AIDS Advocacy Group ACT UP Joins Cultural Boycott of Israel

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In a show of solidarity with Palestine, ACT UP activists transformed the grassroots organization’s iconic pink triangle into a watermelon slice. (artwork by and courtesy Shawn Escarciga)

On January 23, 1991, members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) staged a series of demonstrations across New York City in a historic Day of Desperation protesting United States involvement in the Persian Gulf War. Unfurling massive banners in Manhattan’s Grand Central Station and interrupting news broadcasts with chants of “Money for AIDS, Not War,” the activists demanded that the government turn its attention away from invading Iraq and instead focus its resources on addressing the catastrophic AIDS crisis that, at the time, was reaching its peak since the first US cases were reported a decade earlier.

Yesterday, on the 33rd anniversary of this history-making anti-war protest, the grassroots organization known for its artistic interventions in public spaces marked another milestone with its endorsement of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Signing on to a petition by Queers for Liberation, a pro-Palestine advocacy group, ACT UP is demanding a permanent and immediate Israeli ceasefire in Gaza in a renewed call to “fund healthcare, not warfare.”

“We recognize that genocide is a public health issue, that Palestine is under medical apartheid, and that we have a duty to act now,” ACT UP organizer and artist Ariel Friedlander told Hyperallergic. Emphasizing the “duty to take a stand against pinkwashing,” referring to Israel’s alleged promotion of LGBTQ+ rights to divert attention away from human rights violations, Friedlander denounced the barrage of airstrikes and siege on Gaza that have killed more than 25,000 Palestinians since Hamas’s October 7 assault, in which an estimated 846 Israeli civilians were killed.

“Gaza has zero fully-functioning hospitals due to Israel’s assault on all of their 36 hospitals. We are seeing infectious disease outbreaks and a 300% increase in miscarriages alongside mass starvation and homelessness,” Friedlander said, indicating that there are similarities between the American government’s neglect of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its disregard for Palestinian lives as Israel remains the largest recipient of US foreign military funding

Notably, the House of Representatives is considering slashing funding to global and domestic HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs by over $1 billion in the 2024 fiscal year.

Emphasizing solidarity with Palestine, ACT UP has also unveiled a new version of its signature Gran Fury artwork, reinventing the SILENCE = DEATH neon pink triangle to adopt the appearance of a watermelon slice. The redesigned symbol, exhibited on World AIDS Day in December, was created by Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist Shawn Escarciga, who told Hyperallergic that the goal of the protest sign was to combine two iconic symbols of resistance and liberation in a way that highlights the shared struggles of marginalized communities worldwide.

“SILENCE = DEATH imagery pissed people off when it was created, but it was effective and now an iconic symbol of how world governments failed us throughout the ongoing AIDS crisis,” Escarciga told Hyperallergic

“Our governments are failing us all again with the abetting of a live-streamed genocide,” the artist continued. “This image brings together the watermelon, a symbol of Palestinian liberation, with the inverted pink triangle, a reappropriation of the vile imagery used by the Nazis, to reclaim and remind LGBTQ people that our struggles are intertwined, always.”

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