As Wall Streeters were returning to their offices from lunch today in downtown Manhattan, a pony-tailed man in a flannel coat climbed atop the big, shiny statue of a bull that has long symbolized the city’s legendary free-market clout. He draped the animal in a black banner that demanded “Healthcare for all” and bore the logo of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

Health care 4 all!
Roughly 1,000 fellow protesters, many carrying signs of their own, cheered him on as a shower of fake dollars proclaiming “Fuck Your Profiteering” fell around them in the crisp March sun.

Soon, more onlookers joined the antics, some tipping the bull’s brass horns with condoms, others encircling the beast in body bags to represent the 50 Americans who die each day because they lack health insurance. “Health care is in crisis. It’s more expensive and you get less than you used to,” said Dwight Thompson, who is HIV positive and works at New York’s Housing Works. “I’m here for all the people with no access to care—especially the people with compromised immune systems.”
A Stock Exchange surge

Today’s march for universal health care was organized by ACT UP to commemorate the group’s 20th anniversary. “ACT UP was begun by people with no options fighting to get treatment,” said a marcher named Mark Hannay, a member of ACT UP and Director of the Metro New York Health Care for All Campaign. “Now we need to make sure they can get access to that treatment. It’s a problem that is shared by all Americans.” Hannay believes the country’s growing health care crisis will dominate debates in the upcoming Presidential election and hopes ACT UP can influence the direction of that discussion and help put issues important to people with HIV on the table.

Kate Shindle (left)
Former Miss America Kate Shindle made AIDS her platform when she won the pageant in 1998, despite the fact that she identifies as a conservative. “People of all types of backgrounds need to speak up about this issue,” she said at today’s march. “There is no reason the right shouldn’t support universal health care as long as there are still people dying.”

Shindle shared the sidewalks of downtown Manhattan with marchers of all ages, including lots of college kids and ACT UP founder Larry Kramer, 71, who spoke earlier in the month at an anniversary confab at New York’s LGBT Center.

The procession, flanked by metal dividers and police, stopped occasionally for a speech from veteran ACT UPers and activists from other organizations like Housing Works and Physicians for a National Health Program. “Terry,” 24, told POZ she became interested in ACT UP after hearing about the anniversary and watching some documentaries. “Health care is really important. And when you look into it, the numbers are so compelling,” she said, a body bag in her hands. Indeed, among today’s signs were these: “Shame: 47 million uninsured in Americans” and “SUSTIVA cost per year: $5993-U.S. $217-generic.”  
Trinity Church

Along the route today was Trinity Church, where ACT UP had held one of its rowdier actions two decades prior. Speeches recalled that past and how ACT UP had since helped secure rights for American patients of all kinds. Founding member Eric Sawyer, who had been at Trinity Church 20 years ago, teared up as he spoke about the activists who had died of AIDS. “It’s hardest remembering those who couldn’t make it at times like this,” he  
Eric Sawyer
says. “But we’ve accomplished so much, and it’s exciting to see us moving forward.”

A similar birthday event took place in San Francisco, where ACT UP members blanketed a block in the Castro with their bodies in a die-in demanding universal coverage. In New York, about 25 activists, including POZ founder Sean Strub and two doctors wearing lab coats lay down in the streets, chanting, “Pills cost pennies. Greed costs lives” and “Shame. Shame. Shame” and “No more bull. Health care for all.” After several minutes, the police
About 25 were arrested
scooped them up, cuffed them and led them into waiting paddy wagons. Onlookers jeered, with one shouting, “Arrest Pfizer, not doctors!” The last of the paper money had settled to the ground by the time the vehicles pulled away and the crowd dispersed. The day was over, but ACT UP’s fight for universal health care had just begun.

Photographs by Mark Leydorf