For many years, social activists and academics have pontificated on the role that anger plays in the pursuit of social justice. Is it possible that until injustice leads to an escalation of anger, the status quo will be maintained? Do we really have to get angry to be in a position to make a difference? And once we are fired up and ready to make a difference, is it the people with the most anger who can make the greatest impact?
There are no absolute answers to these questions. However, it is clear that anger has its place in the process of social change.
In honor of World AIDS Day, marked on December 1 each year, I wanted to share some words from an activist who was energized by his anger and was able to make a difference. Often, activists hide their anger for fear that it may negatively affect the outcomes they are trying desperately to achieve. But sometimes, anger cannot be hidden – and perhaps it shouldn’t be.
Charles “Chuck” Selber, a Jewish man from Shreveport, Louisiana, didn’t keep his anger inside. He wrote a play, countless letters, and newspaper articles as he repeatedly tried to explain—never defend—the anger that he embodied as an AIDS activist in the 1980s. Chuck was one of three individuals who founded ACT-UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power). In a letter Chuck wrote to his dad in 1990, he stated “ACT-UP has succeeded because of people who are angry and because of people who get mad.”
In the 1980s there was no shortage of reasons for someone living with HIV/AIDS to be angry. Chuck’s mom, Flo Selber, explained to me that in all of Shreveport, there was only one pharmacy that sold AZT (then the only “cocktail” for treating HIV/AIDS). Dentists would not take patients with AIDS. Their ophthalmologist would only see Chuck after office hours, when other patients wouldn’t know about it. Regarding medicine, Chuck wrote “We won’t allow toxic poisons into our community. We don’t want gangs or drug pushers or neo-Nazis in Shreveport. Why don’t we want life-saving medicine?”