggressive way.
Hunte: And as he was taking it all in …
Fauci: I saw him from my window.
Hunte: Amidst all this chaos, the slight figure of Peter Staley gets boosted up onto this ledge above the front door of the building.
(The two crosstalk to tell the story from both sides.)
Staley: Yeah, I got on the overhang …
Fauci: You could see that he was on this little overhang.
Staley: And started hanging up banners, and the crowd cheered. But the cops were having none of it that day.
Fauci: And the police were going to climb up and get him.
Staley: They launched a few of their own up onto the overhang and tackled me.
Hunte: The police are, like, scrambling.
Staley: Lowered me down in the hands of a dozen cops.
Hunte: And they had to take him to the police van, and the police van is, like, in the back of the building. And because the building is now surrounded by activists, the only way to get him to the back of the building is to take him …
(The vague noise of protesters chanting cuts out to silence.)
Hunte: … through the building.
Staley: So they handcuffed me behind my back. And an officer grabbed my elbow and started hauling me through the first floor of Building 31. And [Laughs.] as we’re going down this wide corridor, I see that familiar white lab coat on that [Hunte laughs.] short scientist [Both Hunte and Staley laugh.] coming towards me.
Fauci: He had handcuffs behind his back, and this police officer was taking him away. And he passed me, and he said ...
Staley: “Tony?” And he goes, “Peter?” And Tony said, “Are you all right?” I said, “Yeah, yeah. Just doing my job. How about you?” He said, “Well, we’re trying to keep operating under these conditions.” And I said, “Well, good luck with that. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Fauci: And I said, “Okay, Peter. See you later.” And the cop looked at me like, “What the hell is going on here?”
Miller: Wait. They know each other?
Hunte: Yeah. And—and this is the first little piece of the puzzle in explaining why this action was so different from the Ashes Action, or even the quilt. And to show you what I mean by that, we have to go back two years …
(A light snare drum beat enters.)
Hunte: To 1988, to that letter that Larry Kramer wrote to Fauci, where he, uh, called him a murderer. Do you remember that?
Hunte: The whole murderer thing?
Fauci: Of course. Of course.
Hunte: When Dr. Fauci saw that letter, he thought ...
Fauci: If somebody is that angry to be able to print that in a national newspaper … I mean, I got to find out, what is it that has stimulated him to do that?
Hunte: So he just called this guy who called him a murderer—called him on the phone—and said, “Let’s figure this out.” And, despite their differences …
Fauci: We—you know, we came to an agreement that we—we both had the same common goal.
Miller: Yeah. Well, I’m really surprised by that because, you know, I’m thinking of the “Storm the NIH” protest, when people literally have, like, pictures of your heads on a—yup!—of your head on a stake and saying, you know, “F*** you, Fauci.”
Fauci: Well, no one was really able to listen to their message, because they were too put-off by the tactics. And I think the thing that I was able to do was to separate the attacks on me as a symbolic representative of the federal government that they felt was ignoring their needs. Um …
Jad Abumrad: Dr. Fauci, I wonder if I can follow up on that.
Hunte: That’s our host, Jad Abumrad. He was sitting in on the interview with Fauci.
Abumrad: It’s kind of an extraordinary emotional jiu-jitsu that you’re describing. I mean, to—people are saying horrible things, which …
Abumrad: … could be read as symbolically about a person in a role, or could be taken quite personally. And you’re saying everybody around you is taking it quite personally, but you somehow were able to shift posture.
Fauci: Right. Right.
Abumrad: Do you have any recollection of how you did it? Like, what specifically got you out of defense—and into receptive—mode?
Fauci: You know, I think it’s a complicated thing. My—it really dates back to my family. My mother and father were very much people who were quite tolerant of different opinions. And part of not only my background but the Jesuit training—both in high school and in college—is that you care about people no matter who they are. And you keep an open mind to opinions.
Fauci: Once you become defensive and push back, you never hear what their message is. And once you listened to what their concern was, I got this feeling that goodness, they’re right!
Miller: Wow. It is so hard to picture a person in power responding like that today.
Miller: You know, it seems like when someone spits on your face and says awful things about you, the main move you see is people screaming back louder or, like, blocking you on social media—not acknowledging, or hating back.
Hunte: Yeah, I mean, there’s a part of me, when I hear this story, where I’m just like, “You know, that’s a really easy way to make himself look good.” But at the same time, you know, even me, who’s, like, Ms. Cynical, can’t deny the fact that that was a pretty cool move on Fauci’s part, to turn that moment into a moment for, like, a conversation. And, after that initial phone call, Larry Kramer actually connected Dr. Fauci with Peter Staley and a couple of other activists.
Staley: Fauci swung his office door open.
Fauci: I said, It’s time for me to put the theatrics aside and listen to what they’re saying.
Staley: And we had a very healthy back-and-forth.
Hunte: And, you know, a little while after that, those phone calls turned into dinner parties.
(Light, acoustic music plays. Maybe it’s Muzak—it could be in an elevator.)
Staley: These famous dinners we would have with him [A cork pops.] in Washington.
Fauci: Sitting down around the dinner table of my deputy at the time, Jim Hill.
Hunte: They’d discuss ideas, strategy, medicine.
Fauci: How we can continue the dialogue of coming to some common ground.
Hunte: And now, this is all still before Peter and others stormed the NIH. And this is actually where Peter would bring up the list of ACT UP demands. Like, “Hey, Dr. Fauci, could you please pass the salt? And, also, we think that you really need to diversify your trials.” “Hey, Dr. Fauci, this pie is so good. What’d you put in it? Um, but you know what’s not good? AZT. Let’s start testing more drugs.” And Fauci …
Staley: Well, you know, he kind of passed the buck.
Fauci: I mean, I had a lot of pushback from my own colleagues in the scientific community.
Hunte: He just had a lot of excuses.
Staley: We were sick of hearing from him tell us for over a year …
Hunte: Dinner after dinner after dinner …
Staley: “I understand you. I agree with you. But I can’t convince the executive committee.” And we were like, “Screw that.”
Hunte: Peter and others were like, “You know what? Empathy and listening and dinners—it’s not enough.” So it was actually at one of these dinners Peter told Dr. Fauci ...
Staley: I said, “Tony, I got bad news for you. In a couple of months, we’re going to descend on your campus with a massive demonstration to push these issues.”
Hunte: And what did you say?
Fauci: I said, “Wait a minute. [Laughs.] We’re—we’re—we’re sitting here having dinner and sharing a glass of Pinot Grigio, [Hunte laughs.] and you’re going to storm the NIH? What are you talking about?”
Staley: He tried to talk us out of it.
Fauci: (Almost as if interrupting.) No, I did! You know, I said, “Peter, are you sure that this is going to be a productive thing?”
Staley: Kept pleading that he needed a little more time. And we said, “Well, you got a couple of months.”
Fauci: I said, “Oh, okay, fine. Thanks an awful lot.”
Hunte: Couple of months later ...
(The audio from the protest is back again.)
Protesters: (Chanting.) The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!
Hunte: A thousand people show up to his door with his head on a spike.
Miller: Yeah. Well, what happened? What did happen? Was it tons of—did the media pick it up?
Hunte: There was a lot of media attention. And thanks to Peter’s colored-smoke bombs, it actually did make the front page of a couple of newspapers. But a lot of the media attention was not sympathetic. It was just like, “Look at these cra—”
Miller: It was not sympathetic. Oh.
Hunte: It was not. “Look at these crazies who showed up at the NIH.”
Hunte: But the thing that makes this protest different from the Ashes Action or even the quilt is that they were saying “Fuck you” to somebody who was actually sympathetic to them.
Staley: That demonstration was more about putting him between a rock and a hard place. We were the rock, and the hard place was the executive committee of the ACTG.
Hunte: This was about giving Fauci a very public boot in the ass.
Staley: We wanted to make it politically difficult for them to ignore him and us. And so he got squeezed by ACT UP.
Hunte: And that squeeze was apparently exactly what he needed, because …
Staley: He did kind of what we were hoping he’d do. He pushed the ACTG harder. And within a few months of that demonstration, the ACTG executive committee caved.
Hunte: They got pretty much everything they wanted.
(Triumphant classical music plays.)
Miller: Like, on that list, they got it all?
Staley: The ACTG decided to open up all of their committees.
Hunte: Activists and other people with AIDS were added to the panels.
Staley: We got voting membership on the executive committee.
Hunte: They did diversify the people that they were testing. They did begin to start testing drugs that weren’t AZT.
Staley: And we started to reformat and refocus the clinical trials and the conducting of clinical trials towards HIV/AIDS.
Hunte: They got—they got what they needed.
Miller: That is so not a story I feel like you ever hear.
(The music crescendoes, then ends.)
Hunte: But to be clear, the “Storm the NIH” action happened in 1990. It wasn’t until 1996 that they actually had the drug cocktail that was giving people living with AIDS a much longer life. And so it was actually after the “Storm the NIH” action that Larry Kramer was giving these angry speeches about how desperate the situation was.
And David and Alexis throwing their loved ones’ ashes on the White House lawn? That happened after “Storm the NIH.”
And, you know, you can certainly point to the Ashes Action and other political funerals that ACT UP did during that time period as, like, not being as effective as “Storm the NIH.” But when the situation is so dire and things are so dark and people are so desperate, maybe that moment called for a different kind of demonstration.
Alexandra Juhasz: That is exactly right. And this is me, as a media scholar, talking—and a rather radical one.
Hunte: This is Alexandra Juhasz. She is a professor of film at Brooklyn College, and she worked in ACT UP.
Juhasz: I don’t know that … [Changes tack.] You’re a media maker.
Juhasz: One goal is to, quote-unquote, “change someone’s mind.”
Juhasz: Okay. That’s a real goal, and you make certain kind of work to, quote-unquote, “change somebody’s mind.” There was an organization at this time that I knew, called AIDS Films, and they made a number of short, narrative, highly polished films. And those were definitely change-mind kind of films, ’cause they were feel-good; they looked familiar. Now, that’s a reasonable goal.
But I’m not sure that “Stop the Church” or the Ashes Action or political funerals, the goal was to change someone’s mind. The goal is to express your anger. The goal is to express your desperation. The goal is to say no. The goal is to say, “This is wrong.”
Juhasz: Those actions by ACT UP were to express defiance and to put defiance on the map.
Hunte: You know, she was like, “Protest is about making sure that this thing is never going to go away.” And I kind of had a moment like that, um, ’cause I was talking on the phone with a friend, and all of a sudden, I heard outside my window [Call-and-response style.] “Say his name! George Floyd!” And part of me was like, [Groaning.] “Again?”
Miller: Really? Did you really think that?
Hunte: For a second, yes! I should say that where I live, like, there were protests almost every day during the summer. And so I had actually gone a few months without hearing any. And then it was happening outside my window. And I—I did have that reaction. And then I was like, Wait. What am I annoyed with? What am I really annoyed with? And I realized, What I’m really annoyed with is the fact that another Black man was killed in Philadelphia, and that’s why the protest was happening again. And I also realized that, you know, it was a reminder.
(Gentle piano music plays and fills up the space.)
Hunte: You know, we’re not done.
(The music, evocative and tender, plays for a moment longer. Then, after a beat of silence, protest sounds resume.)
Protesters: (Chanting.) Bringing the dead to your door—we won’t take this anymore! Bringing the dead to your door—we won’t take this anymore!
Hunte: And David and Alexis and all the other people involved in ACT UP? Every week, it was like another action, and it was another funeral. And then there was, like, another action. Kept going and going and going. And there hadn’t been really any moment to, like, just stop and assess all the trauma they’d gone through.
(The protest noise gets louder and the yelling plays up as a droning sound builds underneath. Slowly but surely, the drone overtakes the voices of the protesters.)
Hunte: But after they made it through the mounted police to the fence and …
(The protest noise comes back up again.)
Unidentified person No. 13: (Amid the protest.) I love you, Mike.
Hunte: Let go of those ashes …
Danzig: This incredible release of energy out into the universe.
Hunte: They say there was this moment.
(The drone from before is almost choral now, maybe heavenly.)
Unidentified person No. 14: The magnitude of what had just happened hit me. I just began to sob convulsively.
(A long breath of music.)
Robinson: One of ACT UP’s slogans had been, you know, “Turn your grief into rage.” Larry Kramer was very fond of saying that. But … to really experience our grief—oh, wow.
(The screaming of the protest continues, agonizing and joyful, overflowing with life. It plays up for a moment and then fades out, as does the drone.)
Robinson: Like, if Warren—I, 100 percent, knew then and know now he would have approved and, you know, been proud. (Sniffles, then sighs.)
(A soft piano melody plays, a memorial.)
Unidentified person No. 15: This was my friend Kevin Michael Kick. He was 28 years old, and he died on Halloween 1991.
Unidentified person No. 16: The main reason I’m here is to scatter my own ashes. I’m going to die of AIDS in probably two years, and that is why I’m here.
Danzig: I’m here on behalf of my father, Alan Danzig, who died when he was 57 years old. I really needed this.
Eric Sawyer: My name is Eric Sawyer, and I’ve scattered the ashes of Larry Kert. Larry Kert was 60 years old. He was the original Tony in West Side Story on Broadway in 1957. Larry was to have his last professional performance at the White House. He was invited to a party to sing with Carol Lawrence. They were gonna sing “Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us),” and he planned to come out as a person with AIDS. And when the White House administration found out he was going to do that, they conveniently lost his music just before he was to go on.
Unidentified person No. 17: I came to scatter the ashes of my lover, Michael Tad Hippler. Truth to tell, I had scattered all of his ashes that I had. But I was sitting at breakfast with his sister, and I told her about this demonstration. And her eyes lit up, and she said, “Hey, do you want some ashes?” [Laughter from the crowd, with some applause.] So I love you, Mike, and I know you would have wanted to be where you now are.
(The piano music plays out, gentle as ever, followed by a moment of silence.)
Miller: Reporter Tracie Hunte.
(Light glockenspiel music plays.)
Miller: This episode was produced by Tobin Low and Annie McEwen. Special thanks to Elsa Honesun, Joy Episalla, Debra Levine, Theodore Kerr, Ben McLaughlin, Catherine Gund at DIVA TV for the use of the NIH-protest footage; Diane Kelly for fact-checking; and Katherine Pfahl for additional archival research.
(The music becomes more distorted, looping.)
Anand Krishnamoorthi: Hi. This is Anand Krishnamoorthi from Pasadena, California. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are co-hosts. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Matt Kielty, Tobin Low, Annie McEwen, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster, with help from Shima Oliaee, Sarah Sandbach, and Johnny Moens. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.
(The music plays out as the episode ends.)