Some sunlight found its way between the metal police pens surrounding the new New York City AIDS Memorial, dedicated on December 1st, World AIDS Day. “Amazing Grace” was sung, “ACT UP!” was chanted — it had its own place in the program — and elected officials offered their praise. The crowd was mixed, young and old enough to have survived the plague, black and brown and white, their jackets open, logo and slogan tees for the city’s myriad AIDS service organizations bared on a 50-degree day 50 days before the inauguration of Donald J. Trump.
Back when Trump’s personal brand first attained well-oiled status, New York’s ACT UP chapter zapped him, a political action designed to twist that press attention in a more urgent direction. On Halloween in 1989, about 100 activists took Midtown Manhattan’s gilt Trump Tower, accompanied by photographers and police. They came out in costumes and jeans and leather, some in ghoulish Trump masks. Before the inevitable arrests, they made their way up the narrow escalators in the Trump Tower atrium and dropped flyers that read “New York Tricked Out of AIDS Care, Trump Treated to Tax Abatements.” Across the street, a banner hung: “10,000 Homeless With AIDS.”
“ACT UP saw in Donald Trump a symbol of a flawed system, where government policies empowered the wealthy at the expense of the poor and marginalized,” historian Stephen Vider noted, reflecting this past week on the protest. “Trump in 1989 was already the man who would run for president in 2015 — and ACT UP was already calling him out.”
The wedge of city park in the West Village on which the NYC AIDS Memorial now stands is about 40 blocks south of Trump Tower. The Tower manages to be both glitzy and shabby, but the escalators are still running. In the days after the election, they ferried tourists down to a cash register where one could purchase Trump-branded shirts, guarded by members of the New York Police Department with “Secret Service” on their uniforms. Cops ringed the memorial too. One had glitter nails and a set of pink handcuffs on her hips.
“ACT UP saw in Donald Trump a symbol of a flawed system, where government policies empowered the wealthy at the expense of the poor and marginalized.”
“Many died in their apartments,” writes Sarah Schulman in The Gentrification of the Mind, of the people who lived in the neighborhoods around this small park in Lower Manhattan in the 1980s, around the memorial to their lives. “It was normal to hear that someone we knew had died and that their belongings were thrown out on the street. I remember once seeing the cartons of a lifetime collection of playbills in a dumpster in front of a tenement and I knew that it meant that another gay man had died of AIDS, his belongings dumped into the gutter.”
At the dedication, which came after these plodding and dispiriting weeks, it did not seem dramatic or disrespectful for elected officials to evoke those days, of people thrown away. Some names were not uttered: like President Ronald Reagan, who ignored AIDS and whose policy of neglect lives on, carried by some of the same men Reagan appointed to work alongside him.
One of the first men named to the Trump transition team was Edwin Meese, who served as attorney general under Reagan. Meese’s legacy is neatly captured in the famous report — the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography — most often shorthanded to his name.
Sitting on the Meese porn commission in the 1980s was James Dobson, who would go on to found the Family Research Council, a religious right think tank known for its anti-LGBT and anti-abortion politics. Trump spoke at its annual Values Voters Summit in 2016, promising, in his own version of Evangelical vernacular: “A Trump administration, our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended, like you’ve never seen before. Believe me. I believe it. And you believe it.” He paid tribute to Phyllis Schlafly, a religious right icon of the 1970s and ’80s who still found energy in the weeks before her death this past September to rail against “the transgender agenda,” to use the mass killing at a LGBT nightclub to denounce Muslims and to support Trump’s call for an end to immigration.
Considering all this — if a Trump regime would be a return to those days, of “family values” and refusal of AIDS treatment, of God and Country and a denial of AIDS science, of “culture wars” and the death of a generation of artists and intellectuals and activists — is to contemplate the present. Meese is just one direct link. But there’s also the man whose name Trump has floated for a number of cabinet seats, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In the early ’90s, ACT UP’s numbers swelled at street protests when Giuliani threatened to end AIDS funding. As mayor, he also slashed $6.5 million in funding for Housing Works after it had criticized his policies on AIDS and homelessness.
There is also the certainty of Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, whose record on AIDS is clear: Pray before considering if extending people life-saving care is worth it, and, if you can get away with it, spend that money on anti-gay conversion programs instead.
It is not to play into catastrophe to say that people are going to die. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer offered this stark glimpse into the future: By his recent report, 94 percent of the city’s $194 million budget for HIV and AIDS programs comes from the federal government. Trump has already threatened to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities, like New York. Can this money be found elsewhere, from the state or from private foundations? Some AIDS activists and service providers are expressing a kind of anxious optimism that AIDS funding might survive a Trump administration, to the extent it still retains “bipartisan appeal.”
The damage, though, won’t come only with funding lost. It’s the callousness Trump has already shown to all people at the margins. It’s in the wave of post-election harassment and violence carried out by some of his supporters. And it’s also in evidence in Trump Tower itself, still standing in Manhattan, while hospitals like St. Vincent’s, once considered “ground zero” for the AIDS crisis, are closed. It’s in the men with a track record of denial and neglect that Trump has brought along for his ride.
The NYC AIDS Memorial centers on a reflecting pool circled by granite, carved with the words to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It is canopied by a series of 18-foot-high triangles made of white steel. But the memorial could also be a book drowned in the gutter, as Schulman remembered. It could be a canceled welfare payment, a lease denied, a prescription abandoned when the insurance didn’t come through. It could be a blue nitrile glove on the hand of a cop, who refused to touch you but still sought to place you under arrest. It could be a tower, filled with voices and with light.