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ACT UP tosses ashes at SF church


A dead gay man's ashes were thrown over barricades at a Catholic Church in San Francisco on Good Friday, as activists staged a 25th anniversary march commemorating ACT UP.

The protest went from the Mission to the Castro and touched on issues such as gentrification and the lack of affordable housing as well as the Catholic Church's anti-gay teachings.

Organizers estimated that 200-250 people participated in the April 6 march.

The group began its protest outside a Mission district Wells Fargo branch. The bank was a target of Occupy activists last fall. The march then continued to the steps of Mission Dolores Basilica.

ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, began in New York in 1987, and has regularly targeted the Catholic Church. In December 1989, thousands of ACT UP protesters disrupted Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York over the archdiocese's position against the distribution of condoms and its opposition to abortion – themes echoed during the anniversary protest. Active ACT UP chapters are still present in New York and a few other cities; the San Francisco chapters dissolved several years ago.

ACT UP is credited with speeding up the time it takes for the government to approve new drugs and its direct actions called out the slow pace of the federal government in the early years of the epidemic.

Protesters had said they planned to arrive at the church at 5:30 p.m. But by 5 o'clock there were already at least 15 San Francisco police officers standing in front of Mission Dolores Basilica and the Old Mission, which is immediately adjacent to the south. Police had put up crowd control barriers in the gutters and the barricades prevented the demonstrators from their stated aim: to place the ashes of a man who died from AIDS on the church stairs.

"The Catholic Church [has a] continued role of condemning people to die of AIDS globally and repression of sexual freedom and health here at home by blocking access to condoms, and restricting access to reproductive health and abortion," said a statement about the anniversary march on Pride at Work's website.

Waiyde Palmer, who helped organize the march, said the church's regulations on sexuality, contraception, and a woman's right to choose "are mirror images of its attitude and policies toward HIV/AIDS."

"If you oppose contraception on every level beyond the rhythm method, as they do, then HIV is going to spread and unwanted and unplanned pregnancies will occur," Palmer wrote in an email. "Both can be avoided if one has adequate access to health care that isn't shrouded in shame or religious doctrine."

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence led the anniversary protest. The Sisters, who have drawn the ire of Catholic leaders throughout their long and colorful history, offered their standard list of grievances against the church: opposition to abortion and contraception, opposition to same-sex marriage and adoption, and the child abuse scandal.

The Sisters present at the protest declined to speak with the Bay Area Reporter. But other marchers offered their views.

"I'm disgusted by the [Catholic] church and their beliefs about our community," said Patrick Dissek. "I'm tired of having them try to impose their beliefs."

George Wesolek, director of public policy for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, was there to observe the event. He said that it was interesting that the activists should have chosen the Mission Basilica for this particular action. Wesolek said that during the trip of Blessed John Paul II to San Francisco in 1987 he had visited the Mission Basilica.

"It was the Mission Basilica where the Holy Father gave his special blessing to 62 people suffering from AIDS," said Wesolek.

In a statement, Wesolek said, "At that time many people treated AIDS patients like lepers. People thought it was something you could catch easily ... John Paul's show of compassion opened up the arms of compassion of the world."

When asked to respond to Wesolek's statement, protester Mark Riley said, "Just because one person did one nice thing many years ago, doesn't take away from the fact that they have been completely off target since then."

Mission Dolores was founded on June 29, 1776, and is the oldest Catholic Church in the archdiocese, and the oldest building in San Francisco. In addition, the mission is "the oldest original intact mission in California," according to the church's website.

The demonstrators had planned to spread the ashes of ACT UP/San Francisco member Stephen Fish on the steps of the church, but their ultimate plans were derailed. Fish, who died in 1991, had wished that his ashes be used for a political purpose. Instead, the ACT UP anniversary marchers threw the ashes over the police barriers, toward the stairs of the Mission Basilica; San Francisco's typical wind immediately dispersed them in all directions.

Marcher Amanda Ream said that she took part to honor the way that "our community fought and changed the way health care is delivered in this country."

"The legacy is that a community of really committed people can fight the government, homophobia, and the church and win."

Ream said that the anniversary march "was very powerful."

"We scattered the ashes of Stephen Fish ... on the steps of Mission Dolores," Ream wrote in an email. "Many people were in tears as a cloud of ash mixed with glitter filled the air to shouts of 'we will never be silent again. Act up.'"

The march then continued to Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro where the group gathered in a commemoration of ACT UP and the many lives lost to HIV/AIDS. There was a reading of the names of local activists who died during the epidemic in the Bay Area.



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Information in this article was accurate in April 12, 2012. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.