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The Case of the AIDS Deniers

Terence Hallinan was criticized by an old friend, Alexander Cockburn, for his handling of the case against three members of Act-Up San Francisco who crudely harassed doctors, journalists, and activists espousing the idea that the HIV virus causes AIDS and is treatable with protease inhibitors. When Alex called the office in January 2002 I put him right through to the boss. 

Cockburn began his ensuing column with faint praise, noting that "District Attorney Terence 'Kayo' Hallinan is regarded by many with some justification as a progressive fellow... Yet this is the same District Attorney Hallinan who's hit two gay men who are AIDS activists with an escalating barrage of charges, currently amounting to 36 alleged felonies and misdemeanors, all adding up to what he has stigmatized in the local press as 'terrorism.' Terrorism's a trigger word these days."

Cockburn described the case thus: "Held in San Francisco county jail since November 28 of last year are Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli. Neither man has been able to make bail, which Hallinan successfully requested to be set at $500,000 for Petrelis and $600,000 for Pasquarelli. 

"Why this astonishing bail? The two accused are dissidents notorious for raising all kinds of inconvenient, sometimes obscene hell about AIDS issues. They've long been detested by San Francisco's AIDS establishment, which Petrelis in particular has savaged as being disfigured by overhead executives, ineffective HIV prevention campaigns and all-round complacency and sloth...

"The Chronicle claimed tremulously that not only had its reporters been showered with filthy nocturnal calls to their homes but that there had been a bomb threat against the paper... On November 15 Martin Delaney of Project Inform, Mike Shriver of the Mayor's office and 15 others published a letter in the Bay Area Reporter urging people to pressure Hallinan, demanding 'full prosecution of Pasquarelli, Petrelis and their collaborators'... An official complaint of domestic terrorism was filed with the FBI by UCSF AIDS researcher Stephen Morin, former aide to Minority Whip Rep, Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca). Memos from Morin acquired by defense lawyers outline a plan to apply the domestic terrorism act to ACT UP SF as early as October 25, 2001, before it was even signed into law. Then, on November 19, 2001, there was a meeting of officials from UCSF, the Mayor's AIDS Office and the FBI to discuss ACT UP San Francisco."

Cockburn concluded, "Hallinan's got a radical past and even radical pretensions. He knows as well as anyone that conspiracy charges have long been used to smash protest. And he knows as well as anyone that militant protest is at the cutting edge of social conscience. It's easy to grandstand about the foul tactics, the obscenities, the all-round vulgarity of Pasquarelli and Petrelis, but does this add up to a demand that they get thrown in prison for many years? Of course it doesn't. Hallinan should get his sense of perspective back, and drop the drastic charges." 

The two defendants would spend 72 days in jail before getting bailed out. The case never went to trial. They pled to misdemeanors — making threatening or annoying phone calls — and were sentenced to three years’ probation and mandatory mental health counseling. 

Cockburn made light of ACT-UP San Francisco's line: "They've taken kooky positions. Pasquarelli, for example, believes that HIV doesn't cause AIDS." But the ACT-UP line would go viral, not in San Francisco but in South Africa, thanks to money made when Dennis Peron's cannabis club was shut down and ACT-UP SF launched a club (a store, really) a few blocks up Market Street. Their budtenders had come from Dennis's and knew all the growers. Soon they were making $100,000/month, which went to send denialist literature packets to government agencies worldwide. Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, took the ACT-UP line seriously; a Berkeley virologist named Duesberg had provided a veneer of science. The distribution of effective protease inhibitors in South Africa was delayed as a result.

The July 2019 Scientific American ran a letter by Dr. John P. Moore, a renowned virologist, on the subject of AIDS deniers. Moore attributes an estimated 300,000 deaths worldwide to their influence. Asked for his source, he explained in an email, “There were two articles published in the peer-reviewed literature sometime around 2005. One was from a group at Harvard Medical School and received fairly wide publicity at the time, the other was from Nicoli Nattrass of the U of Cape Town. Both were quite concordant in their estimates, which were made independently.”

 “The AIDS denialists are still around,” according to Moore. “Their damaging effects have diminished in recent years, but many of them are now active in the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement, peddling the lies that compromise vaccine uptake by a significant number of people, with adverse public health outcomes that are all too apparent.”

I asked Moore, “Was almost all the impact in South Africa? It seemed like the denialists made a lot of noise but didn’t deter people from going on the protease inhibitors when they became available in ’96.”

He replied: “it’s a highly complex and lengthy topic that can’t easily be summarized on an iPhone email from home. In the developed world the denialists did not affect national policies but did damage individuals who were persuaded to make very poor choices about their health or their children’s health. But in South Africa in the early 2000s the Mbeki administration was persuaded to take some catastrophic policy decisions on drug availability that led to those estimated 300,000 unnecessary deaths. Books on the topic include ones from Nicoli Nattrass, Seth Kalichman, Jon Kay and Michael Specter if a longer version appeals to your reading list.”

One Comment

  1. Betsy Cawn August 3, 2020

    Dear Mr. Gardner, did you by any chance write about the circumstances surrounding the shutdown of Dennis Peron’s SF operations? Bizarrely (beyond my wildest expectations, at least), Peron’s connection to Lake County — in the era you describe — still has resonance with 21st Century pot industry chiefs, and we have a socio-economic injury to the body politic (if not the human services system and its dependent clients) from AIDS refugees who escaped to Lake County from the Bay Area, but whose medical aid from the State remains in the county where they were originally diagnosed. Not to mention a rumored population segment not so much “denying” HIV/AIDS as a reality, but relying on the protease regimen to prevent them from contracting the illness and having “unprotected sex” because it is now considered “safe.”

    And the same men-tality seems to prevail here in the significantly influential population of COVID deniers — whose allegiance to apolitical perversion (“Antifa” and “federal troops” violently attacking “protesters”) is blatantly embodied by the words and deeds of our Sheriff and two elected county supervisors.

    Local citizens who simply dared to demand public information about sites of County Ag Department applications of toxic chemicals in the lake (for “nuisance weed abatement” — not a public health threat of any kind) were deemed potential “terrorists” and the location of the sites were allowed to be concealed, despite the EPA’s “Right to Know” policy [L.O.L.].

    Even now, we are hearing the rumbling in the jungle of “civil unrest” as the excuse for transporting the County’s “armored transport vehicle” (a.k.a., ex-military lightweight tank) to the sight of a “Black Lives Matter” citizen-sponsored event in one of the whitest bastions of rural redneck residencies, Middletown — the same neighborhood that Dennis’s farm was in, back then.

    The Sheriff later claimed that it was “just in case.” Uh huh.

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