INTERVIEW DAVID PASQUARELLI AIDS Activist and Political Prisoner

By Mark Gabrish Conlan

Zenger's Newsmagazine April 2002

San Francisco alternative AIDS activists David Pasquarelli and Michael Petrelis were arrested on November 28, 2001 and charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism. They were held on a combined $1.1 million bail for nothing more than an alleged series of phone calls to the homes and offices of local government officials and reporters. In this exclusive interview, Pasquarelli offers his view of life in jail and the danger people with AIDS and HIV face from quarantine programs like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's Model State Emergency Health Powers Act (available at ).

It all started on October 30, 2001 with a press release from David Pasquarelli and Todd Swindell of ACT UP San Francisco. The release attacked Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, head of the sexually-transmitted disease prevention unit of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. It claimed Dr. Klausner was distorting statistics of syphilis cases among the city's Gay and Bisexual men in an effort to create the false impression that a syphilis epidemic was sweeping San Francisco's Gay community. It called for a "phone zap" against Dr. Klausner and published not only his office phone number but his home number as well.

ACT UP San Francisco soon broadened its campaign to include other city health officials and reporters for the local media, particularly the San Francisco Chronicle and the Queer-oriented Bay Area Reporter, whom the group felt were being too uncritical of Dr. Klausner's statistics and reporting his allegedly scientifically shaky conclusions as hard fact.

The San Francisco establishment struck back against ACT UP San Francisco not only in civil court where various AIDS service organizations and treatment providers had been getting stay-away injunctions against ACT UP members for over two years but through the criminal justice system as well. On November 28, as they were leaving a civil court hearing, Pasquarelli and Michael Petrelis an alternative AIDS activist who doesn't belong to ACT UP San Francisco but works with them on some issues were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism.

Pasquarelli and Petrelis were held on bail of $500,000 each and subjected to a barrage of adverse publicity. San Francisco district attorney Terrence Hallinan (ironically, the son of a legendary progressive attorney who had long attacked the conspiracy laws Hallinan Jr. was now using against the two activists) publicly claimed that the two had called bomb threats into the Chronicle offices and thrown bricks through reporters' windows. Officials from the AIDS treatment unit at the University of California at San Francisco claimed to have been the victims of additional harassment from Pasquarelli and got his bail increased to $600,000. They also unsuccessfully lobbied the FBI to have him prosecuted as a terrorist under the newly passed PATRIOT Act.

ACT UP San Francisco has long earned the enmity of establishment AIDS organizations both in the city and nationwide. The group was always one of the most radical ones in the loosely knit ACT UP network, and once Pasquarelli and fellow activist Michael Bellefountaine arrived in San Francisco from Tampa, Florida in the early 1990's it moved even farther away from the AIDS mainstream. The group embraces the dissident views of scientists like Peter Duesberg, Kary Mullis, David Rasnick, Charles Thomas and others who believe AIDS cannot possibly be an infectious disease caused by the so-called Human Immunodeficiency Virus [HIV].

Working with other dissident organizations like the Los Angeles-based Alive and Well and the international network H.E.A.L. [Health, Education, AIDS Liaison], ACT UP San Francisco uses the confrontational direct-action tactics of the original ACT UP but for a very different issue agenda. Instead of seeking faster approval for HIV medications, ACT UP San Francisco argues that the existing drugs are killing people and doing them little or no good. Instead of urging people to take the HIV antibody test, the group denounces the test as too unspecific and too prone to false-positives to be a viable marker for anything. And instead of seeking more government and private money for AIDS, it argues that the AIDS establishment is already too bloated with money and needs to be defunded.

Pasquarelli and Petrelis spent 72 days in jail before their long-delayed preliminary hearing finally concluded in early February. The judge in that hearing, Perker Meeks, Jr., agreed to allow the charges against them to come to trial but reduced their bail to $120,000 for Pasquarelli and $100,000 for Petrelis. Pasquarelli gave the following interview, which will appear in the April 2002 issue of Zenger's Newsmagazine, two weeks after his release the soonest he felt up to the strain after the debilitating effects of 2 1/2 months in jail on his health. In the interview, he talked about life in jail and the threats he sees on the horizon to the civil liberties of HIV-positive people and Queer men in general specifically from the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act being sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control [CDC], whose opponents describe it as doing to personal freedom for health care what the PATRIOT Act is doing to Americans' civil liberties.

Zenger's: What was the issue with Jeffrey Klausner, and what made you target him specifically in your original press release?

David Pasquarelli: Regarding the issue of Jeffrey Klausner and the Gay community, there's been long-standing controversy over his presiding over the STD control unit here in San Francisco, and what the purpose of the STD control unit is, the methods that they use to inform the community about sexually-transmitted diseases, and really whether the methods that they use are meant to inform us and respect us, or really are a mechanism to terrorize the Gay community and just bring more funding in to the STD control unit, which he oversees.

The issue with Jeffrey Klausner over the years is that we've seen, time and time again, that we do not have public meeting to inform the Gay community of any rises or falls in STD's before that department goes to the media. It's always the same alarmist scare stories that aren't backed up by scientific data, reported directly to the media and then broadcast all over the country indeed, all over the world. The problem with that is there's no respect for Gay men. We don't have public meetings first to determine what we need to do. We're just browbeaten by the media, and I think it's very harmful to Gay men.

Zenger's: How would you define an STD prevention program that would respect the rights of Gay men? What would it do differently?

Pasquarelli: First of all, we would look at exactly what causes a sexually-transmitted disease in a person. We're always so focused on bacteria and viruses, some of which are very real, others of which like HIV, I believe are totally fabricated. We need to have grass-roots community involvement at all levels. Before any of these alarmist stories go out to the media, the statistics upon which they're based need to be independently verified, because the conflict of interest is running so deep in these government agencies that I don't really think we can trust their data.

The syphilis scare that was promoted for the past two years proves that. The STD department literally put full-page ads with ticking time bombs in our community newspaper, and when it was all sorted out at the end there was one extra syphilis case. That's just routine. They keep scaring us, and they don't have the science to back it up.

The other thing is public meetings. I don't know why we're not having the public meetings that need to be had where all ideas can be debated and dialogue can occur. Instead, this government agency is just pushing this propaganda down our throats at every turn. The Gay community needs to be involved and a Gay community that is not thoroughly compromised by the pharmaceutical industry. We need activists. We need health-care people. We need Gay men that can objectively look at these things and say, "This is what we need to do for our community's health and safety." And that's not happening.

Zenger's: One of the broader political accusations made against ACT UP San Francisco has been that it's essentially because of your actions that public meetings are not occurring: that these folks don't want to go to the Gay community and hold meetings for fear that you would disrupt them. How would you answer that?

Pasquarelli: I can give you an example. Jeffrey Klausner had a public meeting a couple of years ago, after we were making a lot of noise about the syphilis scare. For some reason, this "public meeting" that they decided to hold about science was held in the Fillmore, far away from where most Gay people live. It attracted about a dozen people, total, and over half of those people were members of ACT UP San Francisco. It wasn't put in the newspapers and promoted as a way to get input from the community. There'd be maybe one small quarter-page ad in the Gay community newspaper that no one would ever read because they're so poorly designed. And no one showed up.

I really don't think there's a commitment on behalf of the Department of Public Health to get the rank-and-file Gays and Lesbians to meetings where we can have open, honest dialogue. And if they're now saying, "Well, the reason is because ACT UP San Francisco's too scary," or, "We don't want to come out because ACT UP San Francisco is crazy, because they don't believe that HIV causes AIDS," it's not our fault. They're projecting that onto us.

Why are these people, in positions of power, so prone to censor a viewpoint they don't like? They have an obligation to the public to hold meetings that inform us, especially before putting anti-Gay or homophobic newspaper stories throughout the United States. Because it's bad enough here, but the ramifications in rural America are even worse. And that's where the harassment, the homophobia, the violence, the Gay-bashings occur, because this perception that Gay men are harboring and spreading disease is coming out of San Francisco.

And all that we're looking at is viruses and bacteria. We're not looking at the environmental factors that are compromising Gay men's immune systems. Instead we're just stigmatizing them, demonizing them. And they don't have the statistics to back it up. Then you get into the whole realm of HIV, which I think is one of the most anti-Gay propaganda campaigns ever. As Gay men, we're constantly on the losing end of this propaganda war.

Zenger's: If the HIV/AIDS model is a propaganda weapon aimed at the Gay community, why is there such near-total Gay community support for it?

Pasquarelli: I would argue there are three reasons. One is the financial corruption. AIDS organizations, and virtually all Gay organizations at this point, are so tainted by federal government or pharmaceutical money, that they must unequivocally support the HIV/AIDS model and treat it as beyond discussion or debate. Our leadership is weak. In fact, I would argue that we have virtually no political clout as a Gay community locally, in the state, or nationally. We have a bunch of sell-outs in office, and those people aren't out to protect our interests as Gay men and Lesbians. They're out to further the interests of the corporate agenda, especially when it comes to pharmaceuticals.

The second reason why the Gay community will not relinquish this is that they've been brainwashed. We've all been brainwashed. Whether you're Gay or straight, for 20 years in the United States of America we have read in countless millions of newspaper articles, "AIDS, caused by the virus HIV. HIV causes AIDS. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. End of story." When you're bombarded with that for so long, you don't even think to begin to question it. I think that's how it's been for a lot of Gay people.

Third and last, I'm sorry to say, is that the AIDS model, the HIV model, really fits in to the victimization we have all been subjected to as Gay men and Lesbians. Since we've been born we've been told that we need to be ashamed. We've been told that we need to be lonely, and that we're sick, depraved individuals and if we don't change our ways, we're going to die a terrible, lonely death because of our "sin." That's just been transferred onto the HIV/AIDS model.

It's only now that some people are beginning to get out from under it and say, "If we're ever going to have self-esteem, if we're ever going to have sexual freedom, then we're going to have to relinquish this HIV/AIDS lie." And I think it's incumbent upon all young homosexuals to do that: to reject it and resist it. Because ultimately I think it's going to lead to our community's annihilation. I mean, 400,000 people are already dead, and now they're talking about quarantine. And that really scares me.

Zenger's: How serious do you think the risk of a quarantine of HIV-positives really is?

Pasquarelli: I think, in this day and age, right now with the cultural climate that we're in, we are one smallpox case away from implementing quarantine nationally. The Model State Emergency Health Powers Act is working its way through states everywhere. And we're not hearing a peep about it. Except for Zenger's and one article in the Chronicle, we're really having a media blackout, and the Gay and AIDS organizations aren't talking about it at all.

And this idea that ACT UP is crazy for bringing it up: well, I'm sure there was a time in Nazi Germany when the townspeople in the small towns outside of Auschwitz and Treblinka were saying the same thing. And then guess what? Isolation camps popped up, concentration camps popped up, and then before you know it, 6 to 10 million people are dead.

The history is clear on how these things unfold. You have propaganda campaigns demonizing people as "unfit" and "dangerous to the public health," and before you know it, they take action, especially when the economy's bad and there's a trauma to a country where people feel a fervent nationalism that they need to rally around. All the signs are looking very ominous right now.

Lyndon LaRouche was pushing this kind of notion 20 years ago, and people were screaming against it. Basically, his plan has been implemented 20 years later. We have mandatory names reporting. We have contact tracing. The only piece of the puzzle that's left to be put in place is isolation camps, and the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act allows that completely. That's why I believe that the bill needs to be killed, because it's dangerous for all of us.

Zenger's: Any idea why you personally were singled out for arrest in this case; and any idea why you've been put into this odd-couple linkage with Michael Petrelis, who is not an AIDS dissident, believes in the HIV/AIDS model and takes the AIDS drugs himself?

Pasquarelli: I think I should answer the last part of that question first. The odd linkage between Michael Petrelis and me is the very real fact that we attend the same meetings frequently. We're both AIDS activists, although we come from a different philosophical and political perspective. But the corruption throughout the AIDS industry and the amount of money needlessly being squandered is a concern that unites us.

The issue of being singled out, you know: ACT UP San Francisco has been very high-profile. We have not shied away from the controversial issues, be it opening the bathhouses; be it taking on the AIDS industry, including researchers like Margaret Fischl and Paul Volberding over the AZT fiasco; or the issue of the statistics and the HIV antibody test with our local Health Department.

What the people in power are seeing is that we're having an effect. There's a new generation of young Queers that is rejecting the HIV/AIDS hypothesis, doesn't want HIV antibody testing, doesn't feel the need to be pressured into suicide with these drugs. And it's costing them money.

The bottom line is it comes down to the money. Millions of dollars are going be lost. We're already seeing the Ryan White CARE Act flat-funded. We're not going to get the kinds of millions of dollars pouring into this city that we have in the past. Because it's all based on a lie, and it's reaching up to the highest levels of government, like [Congressmember] Nancy Pelosi [D-San Francisco]. She's spent her career creating these formulations that bring AIDS dollars to our city, based on the numbers of people who have died long ago. That's being readjusted as it rightly should be.

The members of the political infrastructure of this city are not tolerating losing that funding. They are going on a witchhunt, and they are persecuting people. I believe that Michael Petrelis and I are just the first two, and that everyone needs to be concerned. The message is clear from what happened to us: if you speak out, and if you speak out loudly, we're going to shut you up for a long time. And I think that 72 days in jail is a very long time.

Zenger's: Would you say, then, that you consider yourself a political prisoner?

Pasquarelli: I did, yes. For 72 days I was a political prisoner. Michael Petrelis was, too. It's cruel.

Zenger's: Could you tell me a little about your actual experiences in jail for 72 days? How did you manage to hold up for that long?

Pasquarelli: The whole ordeal really began at the [November 28] civil hearing, where we were ambushed by an inspector and police officers, and were arrested right there in front of all the media. Of course, the case was then broadcast, reported in the most sensationalistic manner in the Chronicle's pages, accusing us of being stalkers and issuing bomb threats, and all this craziness that I would argue was completely fabricated.

The time in jail was extremely difficult. My health suffered severely. I think the Sheriff's Department does a good job of keeping people safe in jail, but the stress of being put into a housing area with 100 other men, all of different backgrounds and none of whom want to be there, creates a stress and a compromising of the health that is undeniable. Michael Petrelis experienced it. I experienced it, and I'm still experiencing it.

There's really not much help from the medical system in jail, especially if you're HIV-positive and you buck the system. If you don't want to have your [blood] counts done, or don't want to take the AIDS drugs, you have to be very careful because you're under the watchful eye of the system, and the system wants to get medicines into you and take your blood for blood tests. For an AIDS dissident to be in jail and have to stand up repeatedly to medical people and say, "I don't want those pills, I don't want to be injected with that," it takes a lot of fortitude, especially when you're not getting the nutrition you need. Jail is not a place for anybody who's immune-compromised. It's not a place for anybody who's healthy to try to keep their well-being up, but for people that have had immune problems in the past, it's devastating.

There are a lot of problems in the jail. I think some of the conditions in the housing areas are admirable, and the Sheriff's Department should be applauded. But when you get out of the housing areas and you're being transported around and put in holding pens, things of that sort, the conditions are simply inhumane. They would have so many men crowded into a holding pen that had no running water, and you would be there for hours. They would open the door and just toss bags of food in, and people would eat them like they were animals. There are some real problems with the San Francisco County Jail that need to be fixed. And if you're immune-compromised, it's 100 times worse.

Zenger's: Can you tell me about the reports I've heard that you were actually being awakened in the middle of the night and served with additional court papers while you were in jail?

Pasquarelli: Yes. For the first two weeks we were in jail, people came in and pulled us out of bed in the middle of the night on numerous occasions and served papers that should in fact have been served to our lawyers. These were mostly papers that pertained to UCSF's complaints against us. Michael Petrelis, at one point, was pulled out of a shower and had to stand there and sign for the papers without any clothes on. It really alarmed our attorneys, who put a stop to it really quickly. But that was the kind of methodology that was being used to intimidate us even while we were in custody. I think it's tragic that that was allowed to happen.

I was frightened. I'm not going to lie about it. They have everything under control when it comes to your freedom, and you have no say. You can't complain about it. You just have to be awakened three times in a night to be served papers, pulled out of the shower. And that's what happened to us.

The setting of the bail was punitive. It was ludicrous. To give two prominent AIDS activists who have a history in the community, who aren't going to flee, that aren't a danger, that have no violent criminal convictions, a $1.1 million combined bail is out of control. The only way that that happened was due to rumors and allegations, including the alleged bomb threat and the brick supposedly thrown through a reporter's window, that were misrepresented to the court as "facts."

Zenger's: When you were in jail, how much access did you have to outside news, both about your case and in general about the issues that concern you?

Pasquarelli: I had very little. The deputies would get newspapers, and then they would throw them away, and inmates would pick them out of the trash, and then they'd sort of float around and people would read them. ACT UP folks sent me press clippings that I was able to look at, so I kept pretty well aware of what was going on with our case but we did not, for instance, have the Chronicle or the Examiner every day to read.

Everybody had a story. Their stories were fascinating, and we shared information. There was a real camaraderie in jail. I don't want to deny that. I didn't ever feel that my safety was in jeopardy. The deputies did a really good job. The inmates were really supportive of each other, and really helpful to share information and pass the time. For that I was grateful. But it was kind of shocking to walk into jail and see these high-profile people that you've been reading about in the paper for so long, some of whom have been in custody for up to two years.

Zenger's: How did the other prisoners react to you and your stories?

Pasquarelli: Well, they wanted to know what was going on. With the September 11 calamity, people were kind of on edge about the issue of terrorism, and to be labeled a terrorist in jail was not a comfortable feeling. There's a rule in jail that you don't really push people to talk about their case. You give people a lot of space. You don't invade their privacy. And people were really respectful of that. But it's really hard not to talk about it when the San Francisco Bay Guardian is sitting there with both of our pictures on it that says, "Are these guys terrorists?"

So we'd engage in discussion, and once they heard the story they would just be appalled that we could be in for this outrageous bail. They would offer up their own stories about people that they knew who had raped and beaten women and their children, and were in with $1,500 bail, and then got out two days later.

It was startling to me to see the targeting of African-American and Latino communities by the police; and the kind of gang laws that are being used to persecute African-American and Latino men, and make them really wards of the state. They stay in jail for so long, then they get out with these crazy probation contingencies, and finally they wind up in jail again because they simply had "police contact" through no fault of their own. A police officer approached them; that's considered "police contact," a violation of their probation, and they're back in jail again.

The prison population overall is about 70 percent Black and Latino, I would say. There are very few white people overall, and you know that's not reflective of the general population. There's just something wrong when you look at the San Francisco County Jail inmate population, and it is so highly African-American and Latino. These communities are deliberately being targeted.

It's just not right. It's a crime in and of itself, and the whole incarceration system needs to be reworked. We can no longer as a society deny that it is racist, what's going on. Communities are being crushed. Their spirits are being crushed by taking their men away and throwing them in jail, taking their women away and throwing them in jail, at a rate that's unprecedented.

The kinds of propaganda that continually demonize Blacks and Latinos as gang members and as threats to public safety are very similar to the propaganda campaigns against Gay men. The only difference is that African-Americans and Latinos are being accused of spreading crime and, in the case of Latinos, being "illegal immigrants" just by being here where the anti-Gay propaganda accuses us of spreading disease. It really seems like the forces that be have set up wonderful propaganda channels to point the finger at certain groups and put them away.

Zenger's: When, and in what context, did you first hear about William Dobbs's open letter [demanding a reduction in the bail amounts on the basis that the prosecution of Pasquarelli and Petrelis was an attack on all activism], and what did you think of it?

Pasquarelli: The first I heard of it was when I was in jail. Somebody said that there was an open letter of support, and then read me the initial 30 names. I think it included Harvey Fierstein, and I was really encouraged that people were saying, "We see this as a civil-rights problem. Regardless of what we think of ACT UP or the ideas of the AIDS dissidents, we're going to come together and say, 'We feel like activism is in jeopardy.'"

I really feel it bridged the gap between the dissidents and the mainstream people. They may hate each other in terms of their politics, but they came together. When you can have a list with [dissident professor] Charles Geshekter on the same list as Ann Northrop of ACT UP, finally we've identified the common ground that we can start working from, and maybe start debating or dialoguing these issues.

I'm forever grateful to Bill Dobbs. I think it was a marvelous way to re-energize Gay politics, and I think it circumvented the established or official Gay leadership, which is dismal, and said, "We as a community have power. By uniting ourselves on a letter, or coming out in a protest, we have power individually through uniting our rank-and-file support." We haven't seen that for a long time in the Gay community.

Zenger's: Is it true that at present you are not allowed inside the ACT UP San Francisco space?

Pasquarelli: Yes, that is true. The way it materialized is a restraining order was put in place against me from all UCSF locations and their affiliates, one of which happens to be the AIDS Health Project, which is about a block and a half away from the ACT UP San Francisco workspace. For some reason, these restraining orders told us to keep 150 yards from any of their locations, instead of the usual 25 to 50 years. So it encompassed the space, or the distance within which the ACT UP San Francisco space is located. So I can't get near it.

Zenger's: That in itself seems rather bizarre maybe a minor issue compared with everything else you've gone through, but still it seems an extraordinary abuse of civil court to keep someone out of their place of business.

Pasquarelli: You want to hear a better one? The court instructed that I am not allowed to attend any governmental public meetings in San Francisco, period. They couldn't figure out if the restraining orders would apply to HPPC [HIV Prevention Planning Council], or Ryan White, or into the Board of Supervisors. So I just have a blanket prohibition that I'm not allowed to go to any public meetings in the city of San Francisco which I will completely abide by, because I don't want to disrespect the court and that's the court's decision. But I think there's some real Constitutional issues with that as a citizen.

Zenger's: It reminds me of the way the apartheid government of South Africa used simply to declare people "banned."

Pasquarelli: Yes, I think I'm "banned" now. We joke about it at ACT UP now, but in a way it's O.K. I don't want to sound like I'm letting them win, but I think in a lot of ways we've done our job. We've alerted the public to what is going on.

There is a whole new generation of AIDS dissidents that are coming on: young people who aren't buying it. Those are the people we're trying to affect, because there's a whole previous generation of Gay men that are just lost. They're under the spell. They're brainwashed. They're going to commit slow suicide. They've got this Judy Garland syndrome where they've got to swoon in order to get attention.

We're beyond that. We're sick of it. There's a group of Gay men that says, "We're sick of the stereotypes. We're sick of the stigmatization. And we're sick of AIDS." And I think, if our actions in the past have prompted a new generation to stand up and say, "No more!," that's a good thing.