The program was deliberately low-key -- not a celebration, merely a gathering to mark what most activists considered the end of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic. Project Inform had invited two significant figures of the AIDS era to speak: Tony Faucci, a pioneering AIDS doctor, and playwright/author Larry Kramer, founder of AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT UP.
Faucci had just begun his speech when a dozen members of the San Francisco chapter of ACT UP burst through a side entrance and stormed into the ballroom, shouting "Shame! Shame!" among other epithets. The interlopers ran through the room, overturning tables as they passed. A fight broke out, and one man went to the hospital with a gash in his arm.
During the melee, an intruder from ACT UP S.F., Michael Bellefountaine, yanked the tablecloth from Larry Kramer's table. Kramer pounced on Bellefountaine and punched him. Kramer remembers the moment well:
"I said, 'I am the founder of this organization, and I am ashamed of you.' "
Attacking The Orthodoxy
Over the past two years, Michael Bellefountaine and David Pasquarelli have emerged as the leaders of a small group of people who believe that the only hope for those infected with the human immunodeficiency virus is a chemical used in the photographic developing process. The chemical -- dinitrochlorobenzyne, or DNCB -- has no proven medical effectiveness, and is advocated by no responsible medical authority as an AIDS treatment.
Bellefountaine, Pasquarelli, and their supporters have spat at, thrown disgusting liquids and solids on, shoved, threatened, and assaulted a whole host of people who do not believe in DNCB and who would, in the rational order of things, be ACT UP S.F. allies. ACT UP S.F. has managed not just to alienate, but to horrify community AIDS organizations, doctors who are experts in AIDS treatment and research, and the head of the city's Health Department, along with other activists, including ACT UP Golden Gate, the city's other ACT UP chapter.
To ACT UP S.F., all of these groups and people are part of "The Orthodoxy," a group composed of virtually every AIDS organization in the city. The Orthodoxy, ACT UP S.F. believes, has sold out to the pharmaceutical industry. Even ACT UP Golden Gate has sold out, in Pasquarelli's estimation.
"I think their approach is very sinister," says the 29-year-old, who describes himself as a liberal fag. "They're partially responsible for the enormous amount of deaths that are occurring now, and they can never be forgiven for it. And their sole function, make no mistake, is to promote drugs."
According to Pasquarelli et al., the groups that compose The Orthodoxy are paid to "push" the combination of drugs -- protease inhibitors, AZT, ddI, and others -- that, most medical researchers agree, now offer the first real hope for greatly extending the lives of those infected with HIV. Without offering anything that would pass for scientific proof, Pasquarelli calls these drugs "unproven, potentially toxic therapies" that are killing people. Therefore, he believes, those who support use of the drugs are murderers whom ACT UP S.F. must hold accountable.
From its beginnings in New York in March 1987, ACT UP made its name using guerrilla-style demonstrations: its die-ins and its "zaps." ACT UP's "Silence=Death" slogan, and the group's emblem -- an inverted pink triangle -- became hallmarks of AIDS activism. The group's often-outrageous brand of activism successfully pressed pharmaceutical companies to lower the price of AZT and persuaded the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to accelerate the drug approval process.
Now, though, a whole host of AIDS activists say ACT UP S.F. is engaging in behavior that exceeds the bounds of human decency, interferes with the dissemination of life-saving information, and spreads unproven and perhaps dangerous folklore in its place. ACT UP founder Larry Kramer says the San Francisco chapter has forfeited any right to attach itself to the ACT UP legacy.
"What they're doing is a perversion of our goals," Kramer says. "They've taken the name of a distinguished organization and shamed it. We're not talking about rational activism here. We're talking about hooliganism.
"I think these guys are mentally deficient and should either be hospitalized or jailed."
Aggravating other community organizations -- and even Kramer -- doesn't seem to bother Bellefountaine. Actually, he likes it.
"That reputation is giving us power," he says gleefully. "They created us -- the whole Orthodoxy. They're validating our tactics by raising them to the level of community debate. It's better than if we could describe ourselves."
Spitting, and Other Methods of Communication
With his baby-blue eyes and honey-blond, cherubic curls, Michael Bellefountaine is the very picture of innocence. The 30-year-old activist sits at a Steiner Street cafe, demurely sipping a tall glass of hot chocolate as he explains what compels ACT UP San Francisco to yell and scream.
And, of course, spit.
"Spitting is kind of evening the playing field. People don't want to be spat on, so they'll listen to me," Bellefountaine, who says he is HIV-positive, insists brightly. "I'm hoping one day I won't have to spit on people to be heard."
But if spitting is a favorite mode of communication for ACT UP San Francisco, it is not the only one. Yelling and throwing disgusting things -- fake blood and kitty litter, for example -- are popular too.
At the 11th International Conference on AIDS in Vancouver, Canada, last July, ACT UP S.F. members stormed a panel discussion and doused two doctors, AIDS pioneers Paul Volberding and Margaret Fischl, with gallons of a cranberry juice solution concocted to look like blood while jumping on tables, tearing down microphones, and shouting obscenities. Later, San Francisco journalist Tim Kingston asked Bellefountaine about a disagreement he'd had with another activist. Bellefountaine spat in the reporter's face.