In September of 1991, I participated in a political action with the
members of TAG (Treatment Action Group - an off-shoot cell of ACT-UP)
that involved wrapping a giant yellow inflatable condom over Jesse
Helms' Arlington, VA home. The giant prophylactic replica had the words
"A CONDOM TO STOP UNSAFE POLITICS: HELMS IS DEADLIER THAN A VIRUS"
printed on the front of it, and was covering the top and front of his
house for about an hour while members of the media photographed and
filmed it and documented TAG's statements. After about thirty minutes
of activity, with local residents gathering to see what was happening,
the police calmly arrived amongst the media hubbub and ordered the
condom to be removed, which we did. No damage was left on the
residence, and we were not arrested (Helms ultimately decided not to
press charges). The stunt was obviously reported in local and national
news that afternoon.
It was a bright and sunny September day...
TAG's reasons for the action? To protest (and bring attention to
opposition of) the Senator's reckless, politically driven public
attacks on gays and lesbians, and his consciously stubborn, scornful
stance on AIDS policies. In the late 80s and early 90s, Helms was one
in a long line of mascots for what was perceived as the dimmest and
loudest strain of far-right American conservative politics. He
enthusiastically and openly encouraging legislature that symbolically
mocked or punished gays, minorities, the poor, and the non-Christian.
Although much of what Helms was doing was playing "bad cop" to the rest
of the far right, he often gave a shot in the arm to Republican
politics in arena of public discourse. It probably needed it because,
at the tail end of George Bush Sr.'s presidential term, the Republican
party was at a low point. Nevertheless, Helms reveled in
attention-getting, manipulative political publicity stunts, which he
later used as fuel for his policy-making stances in the Senate, which
were very real.
Was Helms home when we did this? When planning the action we knew that fact would left up to chance; and he ended up being not there (however, we later learned that his very confused maid was hiding inside the whole time).
The Helms/condom action was the brainchild of Peter Staley, who used it to introduce his newly formed group TAG, which was formed with a handful of other ACT-UP alumni in 1991 (Staley was one of the original founders of ACT-UP in 1987).
Backing up a bit historically: ACT-UP was created by an inspired group of New Yorkers in the mid 80s, and it's goal was to awaken public and political perception of the AIDS crisis through direct action. Through a series of high-profile actions (on the floor of the NYSE, at the headquarters of the NIH and FDA, and ultimately inside St. Patrick's Cathedral), ACT-UP initially established itself as a controversial, but remarkably effective coalition for change by employing a cleverly re-thought approach to political activism that broke free from outdated 1960s templates and cleverly embraced a new media age.
I joined ACT-UP in 1990, and was heavily involved with them for about two years, participated in many demos and actions and doing work with a lot of their community work sub-groups. As stated, Staley had formed TAG in 1991 as a reaction to (and to break free from) ACT-UP as a whole - which by that time had grown so big that it's original vision had become thwarted by infighting, a hopelessly complex procedure system, and maddening dysfunction. About to leave ACT-UP myself, I became completely inspired by Staley's idea about wrapping Helms' house in a giant condom. And although I never became one of TAG's core members, I enthusiastically joined them for the Helms action, and two others after that.
Staley had done a few drive-by looks of Helms' Arlington, VA home with a member of Greenpeace who had experience in high end sophisticated civil disobedience techniques. They then used estimated measurements to have the giant condom made by a party novelty company in California. Then, with the condom made, we strategized the tactics, timing and supplies we would need during several meetings in Manhattan. Later we practiced unfurling the giant thing at a friend's huge backyard in New Paltz.
A week or so later, in the parking lot of a hotel in Virginia the day before the action, we practiced choreographing every movement again and again so the timing of the attachment of the giant condom to the house would be as swift (and unstoppable) as possible (more details can be found here).
The next morning started at a local diner where, over cinnamon toast, eggs and coffee, we discussed more last-minute choreography and tactical planning (based on early morning drive-by spy reports). We then set off...
Our swift arrival at Helms' residence (timed to coincide with a last-minute tip to, and arrival of the press by TAG's sly media guys) had us piling out of the vehicles, falling into place and subsequently assembling the condom onto the home. Some of us immediately climbed up onto second story roof using a high ladder, with the heavy bundled condom in tow (precisely folded so it would unfurl just right from the top), others started the portable (and loud as hell) generator on the ground to inflate the connecting tube once it came down from the roof, while others attached a few tethers to the ground. I had to climb onto the first story roof landing and attach the left half of the condom into place, held by a few tethers hammered into the ground with small plastic stakes.
One of the most important things we had to remember was not to disturb anything, or damage Helms' property at all. The only snafu I remember occurring (on my end) involved a little garden sculpture. When I hammered one of the stakes into the ground, I pulled the tether so it went *boi-io-io-nng!* and knocked over a small stone Spanish conquistador garden ornament that was propped politely next to some chrysanthemums in a flower bed next to his front door. I think that we had drilled into our heads "Don't damage anything... don't damage anything..." so many times that when the statuette fell over, I overreacted, yelping and running over to carefully place it back upright and rapidly pat dirt all around it, whispering "Oh god... oh god..." to myself the whole time. I felt like Paul Sheldon in the film "Misery," trying to carefully replace Annie Wilkes' little ceramic penguin in place undetected while snooping in her living room. My reverence was ironic considering what we were up to.
Even more ironic was the fact that in 1990, just a year earlier, I had actively protested against Helms with the art department at my University of North Texas (a fallout from the whole NEA/Mapplethorp debacle). If you had told me that twelve months later I would be trying to neatly replace a garden sculpture in the flower bed of his front lawn, I'd have thought you were yanking my bullwhip (zing!).
So after all this ran through my head during my little garden ornamental mishap, and after what seemed like mere seconds; the inflatable behemoth was in place, and the generator was switched off. After such attention to detail in the planning stages, our set-up of the whole thing went remarkably fast. All us and the reporters could do was stand back and listen to the birds and barking dogs of a sunny, suburban neighborhood street still waking up for the day (a sound that is actually complimented by the whir of cameras and the occasional reporter inquiry). While we all had eyes peeled for Helms, our collective attention was soon redirected by his curious neighbors, who began to wander out of their homes in bathrobes and slippers and slowly gravitate towards us like zombies in "Dawn of the Dead." Not surprisingly, we found them to be inquisitive, polite... even friendly, and perhaps slightly supportive. All except for one neighbor in that is...
A woman who lived a few houses down from Helms got wind of what we were up to, and wasted no time in stomping down the block and creating a huge, loud ruckus amongst what had so far been a surprisingly quiet, formal and somber affair. Wearing a baby blue jogging suit and sneakers with white golfing socks, this confirmed bachelorette marched into the scene, mad-as-hell and not gonna take it anymore. With the helpful inquisitiveness of Mrs. Kravitz from "Bewitched," and the multifaceted maw of Linda Blair from "The Exorcist," she started in; "What are you doing!? How dare you!" eventually using the tried and true; "We don't come to your homes and disrupt your lives!" then hitting us with the good 'ole; "You obviously have no respect for people's private property! This is irresponsible!" this all mixed with repeated and very loud expletives. Her shouting, stomping, Frankenstein-like gait seemed to be her normal mode of communication - appropriately, as she kind of looked like Herman Munster in a Dorothy Hamill wig. She soon became the focal point, and even tried to order the reporters around. At one point she pointed her finger in the face of a local newswoman who was writing on a pad of paper and shrieked; "Stop writing stuff down!" right before shoving her hand over the lens of filmmaker Robert Hilferty's camera and yelling "Get that outta my face!" When it dawned on us later that she was obviously the token "gay" on Helms' block, Helms' world view of homosexuals started to make more sense to us.
One thing I have learned about my years of civil disobedience and political activism is that, even though there is a lot of shouting and intense activity going on all around you, events amongst those immediately involved almost seem to go by as if scripted. The behavior amongst you and your fellow activists, as well as the behavior of the people you are targeting (and even the behavior of the police) often falls into almost formalized, predictable behavior patterns. It always ends up that the wacky, loud and unpredictable antics of outraged bystanders (an inevitability) will be the one thing that stays stuck in your memory bank long after the experience.
When the police did arrive, the first thing they did was to tell the anti-welcome-wagon-Nazi-lady (who charged over over to them shrieking and waving her arms) to "...please calm down ma'am!" The police then quietly observed the scene and asked who was in charge.
After all of the actions we had participated together and all the times we had been arrested in the past, we were sure we'd be locked up in the slammer awaiting a judge's hammer almost right afterwards. Needless to say were were surprised (as was a horrified Ms. FrankenKravitz) when the police simply asked us to remove the giant condom, then took down our names and addresses and asked us to pack all our stuff up and leave the premises (which we promptly did... the press also took our cue and split). It still wasn't even noon yet.
To this day, I can't remember if Peter still has the giant condom somewhere, or if it was confiscated by the police.
Afterwards, we even divided up into teams (we had even decided beforehand those expected to be arrested, and those not) so we could troll around in minivans to local news outlets and walk in unannounced, in the hopes of being interviewed when the story was picked up. This was a kind of a roll-of-the-dice media move, and was a clever (for it's time) move on TAG's part. We were welcomed with a warm greeting (oddly) at every station we went to when they realized we were the activists responsible for the stunt they had just read about on the AP wire). And even though they were all planning on reporting the story... no one actually wanted to talk to us in person on camera, which started to get really frustrating. I remember almost feeling like I was shopping with my mom as a little kid, being trudged from clothes store to clothes store (TV station to TV station), exhausted and cranky. During one surreal moment, one member of our group got into a bizarre physical altercation with a staff member of the station over some unrelated incident, just as two anchors were going live on the air for the 5 o'clock report from the brightly-lit set a mere 50 feet from us. At that point I really just wanted to go home.
And we did. It's fun to come home to your New York apartment in the evening and tell your roommates that you just got back from wrapping a giant condom over Jesse Helms' house, and have them wince their faces in disbelief - only to turn on the TV and, within the hour, watch their faces change as you all watch Ted Koppel do a small report on it.
The story was reported on the major news channels very briefly, usually with a "what a crazy world!" kind of angle at the end of the program. How could we really expect any serious comments from talking heads considering the tactics we used? Back then news outlets weren't exactly hungry for wacky political action stories with homo-centric leanings (If done today, I'm quite certain a photo and link to the story would have been enthusiastically featured on Drudge).
Helms ultimately decided not to press any charges, although he did mention us on the Senate floor a few times that year, as a chuckle-inducing antidote to the resistance he knew some of his policies were up against. It ended up being a nice, clean action with no hidden, messy jail time or court proceedings (excellent!) and a kind of wait-and-wonder ripple effect on our target, and the perceptions of his audience.
They key to a good demo of this sort is to break the rules enough so people can't help but pay attention to what you're doing, but not break them to the point where people hate you once they start paying attention to you. It's the old cliché of reformatting the solution to a problem that seems un-fixable when you think about it traditionally. We were aware of a viable threat to our well-being; Helms' very real and dangerous attack on gays and minorities within the Senate. It was an injustice that we felt powerless to meet at Helms' own level so, using a colorful stunt that could work through the media, we recontextualized our defense into a viable communicative form that was readable on many levels (although I keep using 'we,' I must give Peter and others credit for the idea). What TAG pulled (and what many of the most famous ACT-UP demonstrations pulled) would have been right at home as dreamed up by P.J. Soles when she took over the high school with The Ramones against a crusty old principle, while everyone cheered her on during the punk musical finale at the end of "Rock 'n Roll High School" (you may laugh at this analogy, but trust me - this is a valid litmus test for any visual political action seeking media attention). Don't think being slightly absurd isn't a viable form of real communication, it's often a very powerful one, and sometimes your only viable option when faced with the abyss.
Did what we did change things? Do these kinds of political actions make a difference in the real world? If there is a clear message attached to them, and they are clever enough to get seen at all, then the answer is an immeasurable, but in-arguable yes.
Jesse Helms has since (since around 2000) admitted that he was wrong, and changed his mind on his initial opinions about the AIDS crisis. He is now actually working for the cause in Africa, and encouraging Christians and churches to join him.
Although I was not a core member of TAG, I participated in other actions that were more specifically targeted towards entities within the medical and research field. In one action against price gouging by Astra Pharmaceuticals in Westborough, MA (where the core members chained themselves under the axils of trucks) I stupidly opted to carry in my bag a smoke bomb that Peter thought might come in handy for whatever reason. When the police found it after we were arrested, it was brought into evidence at the subsequent trial and I alone was left with a terrorist record in that state. I suppose that's the kind of thing I should be weirdly proud of today, but as I type this there's still one eye rolling back into my head.
Looking back I often find myself waffling back and forth, Sybil-like, in new admiration for some of the activist things I did that I thought seemed trivial at the time, and alternately embarrassed by activist things I did that at the time I believed were brazen triumphs. It's hard to tell what stimuli in my life in the 2000s is influencing my split behavior, or if it's just age.
But much of the gay and AIDS-related political activism I participated in during the early 90s I look back on with sincere pride; I felt like what I participated in helped grease the wheels of change and steered society in directions that it definitely needed to go in, or inevitably would have to. I'm happy to have been a part of this. But a few political actions I look back on differently. I'll never forgive myself for participating in ACT-UP's massive, expensive and ultimately pointless and message-less "Day of Desperation," in which I was part of a massive human barricade designed to stop foot traffic in Grand Central Station at the height of evening rush hour (a few brave commuters start breaking our blockades with fists-flying... can you blame them?) Eee-gads... I can't believe I did that (these were the kinds of actions that passed the vote in ACT-UP's doomed later days). They should have thrown away the key when they locked us up!
Like anything I guess, you remember the best parts when you're in a good mood, and the worst parts when you're in a bad one.
And it was impossible to see it clearly when I was doing these things, but I realize now what an oddly simple, more innocent time it all was. The late 80s and early 90s were a point that's cultural and media landscape made it easier to get points across with clever acts of civil disobedience, that didn't immediately drown in a dumb, loud universe of hot air and PR-driven soul-suck like they probably would today. The act of (clever) protest was still a viable form of communication.
But also, as I'm getting older I think I'm really starting to drift into the old cliché of behavior/judgement patterns that I swore I never reach; namely my concern (worry?) about today's younger generation. With some exceptions, there doesn't seem to be any true sense of rebellion, anger or even concern over blaringly obvious injustices in our country and in our world. Where are the angry young upstarts? The real ones? There' doesn't even seem to even be any underground anymore, even in culture. Today's kids seem gleefully zombified by corporate and industry-fueld comfort toys and shallow, garish entertainment industry tea toddling. Art and philosophy, even controversial history, has been all but wiped out from our public schools. How can kids think for themselves if they aren't inspired by some of history's greatest thinkers, philosophers, writers and artists? Does the fact that these icons significantly razzed the establishment obliterate the important value they teach about standing up for oneself and loudly stating how you really see things? How can kids become ingenious rebels if the real tools needed to do so have been replaced by weak plastic imitations with child-proof caps?
These things I did I did because I wanted to... badly. They came from deep inside of me. Having crazy demonstrations, getting thrown in the slammer, being punched in the face, screaming at people, being crafty and clever and getting together with others and trying to figure out smart ways to mock and trip up people and things that we thought were very bad, wrong and unjust - these were actions that came burning out of me, things that I couldn't rush to do fast enough. And I felt like once they shot out of me they would be unstoppable.
It's a thrill being a smart, annoying promulgator! It's really fulfilling to create politicaly motivated actions that try and change or bring attention to stuff that you think is very wrong! It's a blast to go against the grain of everything you think is stuffy and dumb, and shine an embarrassing spotlight on outdated modes or unspoken injustices (and I'm not just trying to inspire kids on the left either). It's damn fun to cause a ruckus and break shit (mindfully) and get arrested and have your elders (or enemy) wag their fingers at you and tell you how stupid and wrong and naive you're being and how you're only hurting your cause and how you'll realize how foolish you are when you're older (but knowing deep down that the whole point is to make them have to deal with you and your opinions). These kinds of illegal political actions are often bratty, over-reaching, and indeed naive... but they are needed: they act as sparks for change in the grand scheme of things. I sometimes feel like we've entered the 2000s and a part of the chain required for the advancement of mankind is missing.
Who knows, maybe this story will enter a mind or two.
There are other political activist experiences I suppose I could have written about, there are lots of goofy tales to tell. But for some reason I chose this bright yellow, inflatable, summer afternoon one because it just all seems so perfectly simple and wonderful, looking back on it now. I suppose (perhaps) that my cynicism about today's younger generation could be just a way for me to attach a sense of purpose to the halcyon days of my wild, reckless youth. I guess I'm just glad that I sometimes used a condom.
PHOTOS: clockwise from upper left (click for larger image): Mapping it out in Manhattan, Peter Staley steady on the second story roof, me on the first floor roof, the gang afterwards, nearing inflation, Helms' crankiest neighbor (stills from a film by Robert Hilferty)