About 1,000 AIDS activists waving placards and chanting slogans surged at entrances to the Food and Drug Administration's Rockville headquarters and scuffled with police for nine hours yesterday, pressing demands for swifter government approval of drugs to fight the disease.
In a loud but generally nonviolent demonstration that resulted in 176 arrests, most on loitering charges, protesters from across the country pushed at police lines outside the 20-story FDA building on Fishers Lane, shouting, "Shame! Shame! Shame!" and "No more deaths!" as curious workers stared down from windows.
"I'm here because the FDA is holding up drugs that are available, and because people are dying," John Thomas, head of the AIDS Resource Center in Dallas, said through a loudspeaker as police motorcycles circled the building and crowd behind him.
"I am here today -- we are all here today -- because we all have AIDS," Thomas said. "Some of us have AIDS in our bloodstream. And some of us have AIDS in our minds. We look into the mirror and see a sore that won't go away, and we are fearful that we are going to be diagnosed.
"And we all have AIDS in our hearts," he said. "All of us have lost people we love."
The demonstrators, who gathered just after dawn and occupied about 350 Montgomery County and federal police officers throughout the day, called for swifter FDA approval of some of the more than 80 potential AIDS treatments that are now being tested.
Their protest focused attention on one of the most politically charged issues to arise from the AIDS epidemic.
The FDA contends that it is duty-bound to withhold drugs until tests prove them to be safe and effective. Critics argue that the FDA's approval process is too slow, and that patients dying of AIDS have little to lose by trying experimental medications.
"I know it takes months to test a drug in Europe . . . I want to know why it takes five to 10 years in this country," said Vito Russo, a film critic and AIDS sufferer from New York. " . . . I'm here today because I don't want my name on a quilt in front of the White House."
"There's absolutely no reason why these drugs cannot be released," said Daniel Snow of Chicago, an AIDS patient who uses a wheelchair and joined the protest organized by ACT NOW, a coalition of AIDS groups. "However they do it. We'll sign releases saying we understand there are risks. But if we don't get these drugs, we are going to die. It's as simple as that."
Helmeted police officers with riot batons, shoulder-to-shoulder with arms locked, guarded the building's doors. Many wore latex or rubber gloves to protect themselves from infection. Demonstrators blocked traffic, smashed wooden police barriers, hoisted banners on flagpoles, plastered windows with stickers and burned President Reagan in effigy.
"Arrest Frank Young!" they chanted at the officers, referring to FDA Commissioner Frank E. Young, who was attending a seminar in California.
A glass door and two windows were shattered, and organizers said six activists managed to sneak inside the building for a brief period. The only reported injury was a police officer's scraped nose.
The most tense confrontation seemed to come as the first county Ride-On bus carrying handcuffed protesters inched away from the FDA building. Demonstrators sprawled in its path on Fishers Lane, and screamed as officers dragged them aside.
"They're angry, and I guess they have a right to be," said Sgt. Harry Geehreng, a police spokesman. "They're expressing themselves. But I think overall they've cooperated with us."
He said one protester was charged with assaulting a police officer and the other 175 were charged with loitering. They were processed at the Police Academy in Rockville, then released at a Metro station, he said.
As for the conduct of police, demonstrators offered mixed reviews.
"Overall it was super," said Mark Goldstone, a Washington lawyer and ACT NOW volunteer who watched for brutality. But Michael Signorile of ACT NOW described police as "very rough." He and others complained that many officers were not wearing name plates.
"All along we've had skirmishes with the police, and they've refused to identify themselves," said William Dobbs, an attorney with an ACT NOW-affiliated group in New York.
Geehreng said officers are not required to wear name plates, but must identify themselves when asked.
Montgomery Police Chief Donald E. Brooks said officers showed "exceptional restraint" throughout the day.
The FDA had warned its 2,200 employees more than a week ago that the building might be inaccessible for much of yesterday, and an estimated 550 stayed away, a spokesman said.