The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) formed in 1987 to call attention to the AIDS crisis.

In 1989, it held two successful demonstrations at the New York Stock Exchange to protest the high price of the AIDS drug AZT, which was unaffordable to most people living with HIV.

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Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.

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By the late 1980s, the AIDS epidemic had impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people globally. New York City’s LGBT community was among the hardest hit, with infections and deaths occurring at an alarming rate.

Government inaction prompted activist Larry Kramer to give an impassioned speech in March 1987 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center (now the LGBT Community Center) in Greenwich Village. As a result, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was formed a few days later as a political action group that sought to bring widespread attention to the AIDS crisis. “Silence = Death” became its motto.

One of its biggest fights was against Burroughs Wellcome, the pharmaceutical company that manufactured the high-priced AZT, the only approved AIDS drug at the time. On September 14, 1989, ACT UP led a noon rally of 350 people in front of the New York Stock Exchange, targeting Burroughs Wellcome and other companies that it felt were profiteering from the AIDS epidemic (the demonstration was planned to coincide with those held in San Francisco and London that day).

“[ACT UP]…set off hundreds of fog horns which echoed through the narrow streets of [Lower] Manhattan, drawing people as high up as the 30th floors of buildings to their windows.”
Outweek Magazine, 1989

Separate from the noon rally, ACT UP members Peter Staley, Lee Arsensault, Greg Bordowitz, Scott Robbe, James McGrath, and two other members who served as photographers infiltrated the Stock Exchange that morning. Chaining themselves to the VIP balcony, they dropped fake $100 bills onto the trading floor and disrupted the opening bell for the first time in history. Their photographs were given to the Associated Press and the story went national.

As a result of these demonstrations, Burroughs Wellcome lowered the price of AZT four days later.

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