Stop the LaRouche PANIC!

Against the Current No. 4-5, September-December 1986

Peter Drucker

EVEN BEFORE THE DAY it was named, AIDS was a political as well as a medical battleground. The medical establishment’s first name for the disease was GRID: Gay Related Immune Deficiency. Gays immediately saw that the name GRID would both stigmatize gay people and encourage public indifference to the disease.

As a result of pressure from the gay community, scientists switched the name to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. But the association of the disease with gay men-who were and still are its primary victims continued. It enabled reactionaries like current Reagan aide Patrick Buchanan to make his notorious statement, ‘They have defied nature and nature is taking her revenge.”

Today an increasing percentage of people with AIDS have gotten the disease in other ways than homosexual sex: mainly through shared needles used for intravenous injections, blood transfusions (though the risk of exposure through transfusion decreases as blood screening techniques improve) and fetuses’ exposure to AIDS in their mothers before birth.

Most scientists also agree by now that AIDS can be passed by heterosexual sex, either from men to women or from women to men. But the public association of the disease with immorality (meaning sex and deviance) persists. As people come to accept that straight people can get AIDS, the phraseology has been that the disease “is spreading from the gay community to heterosexuals”–often with the subliminal message, from the guilty to the innocent.

The Right Discovers AIDS

The right, in its desire to save the traditional family and attack those who threaten or leave it, has picked up on this subliminal message. After first ignoring or down playing AIDS, rightists have begun to fan the flames of fear for their own purposes.

Among mainstream conservatives this strategy has worked mainly through significant silences-such as Reagan’s refusal to express any sympathy for those who have died of AIDS, which broke down only when Rock Hudson died–or meaningful asides. Fundamentalist rightists like those in the Moral Majority and other long-time crusaders against homosexuality have been more forthright. They have openly used AIDS as a pretext for opposing lesbian/gay civil rights and the repeal of “sodomy” laws. In the court battle over the constitutionality of Texas’ sodomy law, a group called Dallas Doctors Against AIDS tried to back up bigotry with medical evidence, while anti-gay crank Paul Cameron (expelled from the American Psychological Association) has found his audiences multiplying since the onset of the epidemic.

The boldest and most frightening exploitation of the AIDS crisis so far has now been sprung on the state of California by Lyndon LaRouche and his far-right cohorts (still widely known as the U.S. Labor Party, though their official title these days is the National Democratic Policy Committee).*

LaRouche’s latest front group is called the Prevent AIDS Now Initiative Campaign: PANIC. It has succeeded in putting a statewide ballot initiative, Proposition 64, on the November 1986 California ballot: a measure that combines drastic, authoritarian proposals with disturbing popular appeal.

The LaRouche Initiative Prop. 64 is vaguely and plausibly worded. If it actually passed it would be a bonanza for lawyers, who would spend months or years in the courts fighting over its interpretation. (Given LaRouche’s past fondness for lawsuits, he would undoubtedly start the court battles going if no one else did.)

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund have worked hard at exploring its implications, however, and have come up with an interpretation generally accepted among the initiative’s opponents,

The initiative would require reporting any one with AIDS, anyone known to carry the AIDS virus (HLTV-3) and anyone suspected of carrying the virus to health authorities. “Suspected” is a key word.

The only existing test detects only the presence of antibodies to the virus; leaving aside the test’s (statistically small) inaccuracy rate, someone can have antibodies without carrying the virus, and vice versa.

Furthermore, only 10 to 30 percent (by current estimates) of those who do carry the virus will ever get AIDS. Given the in­ adequacy of legitimate medical grounds for “suspecting” people, fearful and prejudiced people might get away with reporting anyone they think might be gay, or promiscuous, or a drug user-or just reporting anyone they don’t like.

Prop. 64’s clearest consequence would be to overturn California’s current confidentiality law, which prohibits divulging antibody test results. The confidentiality law was passed only recently; the insurance industry has been determined to roll back this victory since day one, and fighting to block passage of similar laws in other states.

Without confidentiality, many people at risk for AIDS are too afraid to seek out medical care and are likely to be denied coverage for treatment costs if they do come down with it. Lack of confidentiality also cripples research efforts.

In short, LaRouche’s reporting requirement changes AIDS from an issue of people’s right to health care, government funding for research and public education about medicine and sex (natural issues for the left) to an issue of finding and controlling the guilty (the natural issue for the right).

The initiative would bar “suspected” AIDS carriers from jobs as food handlers (cooks, waiters, flight attendants and possibly bartenders). It would also exclude suspected carriers–students, teachers, janitors, drivers–from schools. Since an estimated 150,000 or more Californians have been exposed to the AIDS virus, the initiative would require discrimination on a sweeping scale. It would deal a crushing blow to efforts to protect people with AIDS from discrimination, which have resulted in several local anti-discrimination ordinances in California.

It also forcefully reminds Californians of the 1978 Briggs initiative, which would have fired all lesbian/gay teachers in California–except that La Rouche goes much further.

The most extreme and frightening consequence of the LaRouche initiative would be possible travel restrictions, isolation and internment for suspected carriers. The PANIC people themselves say that the initiative would only authorize state health department officials to take such measures, not require them. But many people find the idea of putting such powers in the hands of state bureaucrats unnerving.

Federal officials have estimated that by 1991 (without any new medical advances) 200,000 people will have gotten AIDS, and over 100,000 of them will be dead. One can easily imagine a climate of widespread panic and intense pressure on state officials by then. In a state that put all of its Japanese-American citizens into concentration camps barely forty years ago, one cannot rely on bureaucrats’ regard for either rational argument or democratic freedoms.

Medical Nonsense

We have already seen that the initiative would hinder people seeking health care or taking part in research. The medical advantages of firing or quarantining people, on the other hand, are nil.

Scientists are sure that the virus can only be passed through blood, semen or excrement. If it does not get back into the bloodstream almost immediately, it dies.

Therefore people who do not have sex or exchange blood products with a carrier cannot be exposed. Even out of hundreds of health workers who have accidentally been stuck with infected needles, almost none have tested antibody-positive.

Isolating carriers achieves nothing. The California Medical Association has already said that Prop. 64 is without medical justification. In August a state judge ruled that PANIC’s arguments–that the case against casual contagion is not completely established, that AIDS is “easy to get” and that transmission by insects is possible–cannot even appear in the state’s voter information pamphlet.

The public has not heard or does not believe this news, however.

A New York Times poll in December 1985 showed that 29 percent of Americans believed AIDS is casually contagious. Fifty-one percent favored quarantine; 48 percent favored mandatory ID cards for people testing antibody-positive; 45 percent favored AIDS screening tests for job applicants; 42 percent favored closing gay bars; and 15 percent favored tattooing people with AIDS.

A more recent Los Angeles Times poll showed an even bigger majority for quarantine among Californians than among other Americans. A staggering amount of education still needs to be done.

Three Tactics

When California’s lesbian/gay movement took on the Briggs initiative in 1978, four groups with different and competing strategies emerged to conduct the fight. People hoped to avoid that kind of infighting this year. They have succeeded to a certain extent: differences among LaRouche’s opponents are so far more muted.

But three different groups have been formed to fight the initiative, and at least that many tactics have been put forward. The statewide No on 64 campaign is intended strictly as a media effort; California is, after all, the original state for media politics. LaRouche has large sums of money to spend on this campaign, and is using it to buy TV and radio time; opponents understandably want to counter him with a media blitz of their own. No on 64’s statewide director, Dave Mixner, has a reputation for raising large sums of money (he worked earlier as director of the Great Peace March and campaign manager for Los Angeles mayor and gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley).

The left has traditionally considered the kind of education achieved in 30-second TV spots superficial and temporary, and is undoubtedly right; but some superficial and temporary education could help defeat the initiative. Of course the left does not have the kind of money required for this kind of politics. Practical thinking as well as long-term strategy suit us better for grassroots organizing.

That grassroots organizing is also beginning to happen. The Community AIDS Network (CAN), originally a lobbying group fighting against right-wing proposals on AIDS in the state legislature, has refocused itself entirely on stopping LaRouche. San Francisco CAN has gone into the streets to leaflet, register voters and get the anti-LaRouche message directly to the electorate. Similar groups have started up under a variety of names in every county in California.

The consensus among these local groups is that educating Californians about AIDS and getting support for health care and human rights go together naturally with defeating Prop. 64.

But that consensus breaks down, at least within the San Francisco group, on other points. San Francisco CAN stretches from Concerned Republicans for Individual Rights to revolutionary Marxists, but it is dominated by the city’s three lesbian/gay Democratic Clubs.

CAN has relied on local Democratic neoconservative/neoliberal politicians, such as Mayor Dianne Feinstein and State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, to project its public image. Meanwhile the core of activists for the group has been overwhelmingly white and lesbian/gay. It has been slow to draw in leaders or rank-and-file supporters of the labor movement, oppressed peoples’ movements or the feminist movement-although CAN made a modest start in August by securing the California Labor Federation’s support and featuring progressive local labor leaders at a rally.

At the same time a history of infighting between the local Democratic Clubs has helped produce a top-down structure with a closed steering committee, in which rank and file volunteers sometimes feel frustrated at the difficulty of sending in information or getting input.

A third approach, apparently limited so far to San Francisco, has been to link the LaRouche initiative to another reactionary proposal on the November ballot, an initiative to declare English the only official language of California.

Organizers of the (as yet nameless) group formed on this idea hope to unite lesbian/gay people with California’s large Asian, Chicano and Latino populations in support of this joint effort. But they are starting with a group consisting largely of committed leftists.

Other leftists fear the group will shrink rather than expand their potential base with their approach, and are sticking with the broader coalition.


Most Democratic and Republican politicians in California have already come out against Prop. 64. (Republican Governor George Deukmejian has not-a disturbing sign from a man rumored to be a presidential or vice-presidential hopeful.) People expect the initiative to lose badly.

Against that expectation we have to consider the public’s level of ignorance and prejudice (as shown in the polls), LaRouche’s large bankroll and well-oiled machine, and the initiative’s plausible wording and presentation. There are no grounds for complacency.

There are also longer-range issues even if Prop. 64 loses. LaRouche is using it to build his organization, and unless he is massively discredited he may well win some new recruits. This would be a setback in itself for progressives,

Moreover, Prop. 64 should be seen as a stalking horse for another initiative, from somewhat less marginal right-wingers, in the near future.

As the AIDS death toll mounts, the climate for such proposals improves. We should watch carefully what works now in the fight against Prop. 64 and what does not, so as to prepare ourselves to fight more effectively in the future.

*It is beyond the scope of this article to give LaRouche’s political history in detail. Despite his group’s origins on the 1960s sectarian left, it is arguably fascist today. Although it champions some orthodox conservative causes (such as nuclear power), it has a strong populist, anti-establishment appeal (directed against institutions like the Trilateral Commission); it resorts constantly to antisemitism (thinly disguised as anti-Zionism) and other kinds of bigotry to build its own base; it uses violent and disruptive methods whenever they are convenient; and it obviously revolves around a charismatic, authoritarian leader. Viewed together with the rapid growth of the National Front in France, LaRouche’s rise to public attention is disturbing and suggests the need for greater attention to the far right by the left, in this country and internationally.

September-December 1986, ATC 4-5

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