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History Speak

‘Die-Ins’ strategy of AIDS Activists to get Attention of Growing Epidemic

As the AIDS crisis took hold in the 1980s, killing thousands of Americans and ravaging gay communities, the deadly epidemic went unaddressed by U.S. public health agencies—and unacknowledged by President Ronald Reagan—for years. In response, a political group called ACT UP emerged, deciding it needed to do something shocking to draw attention to the crisis and jolt government agencies, drug companies and the mainstream media into action.

So it began organizing protest events where masses of people lay down in a public space, feigning death.

“The strongest thing we can do is something in silence,” declared writer, filmmaker and AIDS activist Robert Hilferty at a November 1989 meeting of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). “A die-in. A massive die-in.” 

Founded in 1987, ACT UP ultimately organized thousands of protests, with die-ins becoming a signature tactic. And while AIDS activists weren’t the first to simulate death to call attention to lethal threats, the action became a powerful tool to show that, because the epidemic was being stigmatized and ignored, bodies were piling up. In ACT UP’s case, “they forced social and cultural institutions to take responsibility for the AIDS deaths by having to physically move the protesters’ bodies,” says Matt Brim, professor of queer studies at City University of New York.

The AIDS die-ins emerged from a longer history of activism that made bodies the focal point of protest, such as suffragettes chaining themselves to railings and civil rights activists staging sit-ins.

One of earliest known references to the term “die-in” came nearly two decades prior to ACT UP, when environmentalists demonstrated on Earth Day, 1970, in Boston, to raise awareness about the deadly impact of air pollution. About a month later, protesters in Seattle fell to the ground at a busy downtown intersection to oppose dangerous nerve gas shipments.

Since then, public die-in stunts have been used to decry everything from war and weapons testing to police violence and cycling deaths. To ratchet up the visual drama, some protesters have employed fake blood and bandages. Others brought coffins. …………………… …………………… Continue Reading. …………………………………………

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