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The Government Neglected Protests About The AIDS Epidemic For Decades. How Were Activists Finally He

A woman looks at a quilt dedicated to those who lost their battle with AIDS at in Central Park, New York City.
A woman looks at a quilt dedicated to those who lost their battle with AIDS at in Central Park, New York City.

Since the 1960s, more than 700,000 Americans have died of AIDS. It took decades of protests before the government addressed the AIDS epidemic as a public health crisis.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt was one of many demonstrations meant to draw attention to the thousands of lives lost to the global epidemic. The enormous memorial, consisting of 48,000 individual panels, was displayed at the National Mall in 1992 and 1996.

During both public quilt displays, a more radical protest was taking place mere blocks away.

The “ashes actions” of 1992 and 1996 consisted of several hundred demonstrators each. Both times, they marched to the White House — and threw the ashes of their deceased loved ones onto the White House lawn.

The demonstration was inspired in part by ACT UP activist David Robinson, who said at the time, “The quilt is moving. Still, it’s like making something beautiful out of the epidemic. And I felt like doing something like this shows there’s nothing beautiful about it.”

After decades of campaigns to raise awareness, the U.S. has modified its stance on HIV/AIDS. In 2019, the Trump administration announced plans to halt the epidemic by the year 2030. Meanwhile, the CDC has reported that HIV death rates fell by half between 2010 and 2018

Radiolab will explore the crisis through a special episode, “The Ashes on the Lawn.” We talk with Radiolab reporter Tracie Hunte and activist David Robinson about the crisis, the government response, and the difficult task of affecting change through protest.

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