Terence Hallinan was criticized by an old friend, Alexander Cockburn, for his prosecution of three members of Act-Up San Francisco who crudely harrased 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 abut 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 know 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.”
In my SFDA ACT-UP SF folder is a letter from Drs. Donald Abrams and Paul Volberding to doctors treating AIDS patients in the Bay Area
Dear Community Consortium Colleague,
As many of you know and have experienced, the local group calling itself ACT UP San Francisco has long been engaged in a campaign of disruption and denial. You have probably heard how they have disrupted educational forums whether presented by community groups or by your peers In the medical community. You’ve heard of how they have repeatedly disrupted meetings of the Public Health Department and how they poured urine and feces-laden cat litter in the hair and face of Pat Christen of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. And more recently , you’ve probably had to spend time with some of your patients who have been caught up in their “AIDS is over, the drugs are poison” polemics.
After a period of relative quiet brought on by the AIDS Foundation’s restraining order against them, they recently renewed their disruptive tactics at a meeting sponsored by Survive Aids and Project Inform where Steven Deeks was the lead speaker. This event resulted in the injury of a woman on the staff of Project Inform. Project Inform responded quickly and has already secured a temporary restraining order , while the DA’s office has filed battery and trespassing charges against them.
You may have heard through the local community papers that they are currently taking in roughly one and a half million dollars per year from the sale of medical marijuana. It seems strange indeed for them to sell medical marijuana to help with the disease they claim does not exist.
We are writing for two reasons. One is to provide you with the attached set of materials you might find helpful in dealing with patients who question whether HIV causes AIDS or whether the treatments are “poisons.” you are free to copy and distribute these however you wish.
Secondly, we are writing to make a suggestion as to what you can do about this situation, other than show your support for people and groups who are attacked. You have complete discretion over whom you wish to refer patients seeking medical marijuana. While ACT UP SF is indeed one such source, there are several others in the city, none of whom use their sales to foment denial and violence against and among your patience.
In March 2001 the DA’s office prosecuted the three men who disrupted the Project Inform / Survive AIDS meeting (which focused on how to best use protease inhibitors). Pasquarelli was one of the three men charged. He was found guilty of riot and disturbing the peace and given a one-year sentence. He appealed and was out on bail when he took part in the actions with Petrelis that led to the arrest in November with bail set at $600,000. As Reg Smith of the DA’s office told the LA Times, “They have been jailed before. They’ve been released. They’ve been admonished not to do anything. And they’ve done it again.”