Dec 18, 2020

The Ashes on the Lawn

A global pandemic. An afflicted, angry group. A seemingly indifferent government. Reporter Tracie Hunte wanted to understand this moment of pain and confusion by looking back 30 years, and she found a complicated answer to a simple question: When nothing seems to work, how do you make change?

This episode was reported by Tracie Hunte, and produced by Annie McEwen and Tobin Low. Fact-checking by Diane Kelly. 

Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.    

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JAD ABUMRAD: Hey. It's Jad. Before we start today's show, I want to take a minute to talk to you guys. Every month, millions of people listen to the show, and we are so grateful for that. But as you probably know, RADIOLAB is public radio. Our show, all the journalism we do, is funded by you. And all the work we did this year - our series "The Other Latif," which took three years to make, all the reporting we did on COVID, on vaccines, on policing - you made that possible. We would not have a show without you.

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And, look, this year has been a [expletive] sandwich. It really has, so we're going to try and bring a little bit of joy. We want to invite you to hang out with us. We're going to be hosting a virtual trivia night soon. It's a little dorky, but I think it's going to be super fun. And we want you to play along with us. Here's the deal. If you will become a sustaining member, like if you donate $10 a month, $15 a month, whatever makes sense, we'll invite you to join us. It's going to be fun. If you're already a sustaining member, you're going to get an email with the details. But join us. Play some trivia. Who's going to win? Will it be Lulu, Latif? Will it be you?

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LULU MILLER: Before we start, just letting you know there is some explicit language in this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOLAB INTRO)

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LULU MILLER: Hello. This is RADIOLAB. I'm Lulu Miller, and today, we have a story from reporter Tracie Hunte. Where does this story start?

TRACIE HUNTE: So I'm going to start you off in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARADE)

TRACIE HUNTE: June 25, 1989.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRACIE HUNTE: It was the gay pride parade, but it was also the very first time that David Robinson ever laid eyes on Warren Krause.

DAVID ROBINSON: I noticed this guy I thought was incredibly hot marching by with a group of people. He was shirtless and muscly. And he had blond hair, but it was buzzed, like, really short except these two, like - what Wolverine had (laughter).

TRACIE HUNTE: OK.

DAVID ROBINSON: There were almost, like, these little rings up there.

TRACIE HUNTE: (Laughter).

DAVID ROBINSON: He just looked amazing. I remember just thinking, oh, my gosh.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARADE)

DAVID 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.

TRACIE HUNTE: But the next day, David was at an AIDS activist meeting.

DAVID ROBINSON: And (laughter) who should be in the front row but this guy?

TRACIE HUNTE: Oh.

DAVID ROBINSON: So 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.

TRACIE HUNTE: (Laughter).

DAVID ROBINSON: But we had a lovely, lovely time.

TRACIE HUNTE: Right away, David was like, OK, this is it. You're the one.

DAVID ROBINSON: He had grown up on a small dairy farm in Connecticut. It had been a very joyless and sometimes abusive upbringing. He was kicked out at 17 for being gay, and he ended up having his own - gosh, I don't know - just a unique way of being in the world. So it's a little hard to talk about because I feel he got cheated so, so badly.

TRACIE HUNTE: Warren had told David when they first got together that he was HIV-positive.

DAVID 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, he had dementia. The last thing he got ended up causing dementia, and 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.

TRACIE 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.

DAVID ROBINSON: You know, we would talk, and he would express that it was his wish to, you know, make a difference beyond his death.

TRACIE 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY KRAMER: We are in the middle of a fucking plague.

TRACIE HUNTE: And it looked like the Bush administration was just not paying attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY KRAMER: Forty million infected people is a fucking plague, and nobody acts as it is.

TRACIE 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY KRAMER: We are in the worst shape we have ever, ever, ever been in.

TRACIE 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY KRAMER: Nobody knows what to do next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRACIE HUNTE: And that was David's question, too. What do I do next? What would Warren want me to do?

DAVID ROBINSON: He wanted to be able to continue to make a difference even after he died.

TRACIE HUNTE: And so David was sitting in their San Francisco apartment alone with a box of Warren's ashes.

DAVID ROBINSON: And inside was just, you know, the plastic bag with the ashes and bone chips, and...

TRACIE HUNTE: And eventually, he decided that he needed to use what was left of Warren's body to make people pay attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

TRACIE 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.

DAVID 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...

TRACIE HUNTE: Shane Butler, a student at the time...

SHANE BUTLER: ...The drama and the people.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

ALEXIS DANZIG: I remember it being hot...

TRACIE HUNTE: Alexis Danzig - she had lost her father to AIDS.

ALEXIS DANZIG: ...And the crunch of the gravel under our feet as we walked down the Mall.

ALEXIS DANZIG: They started marching down the path along the D.C. Mall, and as they marched, they started to chant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Bringing the dead to your door - we won't take it anymore. Bringing the dead to your door...

TRACIE HUNTE: We're bringing our dead to your door. We won't take it anymore.

DAVID ROBINSON: One of my strongest memories is just of how sore my throat - I lost my voice and just pushed through it.

ALEXIS DANZIG: I was in a line of people who were carrying their beloved persons' ashes in a variety of different kinds of vessels. Some had ashes in a baggie.

TRACIE HUNTE: What was your ashes in?

ALEXIS DANZIG: I had created a box. It was painted black with gold line drawings on it.

DAVID ROBINSON: And then for, like, the last section of the march, as we were getting closer to the White House, I just remember almost a grim feeling.

TRACIE HUNTE: And as the White House came into view, they could see...

SHANE BUTLER: A line of mounted police.

DAVID ROBINSON: The police had prepared by showing up with - on their horses.

SHANE BUTLER: Twenty feet away from the White House gate, surrounding the entire perimeter of the White House.

TRACIE 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.

TRACIE HUNTE: But the protesters had a strategy.

SHANE BUTLER: The Romans called it the cuneus, the wedge.

TRACIE HUNTE: They formed a triangle with a couple people up in front pointing directly at the mounted police.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

TRACIE HUNTE: And behind them are all the people carrying the ashes.

SHANE BUTLER: All you got to 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.

TRACIE HUNTE: The protesters got the tip of that triangle between two of the mounted police and pushed through.

SHANE BUTLER: And that gave everyone else an opening to get through.

DAVID ROBINSON: The line of us, the people of us who had ashes, could get right up to the fence.

ALEXIS DANZIG: All of a sudden, I remember being at the fence.

SHANE BUTLER: Physically crammed into one another as we all tried to get as close as possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Yelling, unintelligible).

ALEXIS DANZIG: Things became very quick and very slow all at the same time.

SHANE BUTLER: The people with the urns began to hurl those ashes onto the lawn.

DAVID ROBINSON: I remember opening this box and reaching in and the feel of the bag and turning it over and shaking it.

ALEXIS DANZIG: I shook the box out.

DAVID ROBINSON: And feeling - seeing these ashes...

ALEXIS DANZIG: This wave of ash in the air....

DAVID ROBINSON: ...Some of them just falling and some going on the wind.

SHANE BUTLER: ...Wafted back over us and began to coat us.

DAVID ROBINSON: Then some getting on my arm.

SHANE BUTLER: The feel of those ashes, even the taste of them on your face and lips - I can remember having to clean my glasses because I couldn't see.

DAVID 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...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Yelling, unintelligible).

DAVID ROBINSON: ...Enraged grief.

ALEXIS DANZIG: This incredible release of energy out into the universe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LULU MILLER: Wow. God, I had never heard about this.

TRACIE HUNTE: Yeah.

LULU MILLER: I didn't know this happened.

TRACIE HUNTE: Yeah. I think when I first heard this, I think the dominant thing that I was, like, feeling and thinking was, that's so metal (laughter). Like, it's so - like, I just - I can't think of a, like, more pure response to that sort of anger and that disgrace.

LULU MILLER: Yeah.

TRACIE 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.

LULU MILLER: Man. It's like, how loud do you have to...

TRACIE HUNTE: Like, what does it take?

LULU MILLER: Yeah.

TRACIE 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.

LULU MILLER: What did that look like?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: This is Jesus Christ. I'm in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral on Sunday. We're here reporting...

TRACIE HUNTE: Some of the people I talked to, they said that the plan was to go into St. Patrick's Cathedral, just lie down like they were dying or dead - you know, simple, quiet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Yelling) You're murdering us.

TRACIE HUNTE: But some of the protesters went off script.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Yelling) Stop killing us. Stop killing us. We're not...

TRACIE HUNTE: Someone smashed the communion wafers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Yelling) You're killing us. Stop it. Stop it.

TRACIE HUNTE: Someone else started heckling the priest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Yelling) Stop it. Stop it.

TRACIE HUNTE: And unlike the ashes action, this one got a lot of attention - but not good attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: 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.

TRACIE HUNTE: You know, when I learned this, I couldn't not think about our current moment, you know? Coronavirus is happening...

LULU MILLER: Yeah.

TRACIE 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?

LULU MILLER: Like by being too just extreme or...

TRACIE 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, you know, 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? 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.

LULU MILLER: What do you mean?

TRACIE HUNTE: Well - OK, so just to get started, let's go back to that very same day that the ACT UP activists were doing the ashes demonstration...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame, shame, shame...

TRACIE HUNTE: ...Because right next to where they were marching on the Mall, there was another AIDS demonstration - unfurling the AIDS Quilt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Gary Barnhill...

LULU MILLER: I've heard of that one.

TRACIE HUNTE: Yes, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: ...David Calgaro...

TRACIE HUNTE: They did these showings of the quilt, you know, every few years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: ...Bobbi Campbell, James Martin Case...

TRACIE HUNTE: That day in 1992, there were...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: ...Paul Castro...

TRACIE HUNTE: Twenty-thousand of these three-by-six-foot sections of quilt...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: ...Bill Cathcart, Bob Greenwood...

TRACIE HUNTE: ...That had Barbie dolls and leather jackets and soccer trophies...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: ...Douglas Lowery...

TRACIE HUNTE: ...All these mementos of people that had died.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: ...Felix Velarde-Munoz...

TRACIE HUNTE: There were no speeches or anything like that, just...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Nicasio Trevenio Borjas.

TRACIE HUNTE: ...People reading names...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: ...Mark S. Bowles (ph)...

TRACIE HUNTE: ...Each person with their own patch of quilt...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Billy Allen, Dan Allen, Clayton Barry...

TRACIE HUNTE: ...Made by family members or loved ones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: ...Romond 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.

TRACIE HUNTE: So I ended up talking to Mike Smith.

MIKE SMITH: My name is Mike Smith. I'm the co-founder of the AIDS Quilt.

TRACIE HUNTE: He was there from the beginning, and he told me that when the quilt first started, it also came from an angry place.

MIKE 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. But then about four weeks before the display, we'd had some coverage in The New Yorker and a few...

TRACIE HUNTE: Mike says right before the display in 1987, they had been putting out newsletters and doing all kinds of press.

MIKE 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... 

TRACIE HUNTE: Oh, wow.

MIKE SMITH: ...From every state. And they weren't from the gay men in the urban cores. They were from mothers.

TRACIE HUNTE: It was all these, like, Midwestern ladies whose sons died of AIDS and they had no one to talk about it with.

LULU MILLER: Oh, man.

TRACIE HUNTE: They couldn't really talk about it maybe with their families.

MIKE 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.

TRACIE HUNTE: And that's when the panels he was seeing started to get really, really beautiful.

MIKE SMITH: Bomber jackets and high school track medals and things that Mom put on (laughter) 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRACIE HUNTE: You know, when it came to talk about media attention, there was, like, a ton of media attention on the AIDS Quilt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #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 #2: A quilt, a dark reminder of AIDS and its victims was unfurled, each panel representing a death.

MIKE 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.

TRACIE HUNTE: But not everyone agreed with that approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

TRACIE 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. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID ROBINSON: I think the quilt itself does good stuff, and it's moving. Still, it's, like, making something beautiful out of the epidemic.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID ROBINSON: 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.

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.

TRACIE 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.

LULU MILLER: Yeah.

TRACIE 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?

LULU MILLER: Yeah.

TRACIE 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.

LULU MILLER: All right. More in just a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LULU MILLER: This is RADIOLAB. I'm Lulu Miller, and we are back with our story about protests from Tracie Hunte.

TRACIE HUNTE: OK. So I'm starting a whole new story now.

LULU MILLER: OK.

TRACIE 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?

LULU MILLER: Right.

TRACIE HUNTE: So I was looking for parallels to what we're going through now, and a familiar name popped up.

Hello. Good morning. Sorry (laughter).

ANTHONY FAUCI: Good morning.

TRACIE HUNTE: A Dr. Anthony Fauci.

I wasn't expecting you to pick up, like, immediately.

LULU MILLER: The Fauch.

TRACIE HUNTE: The Fauch.

LULU MILLER: The Fauch is in this story?

ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, I'm here. If you want me to go away, I'll leave.

TRACIE HUNTE: No, no, do not. Please don't go away.

The Fauch is actually a big part of this story.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, I mean, yeah.

TRACIE HUNTE: Back in the '80s, early in the AIDS crisis, he had the exact same job that he has now.

LULU MILLER: Like, truly the same title?

TRACIE HUNTE: The exact same title, job, everything...

LULU MILLER: Wow.

TRACIE HUNTE: ...The head of NIAID. And back then, he was studying immunology with the molecular architecture of fevers. Then he heard about this weird disease...

ANTHONY FAUCI: HIV/AIDS before we knew it was HIV.

TRACIE HUNTE: ...That, in the United States at the time, was afflicting mostly white, young, gay men.

ANTHONY 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?

TRACIE HUNTE: His mentors at the time were like, what are you doing? You're on this path to, like, success. Why do you want to work with AIDS patients?

ANTHONY FAUCI: But I had a great deal of empathy for these gay young men.

TRACIE HUNTE: So he ignored his mentors.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Now let's go to the lecture and join Dr. Anthony Fauci as he talks about AIDS.

TRACIE HUNTE: And he turned his career to focus almost completely on AIDS research.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: I'm working directly on AIDS, both clinically and from a basic science standpoint.

It was a transforming time in my life...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: The amount of effort and energy that's being put into it by biomedical science.

...As a scientist and as a physician taking care of these patients.

TRACIE HUNTE: And under his guidance, the NIH started to make huge leaps and bounds in AIDS research.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Dr. Anthony Fauci is hopeful that the answer to this dreaded disease may be in sight.

TRACIE HUNTE: You know, you hear that story, and you're like, wow, Fauci, you great man - a great man then, a great man now, so brave. Wow.

LULU MILLER: OK.

TRACIE HUNTE: AIDS activists at the time...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARANCE FRANKE-RUTA: ... NIH research - stupidity, incompetence and...

TRACIE HUNTE: ...Didn't fuck with Fauci like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARANCE FRANKE-RUTA: Dr. Anthony Fauci is deciding the research...

TRACIE HUNTE: Can I read you a little of Larry Kramer's open letter to you? Because it's so mean, so I feel like I have to ask permission first (laughter).

ANTHONY FAUCI: No, no, no. Of course. I mean, that was the famous San Francisco Examiner open letter to an incompetent idiot (unintelligible) murderer, right?

TRACIE HUNTE: Right. Yeah. It's like, (reading) 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.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Right. That, I would say, he was trying to gain my attention. And he certainly accomplished his goal. He got my attention.

LULU MILLER: Wow.

TRACIE HUNTE: Yeah. So that letter was published in 1988.

LULU MILLER: Wait. But - OK, so before we go on with Fauci, like - so was he doing - like, he made this move to go work on it, but then was he somehow doing something...

TRACIE HUNTE: Something wrong?

LULU MILLER: ...Dangerous? Yeah.

PETER STALEY: Well, there were a bunch of issues.

TRACIE HUNTE: This is Peter Staley.

PETER STALEY: Long-term AIDS activist and LGBTQ rights activist.

TRACIE 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...

PETER 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. And we had problems with that effort.

TRACIE HUNTE: Back in the '80s, the drug trials that they were running...

PETER STALEY: They had a pretty disgraceful track record of not enrolling the full diversity of patients.

TRACIE 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...

PETER STALEY: Kind of safe, frankly. You know, we had AZT. We had the first drug.

TRACIE 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.

PETER STALEY: And we wanted a robust research effort on those drugs.

TRACIE HUNTE: But Fauci and his team...

PETER STALEY: They just started testing the wazoo at AZT.

TRACIE 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.

LULU MILLER: OK. In ACT UP land, that can't be as simple as showing up.

TRACIE HUNTE: No.

PETER STALEY: On a beautiful, crisp morning...

TRACIE HUNTE: ...In Bethesda, Md., onto the serene campus of the NIH, all these people...

PETER STALEY: ...Over a thousand demonstrators from all around the country...

TRACIE HUNTE: ...Showed up and started marching.

PETER STALEY: The cops were all ready. Cops on horseback - they were quite prepared.

TRACIE 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...

PETER STALEY: ...A really colorful picture. You increased your odds of appearing on the front page.

TRACIE HUNTE: And he had these colored smoke bombs...

PETER STALEY: ...Surplus military smoke grenades...

TRACIE HUNTE: ...Hidden behind protest signs...

PETER STALEY: ...On the top of really long bamboo poles.

TRACIE HUNTE: So they marched along with others. But then, at the right moment, all at the same time...

PETER 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...

TRACIE HUNTE: ...And pinks and greens...

PETER STALEY: ...Started pouring out of the top of these poles.

TRACIE HUNTE: And beneath this massive rainbow war cloud, they charged...

PETER STALEY: ...Through the crowd. And the crowd erupted.

(CHEERING)

TRACIE HUNTE: And then it was just an entire day of well-orchestrated chaos.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: This was a major day of protest by AIDS activists in this country. One thousand...

TRACIE HUNTE: I mean, everywhere you looked, something was happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

PHYLLIS SHARPE: My name is Phyllis Sharpe. I was diagnosed...

TRACIE HUNTE: People were giving speeches.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

PHYLLIS SHARPE: The only medication that's offered is AZT.

TRACIE HUNTE: Black women talking about their experiences living with AIDS.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: ...Scientific institution.

TRACIE HUNTE: There were people dressed up in lab coats...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: You don't fit our profile.

TRACIE HUNTE: ...Making fun of scientists.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) When the gays scream (ph)...

TRACIE HUNTE: There was singing...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Women die six times faster.

TRACIE HUNTE: ...Die-ins. One section of the lawn was transformed into a graveyard. Air horns punctured the noise of the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRACIE 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. And then they burned him in effigy.

LULU MILLER: They burned him in effigy?

TRACIE HUNTE: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No more secret trials.

TRACIE HUNTE: ACT UP was publicly...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Run trials for women.

TRACIE HUNTE: ...Taking that list of demands...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: NIH scientists need to work with activists.

TRACIE HUNTE: ...Shaking it in Fauci's face...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: You test mice while women die.

TRACIE HUNTE: ...And nailing it to his door.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

LULU MILLER: Whoa, that is intense.

TRACIE HUNTE: Yeah. And Fauci is sitting up in his office, several floors up...

ANTHONY FAUCI: Right.

TRACIE HUNTE: ...Looking out the window.

ANTHONY FAUCI: They were really confronting me in a very, very aggressive way.

TRACIE HUNTE: And as he was taking it all in...

ANTHONY FAUCI: I saw him from my window.

TRACIE HUNTE: ...Amidst all this chaos, the slight figure of Peter Staley get boosted up onto this ledge above the front door of the building.

PETER STALEY: Yeah, I got on the overhang...

ANTHONY FAUCI: You could see that he was on this little overhang.

PETER STALEY: ...And started hanging up banners, and the crowd cheered. But the cops were having none of it that day.

ANTHONY FAUCI: And the police were going to climb up and get him.

PETER STALEY: They launched a few of their own up onto the overhang and tackled me.

TRACIE HUNTE: The police are, like, scrambling.

PETER STALEY: Lowered me down in the hands of a dozen cops.

TRACIE 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 through the building.

PETER STALEY: So they handcuffed me behind my back. And an officer grabbed my elbow and started hauling me through the first floor, building 31. And (laughter) as we're going down this wide corridor, I see that familiar white lab coat on that short scientist (laughter) coming towards me.

ANTHONY FAUCI: He had handcuffs behind his back, and this police officer was taking him away. And he passed me, and he said...

PETER 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.

ANTHONY FAUCI: And I said, OK, Peter. See you later. And the cop looked at me like, what the hell is going on here?

LULU MILLER: Wait. They know each other?

TRACIE HUNTE: Yeah. 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...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRACIE HUNTE: ...To 1988 to that letter that Larry Kramer wrote to Fauci, where he called him a murderer. Do you remember that...

ANTHONY FAUCI: Yeah.

TRACIE HUNTE: ...The whole murder thing?

ANTHONY FAUCI: Of course. Of course.

TRACIE HUNTE: When Dr. Fauci saw that letter, he thought...

ANTHONY 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?

TRACIE HUNTE: So he just called this guy who calls him a murderer - called him on the phone and said, let's figure this out. And despite their differences...

ANTHONY FAUCI: We - you know, we came to an agreement that we both had the same common goal.

LULU MILLER: Yeah. Well, I'm really surprised by that because, like, you know, I'm thinking of, like, the Storm the NIH Protest, when people literally have, like, pictures of your heads on a - of your head on a stake and saying, you know, F you, Fauci.

ANTHONY 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.

JAD ABUMRAD: Dr. Fauci, I wonder if I can follow up on that.

LULU MILLER: That's our host, Jad Abumrad. He was sitting in on the interview with Fauci.

JAD ABUMRAD: It's kind of an extraordinary emotional jujitsu that you're describing. I mean, to - people are saying horrible things, which...

ANTHONY FAUCI: Right.

JAD 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.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Right. Right.

JAD ABUMRAD: Do you have any recollection of how you did it? Like, what specifically got you out of defense and into receptive mode?

ANTHONY 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. 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.

LULU MILLER: Wow. It is so hard to picture a person in power responding like that today. 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.

TRACIE HUNTE: Yeah, I mean, there's a part of me, like, when I hear this story where I'm just like, you know, that's, like, 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, like, 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.

PETER STALEY: Fauci swung his office door open.

ANTHONY FAUCI: I said it's time for me to put the theatrics aside and listen to what they're saying.

PETER STALEY: And we had a very healthy back and forth.

TRACIE HUNTE: And, you know, a little while after that, those phone calls turned into dinner parties.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PETER STALEY: These famous dinners we would have with him in Washington.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Sitting down around the dinner table of my deputy at the time, Jim Hill.

TRACIE HUNTE: They'd discuss ideas, strategy, medicine.

ANTHONY FAUCI: How we can continue the dialogue of coming to some common ground.

TRACIE 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? But you know what's not good? AZT. Let's start testing more drugs. And Fauci...

PETER STALEY: Well, you know, he kind of passed the buck.

ANTHONY FAUCI: I mean, I had a lot of pushback from my own colleagues in the scientific community.

TRACIE HUNTE: He just had a lot of excuses.

PETER STALEY: We were sick of hearing from him tell us for over a year...

TRACIE HUNTE: ...Dinner after dinner after dinner....

PETER STALEY: ...I understand you. I agree with you. But I can't convince the executive committee. And we were like, screw that.

TRACIE 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...

PETER 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.

LULU MILLER: And what did you say?

ANTHONY FAUCI: I said, wait a minute. (Laughter) We're sitting here having dinner and sharing a glass of Pinot Grigio, and you're going to storm the NIH? What are you talking about?

PETER STALEY: He tried to talk us out of it.

ANTHONY FAUCI: No, I did. You know, I said, Peter, are you sure that this is going to be a productive thing?

PETER STALEY: Kept pleading that he needed a little more time. And we said, well, you got a couple of months.

ANTHONY FAUCI: I said, oh, OK, fine. Thanks an awful lot.

TRACIE HUNTE: Couple of months later...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) The whole world is watching.

TRACIE HUNTE: ...A thousand people show up to his door with his head on a spike.

LULU MILLER: Yeah. Well, what happened? What did happen? Was it tons of - did the media pick it up?

TRACIE 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...

LULU MILLER: It was not sympathetic. Oh.

TRACIE HUNTE: It was not - look at these crazies who showed up at the NIH.

LULU MILLER: OK.

TRACIE 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.

PETER STALEY: That demonstration was more about putting him between a rock and a hard place. We were the rock, and a hard place was the executive committee of the ACTG.

TRACIE HUNTE: This was about giving Fauci a very public boot in the ass.

PETER STALEY: We wanted to make it politically difficult for them to ignore him and us. And so he got squeezed by ACT UP.

TRACIE HUNTE: And that squeeze was apparently exactly what he needed because...

PETER 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.

TRACIE HUNTE: They got pretty much everything they wanted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LULU MILLER: Like, on that list, they got it all?

TRACIE HUNTE: Yeah.

PETER STALEY: The ACTG decided to open up all of their committees.

TRACIE HUNTE: Activists and other people with AIDS were added to the panels.

PETER STALEY: We got voting membership on the executive committee.

TRACIE HUNTE: They did diversify the people that they were testing. They did begin to start testing drugs that weren't AZT.

PETER STALEY: And we started to reformat and refocus the clinical trials and the conducting of clinical trials towards HIV/AIDS.

TRACIE HUNTE: They got what they needed.

LULU MILLER: Wow.

TRACIE HUNTE: Yeah.

LULU MILLER: That is so not a story I feel like you ever hear.

TRACIE HUNTE: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRACIE 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 one's 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, you know, 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.

TRACIE HUNTE: This is Alexandra Juhasz. She is a professor of film at Brooklyn College, and she worked in ACT UP.

ALEXANDRA JUHASZ: I don't know that - you're a media maker. One goal is to, quote-unquote, "change someone's mind."

TRACIE HUNTE: Yeah.

ALEXANDRA JUHASZ: OK. 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 is 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. Those actions by ACT UP were to express defiance and to put defiance on the map.

TRACIE HUNTE: You know, she was like, protest is about, like, making sure that this thing is never going to go away. And I kind of had, like, a moment like that 'cause I was talking on the phone with a friend, and all of a sudden, I was - I heard outside my window say his name, George Floyd. And part of me was like, again?

LULU MILLER: Really? Did you really think that?

TRACIE 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 did have that reaction. And then I was like, wait. What am I annoyed with? What am I really annoyed with? And I realized, like, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRACIE HUNTE: You know, we're not done.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Bringing the dead to your door - we won't take this anymore. Bringing the dead to your door...

TRACIE 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST, SCREAMING)

TRACIE HUNTE: But after they made it through the mounted police to the fence and…

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: I love you, Mike.

TRACIE HUNTE: ...Let go of those ashes...

ALEXIS DANZIG: This incredible release of energy out into the universe.

TRACIE HUNTE: ...They say there was this moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: The magnitude of what had just happened hit me. I just began to sob convulsively.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST, SCREAMING)

DAVID ROBINSON: Like, if Warren - I 100% knew then and know now he would have approved and, you know, been proud.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: This was my friend Kevin Michael Kick. He was 28 years old, and he died on Halloween 1991.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #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.

ALEXIS 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 going to 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 #17: I came to scatter the ashes of my lover, Michael Tad Hippler (ph). 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)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: So I love you, Mike, and I know you would have wanted to be where you now are.

LULU MILLER: Reporter Tracie Hunte.

This episode was produced by Tobin Low and Annie McEwen. Special thanks to Elsa Honesun (ph), Joy Episalla, Debra Levine, Theodore Kerr, Ben McLaughlin (ph), Catherine Gund at DIVA TV for the use of the NIH protest footage, Diane Kelly for fact-checking and Katherine Pfahl (ph) for additional archival research.

And before we go, we have to share that Tracie has just wrapped up her time with us. And the short bit of time I got to be here working with her completely changed me as a reporter and how I see teamwork. I'm going to miss her so much, and I know Jad wants to say something.

JAD ABUMRAD: This story, unfortunately for us, is Tracie's last story with RADIOLAB. She has been with the show for about four years. You've heard her in stories from Syria (ph) to square dancing to the Nina Simone story this summer, and she's left quite a mark on all of us. And we're so proud to have worked with you, Tracie. Tracie's moving really just down the hall from us - the virtual hall for the time being but soon-to-be actual hall, we all hope - to work on a - the new collaboration with The Atlantic, the WNYC-Atlantic collaboration that's being hosted by "More Perfect" alum Julia Longoria. So we're happy that she'll be close by, still kind of in the family. And we're going to keep trying our best to create excuses for her to come make radio with us. We love you, Tracie, and we wish you the best.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANAND KRISHNAMOORTHI: Hi. This is Anand Krishnamoorthi (ph) from Pasadena, Calif. 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.

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