Credit Suisse donates to ACT UP, a direct-action activism group that has, in the past, targeted Wall Street

By LOUIS FLORES

An activist group, which made a name for itself using militant, direct-action tactics, sometimes directed at Wall Street, has accepted a conditional donation from a Wall Street bank, Progress Queens has learned. Conditions under which the donation would be made were negotiated at least four months ago, according to information obtained by Progress Queens. Now, both the activist group and the Wall Street bank are trying to keep quiet any mention of the irony of the situation.

In the time leading up to the marking of the thirtieth anniversary of the activist group, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, the group raised approximately $10,000 from a benefit. According to information obtained by Progress Queens, the source of $5,000 of that amount was Credit Suisse, the global investment bank and private wealth management corporation. A condition made by Credit Suisse on the activism group, known by its acronym of ACT UP, for having received the $5,000 donation was that the donation must be shared with a nonprofit group, the Treatment Action Group, or TAG. TAG was formed after it splintered off from ACT UP in 1992, according to TAG's history. The two groups use different tactics and follow different strategies to achieve overlapping goals of ending the AIDS pandemic.

Over the years, ACT UP has frequently positioned itself against Wall Street, and, in the years since the eclipse of Occupy Wall Street, ACT UP has publicly remained steadfast in its support for a tax on Wall Street transactions to fund the universal delivery of healthcare. The proposed tax is strongly opposed by the financial industry, which has deployed operatives to sway public opinion against the tax.

The Silence = Death poster displayed a powerful slogan that served as a call to action for individuals to join ACT UP. When it is most effective, ACT UP draws on the emotions of its activist members to achieve major public health policy wins or to pull off successful direct-actions on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS. Source : Silence = Death Project/ACT UP/Fair Use

The Silence = Death poster displayed a powerful slogan that served as a call to action for individuals to join ACT UP. When it is most effective, ACT UP draws on the emotions of its activist members to achieve major public health policy wins or to pull off successful direct-actions on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS. Source : Silence = Death Project/ACT UP/Fair Use

Except for one member of ACT UP, several members of the activist group contacted by Progress Queens declined to answer questions for this report. TAG did not answer a request for an interview for this report. Officials with the Corporate Communications department of Credit Suisse likewise did not answer questions for this report.

The one response received from an ACT UP member was from Jim Eigo, who stated that his response was being made personally and not on behalf of the activist group. "In general, I am in favor of the redistribution of wealth in our society from those who have the most to those who have the least. I imagine Credit Suisse has a lot ; I know firsthand that ACT UP has almost nothing. In general, I am in favor of this redistribution whether it comes about as the result of taxation, or the result of donation -– provided there are no onerous conditions placed upon the entity being donated to," Mr. Eigo stated in an e-mail to Progress Queens, adding that, "In this particular case, I believe the donation involved the LGBT employees of Credit Suisse. Some of these employees helped staff ACT UP’s birthday event. So this particular donation involved an act of community outreach as well as a useful redistribution of wealth."

Because the publisher of Progress Queens was previously employed by Credit Suisse, it is known that some executives at Credit Suisse will sometimes strongly encourage employees to make bundled donations to special causes for the specific purpose of generating positive public relations or to support the causes that are important to some Credit Suisse executives. At the same time, Credit Suisse regulates the making of some donations by employees, including campaign contributions, which might generate controversy for the bank. Because the bank declined to comment for this report, there is no way to confirm the legal source of the donations. At times, the bank has used a foundation as the source of some its charitable donations. According to information obtained by Progress Queens, one of the conditions imposed for the making of the donation was that the legal recipient of the donation would need to qualify for a specific type of nonprofit treatment, known by its the section in the Internal Revenue Code, or 501(c)(4). According to information obtained by Progress Queens, ACT UP is treated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. According to TAG's most recent annual report, that group is also treated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

The condition of ACT UP's finances are not publicly known. According to some information obtained by Progress Queens, a significant portion of the group's finances were once reliant upon the sale of merchandise, such as T-shirts and buttons bearing the group's logos and slogans. That kind of fundraising depended on a dedicated group of volunteers to set up tables to sell gear at street festivals and pride events. Such sales tables also afforded the group the opportunity to do critical community outreach and education. It is not known if the group has altered its mix of income generation away from such self-reliant fundraising measures.

Whatever dissent existed within ACT UP to receiving a donation with conditions made by a Wall Street bank is not known. Because the donation was accepted, dissent, if there was any, was insufficient to stop the donation. It is not known what motivated the donation to be made by Credit Suisse. It is also not known why some members of ACT UP referred to the donation as coming from a Wall Street bank and not from some of the bank's employees, as indicated by Mr. Eigo. Generally, whenever an activist or advocacy group, like ACT UP, interacts with an affinity group of individuals, references are made to that affinity group, not to the affinity group's members' employers, especially if the affinity group's members are employed by current or past targets or opponents of the larger activist group. Except for Mr. Eigo's e-mail, no other information obtained by Progress Queens referred to the donation as coming from employees of Credit Suisse. If the donation was made by employees by Credit Suisse, as indicated by Mr. Eigo, it is also not known why a specific tax treatment was a prerequisite of Credit Suisse employees, if they were the source of the donation.

An activist group that has come to be regarded as storied and effective by a new generation of activists, ACT UP has many achievements under its belt made possible by the use of daring, direct-action tactics. "In the past, Act-Up members halted trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, delayed for two hours the opening of an international AIDS conference in Montreal, and bolted and chained themselves to the offices of pharmaceutical companies," according to a 1990 report published by The New York Times. Because of its effectiveness in bringing about legislation ; altering the research, development, and approval of prescription medication ; and challenging Government officials into action, ACT UP's successes have improved the lives of those on whose behalf the group has advocated. Because of its track record and because of its apparent autonomy, members of ACT UP have arguably made New York a vanguard for activist-driven reform and accountability in Government. Members of ACT Up have, therefore, come to be relied upon by New York City's wider activist community to spearhead principled but difficult actions, such as protesting outside a fundraiser by 2016 Democratic Party primary candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton by demanding a Wall Street transaction tax in order to fund a universal healthcare system as an important underpinning to a plan to end AIDS. Recently, ACT UP helped to anchor planning that went into forming an anti-Trump group, Rise & Resist. Few advocacy groups in New York are capable of undertaking such demonstrations and roles, because few groups, if any, appear to remain autonomous from political operatives or big money donors with unprincipled political agendas. If activists know ACT UP to be one of the few remaining autonomous advocacy groups, so do Big Business interests, which would love to see a stalwart group, like ACT UP, finally lose that independence. Given what is at stake, core members of ACT UP appear not to be mindful about the implications of having accepted the $5,000 donation from Credit Suisse.

Because Mr. Eigo's narrow rationale for accepting the donation framed the Credit Suisse's motivation as benevolent, it was reminiscent to one astute political observer with whom Progress Queens spoke of how Mati Weiderpass and Ian Reisner mishandled the fallout when the former couple decided in 2015 to host a dinner for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who was then described as a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination. The dinner party triggered a political backlash against the gay men in the LGBTQ community, particularly after it was revealed that one of the gay hosts was a campaign contributor of U.S. Sen. Cruz, despite past anti-marriage equality statements made by U.S. Sen. Cruz. 

Usually, whenever a current or past target of an activist group's actions seek something from an activist group, the activist group will seek a concession from their target. Although it is known that Credit Suisse imposed conditions on ACT UP in order to make the donation, it is not known what, if any, concessions ACT UP was able to win from Credit Suisse in order to accept the donation. For example, it is not known if Credit Suisse will now support the tax on Wall Street transactions that ACT UP has been demanding in exchange for the positive public relations Credit Suisse will undoubtedly enjoy by having supported the work of ACT UP.

The irony in ACT UP's acceptance of the donation from Credit Suisse in also indicative of other recent contradictions within the group. When St. Vincent's Hospital was closing, ACT UP did not fight to save the hospital, even though St. Vincent's was the site of comprehensive AIDS healthcare services and a pioneer, if initially reluctant, in the field. Under the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City), a Chelsea public health clinic and a former Lower East Side AIDS hospice were closed. Yet, during a march to mark ACT UP's 30th anniversary, supporters assembled in a park that was once site of the physical plant for St. Vincent's Hospital, and the mayor's community affairs unit was tweeting in support of the very group which was on the losing end of healthcare service cuts.

Nationally, advocacy groups have also exhibited contradictions, like when Housing Works Inc., an advocacy group for people living with HIV/AIDS, said it never supported a California ballot initiative that proposed to regulate drug prices. The ballot initiative was supported by other advocates, who hoped the legislation would lower the prices of medication, including AIDS-related medication, that were being inflated by pharmaceutical companies. Some grassroots activists have privately complained to Progress Queens that the role of donations from pharmaceutical companies to big-budget advocacy groups may create conflicts of interest that may explain some contradictions, such as these. Other grassroots activists have also privately questioned how New York could be losing HIV/AIDS services, even as big-budget advocacy groups keep watch. If one were to extend the average of recent annual budgets of Housing Works over ten years, for example, that one nonprofit agency would have the power to leverage an aggregate revenue stream in excess of $500 million over that time. It doesn't make sense to some LGBT and HIV/AIDS activists why ACT UP would need to accept a conflicting and conditional $5,000 donation from a Wall Street bank when other advocacy groups within the very same community have access to extreme amounts of resources.

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