Activist Paul Coleman Remembers AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Early Years

Paul Coleman in 2010

Paul Coleman in 2010

In the 1980s, in cities across the United States, indifferent politicians were confronted by unflinching men and women who demanded an emergency response to the mounting deaths caused by the devastating AIDS epidemic. In Los Angeles, Paul Coleman was one of those hard-charging activists.

During the research for Righteous Rebels: AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Crusade to Change the World, I met with Coleman at a diner on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, California. He was fit, white-haired, charming, and in his early sixties — and he still burned with passion and outrage as we talked about the early times of the AIDS crisis and the genesis of AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

“After five years of grief and everyone dying, here comes [Lyndon] LaRouche saying that we’re going to put you in concentration camps,” said Coleman, referring to LaRouche’s 1986 ballot measure that would have created quarantines in California for people living with AIDS. “It was like, what the fuck? That’s not going to happen.”

That draconian initiative brought together a group of determined friends who helped defeat the LaRouche campaign; who then formed the Los Angeles AIDS Hospice Committee; who then established the AIDS Hospice Foundation. That organization turned into AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the world’s largest HIV/AIDS medical-care provider that now operates in 37 countries.

The friends who started it all included AHF co-founders Michael Weinstein and Chris Brownlie, Coleman, Albert Ruiz, Mary Adair, Phill Wilson, Sharon Raphael, and Mina Meyer.

“We were like a tsunami washing over you,” Coleman said about his work with Weinstein, another feisty activist. “Together, we were formidable, to say the least.”

First, Coleman, Weinstein, Brownlie, and their friends took the fight to LaRoche and his statewide initiative known as Proposition 64. Their bold activism included creating a small, but gritty organization called Stop the AIDS Quarantine Committee, which organized a highly publicized “torchlight” march to LaRouche’s L.A. campaign office.

The activists’ brashness unnerved the politically cautious establishment of L.A.’s gay rights movement —  they believed Coleman, Weinstein, and the others were too militant.

“It’s always the same old thing,” Coleman told me. “‘Don’t yell too loud, you’re going to upset people, and don’t push too hard.’ That’s what the establishment says to every movement that comes along. ‘You’re going to alienate people and you’re going to make them react.’ Whether it’s a black movement, gay movement, Latino movement, or whatever movement.”

For the torchlight protest, the activists attracted nearly 5,000 people, who marched in the streets to LaRouche’s headquarters and thrusted 150 burning tiki torches into the black, evening sky.

“We did that intentionally,” said Coleman. “Was it threatening? It was, and we meant it to be threatening.”

Quarantine committee members also handed out 65,000 flyers that denounced Proposition 64 and urged people to vote against the measure.

By November 1986, Proposition 64, which initially had strong support from Californians, was defeated in a landslide. Stop the AIDS Quarantine Committee played an invaluable role in shooting down the initiative.

Next, the activists had to confront Los Angeles County government — a huge, powerful entity that handled the greater L.A. area’s public health programs.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors had done next to nothing to help gay men suffering from AIDS. Coleman, Weinstein, and friends, who believed AIDS was a serious public health issue, formed the Los Angeles AIDS Hospice Committee. It sought a much-needed hospice facility for terminally ill people with AIDS. But the politicians needed to be shoved into action.

AHF protest in LA - photo by AHF

In early 1987, the hospice committee came up with a brilliant idea — they would use the language and methods of government against itself.

The committee organized a public hearing at which a “blue-ribbon panel” of AIDS activists and their allies heard detailed testimony from other AIDS activists about the failures of L.A. County government to substantively address the AIDS epidemic.

“It was an important event because for the first time it got all the Los Angeles AIDS people together in a single place,” said Coleman. “There were all the heavy hitters — this was the A-team. It was like telling the county, ‘We’re coming for you.'”

After a full day of testimony, which was widely covered by the L.A. media, Sharon Raphael and Coleman wrote a report about what people said, and what the politicians needed to do. One demand was to build an AIDS hospice.

The hearing and subsequent report, which was distributed to reporters and embarrassed the supervisors, was followed by numerous marches, speeches, and events. By December 1987, the politicians agreed to hand over $2 million for hospice care across the county.

By that time, the L.A. AIDS Hospice Committee had become the AIDS Hospice Foundation, which opened, in 1988, the  Chris Brownlie Hospice down the street from Dodger Stadium. Between 1988 and 1996, some 1,200 people died there. (Brownlie died from AIDS in 1989.)

AIDS Hospice Foundation, which was led by Michael Weinstein, had now changed its mission from pure advocacy to medical care and advocacy. With the new shift, Coleman amicably left the organization.  “I wasn’t good with institutions,” he told me with a laugh. Nearly 30 years later, though, Coleman returned to AHF as a consultant for disaster preparedness.

Before our conversation ended,  Coleman reflected on the early years of AHF and its legacy.

“I’ve been a radical my whole life,” he said, “but I can’t think of darker days in my life than my thirties. I thought I would probably never live to see forty, and that all my friends were going to die from AIDS, and the government couldn’t care less while people were dying. It couldn’t be much darker than that. ”

Coleman continued. “To respond to that and LaRouche, and respond with the militancy and passion, and say, ‘No! We’re going to take care of our own!’ That will shine as an example in history. And to take that and turn it into a worldwide organization that has helped so many patients — that is a great legacy.”

Read more about Paul Coleman and AHF in “Righteous Rebels: AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Crusade to Change the World.”  Now available as an e-book and paperback.

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