SAN FRANCISCO -- The first demonstrator arrested at the opening ceremony here of the Sixth International AIDS Conference this week has been blind since birth.
His name is Rodney Shaw, he has AIDS, and his colleagues from ACTUP, the activist group that has become a central focus here, sent him over the fence at the Moscone Center without even a cane to guide him.
Reporters learned this because during the protest, in which 80 people were arrested, an official of the organization, with a cellular phone slung over his cream-colored polo shirt, told them.
"Does anybody need any facts about the first four arrested?" shouted Kevin Farrell, who had been assigned to "handle" The Washington Post and the New York Times, among other "major media" outlets, as he circulated among reporters like a guest at a cocktail party. "Does everyone have the spellings straight?"
Nobody expected this AIDS conference, played out in the gay capital of the United States, to be a somber medical meeting. The mood feels like something between a riot and a carnival. But ACTUP's daily staged demonstrations have a surreal quality that belies their importance. That odd quality was evident from the week's first march, which was to oppose immigration restrictions on people infected with the AIDS virus, restrictions that virtually all serious medical groups have branded as senseless.
ACTUP's march began at the headquarters of the Sharper Image, the ultra-yuppie gadget house on Market Street. Activists with green hair and banners seeking "Facts on Fluids" and proclaiming "Queers Have No Fears" lined up politely at the brazed copper counter of the outdoor espresso stand. Coffee blended from "beans of six countries" sold out first.
ACTUP has changed considerably since it started as a radical group that did everything in its power to stop government researchers and drug companies from taking what they viewed as a business-as-usual approach to the AIDS epidemic.
ACTUP began in New York City in 1987. From a small band of angry AIDS patients, the organization has grown into a nationwide political network with several thousand members and chapters in most major cities. Among the group's leaders are respected experts on AIDS who testify at congressional hearings.
Probably no group has so strongly influenced the federal government's decisions about early release of experimental drugs. One of their members, Peter Staley, was a scheduled speaker at the opening of the conference even as his fellow members were being carted off to jail outside. And leading government AIDS researchers read the group's frequent manifestoes with interest and admiration.
But civil disobedience with fax machines, cellular technology and 24-hour video recording of members' television appearances sometimes struck observers as a little hokey.
"This is a way for us to build a spin that puts a focus on the real issues we are trying to talk about," spokesman Ray Pommer said Thursday, shortly after several of his colleagues were arrested for trespassing on government property.
Perhaps it shouldn't detract from the power of the protesters' commitment, but while Pommer's forces were storming City Hall on Thursday, two ACTUP public relations men were standing out front with police captains explaining what was going on.
"They'll be in there for five or 10 minutes, no more," one PR man said to an agreeable lieutenant. "If you don't make a fuss, they won't either."
Despite the staged quality of the protests, the issues on the street often seemed more pressing than what was going on inside the conference. Many scientists say they are frustrated by the distractions, the need for police protection and the mood of open antagonism.
"It's nice to see your friends and colleagues," said Donald Abrams, deputy director of the AIDS unit at San Francisco General Hospital and a conference organizer. "But you do have to wonder how much this is helping the cause."
Yesterday, hundreds of protesters blew whistles and tied up traffic for more than an hour in front of the Marriott Hotel, which is the conference headquarters.
At the demonstration, organized by New York's Gay Men's Health Crisis, speakers urged guests to boycott room service because the Marriott Corp. has not opposed the Chapman amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Jim Chapman (D-Tex.), would permit discrimination against people with HIV infection who handle food on their jobs.
No case of HIV infection has ever been found to have been transmitted by food handling, and public health experts oppose any law that plays on those fears.
"These are really serious issues," one prominent gay activist said. "I hope they don't get buried under all the festivities."