AIDS demonstrators have always been provocative during the two-decade epidemic: interrupting important speeches, chaining themselves to furniture, placing a 35-foot balloon-like replica of a condom on a U.S. senator's roof.
But even some old-time activists say two prominent San Francisco protesters and their supporters have gone too far.
On Wednesday, San Francisco law enforcement officials agreed. Police arrested Michael Petrelis and ACT UP San Francisco spokesman David Pasquarelli on charges of criminal conspiracy, stalking and making terrorist threats against newspaper reporters and public health officials.
The pair, who are allies, are accused of calling reporters and health officials at home repeatedly past midnight, making threats and leaving obscene sexual messages. Together, they are charged with 27 felonies and misdemeanors.
Both men have acknowledged making or encouraging late-night calls, sometimes using foul language, but have denied making threats. They cite the need for a "new phase of activism" to combat what they call false public health studies and biased news articles that have scared the gay community and discouraged gay sex.
"I did not make any death threats. I did not make any bomb threats," Petrelis said. "Was I using abusive language? Well, yeah."
The men were held in lieu of $500,000 bail.
Petrelis has acknowledged publicizing the home phone numbers of top officials at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. And, on posters and the ACT UP San Francisco Web site, Pasquarelli's group has superimposed swastikas and other Nazi insignia on a picture of a top San Francisco public health official, Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, calling for his ouster.
"There's a level of activism and provocation that's appropriate at times," said Steve Gibson, an AIDS prevention worker in San Francisco and former ACT UP activist in St. Louis. "The recent events cross that line."
Gibson, who was arrested in the early 1990s for disrupting a speech by then-President George Bush, has received phone calls from both activists at his home accusing his organization of misusing federal money.
"The goal when I was an activist was to get the federal government to respond to a crisis among gay men that the government had been ignoring," said Gibson, of STOP AIDS, a nonprofit group. "The goal was never to prevent the conversation from taking place."
Funds Are Being Misspent, Group Says
ACT UP San Francisco, a breakaway group not affiliated with the national ACT UP, believes AIDS is caused by the side effects of HIV treatment, rather than the human immunodeficiency virus itself.
Petrelis, who is not a member of ACT UP San Francisco, disagrees with those views but shares the group's belief that federal AIDS funds are being misspent on frightening, sexually graphic prevention efforts.
Pasquarelli said, "These people's phone numbers and their work numbers and their fax numbers are being circulated as enemies of gay people."
Recipients of phone calls said they are scared.
"We're watching you," said one voicemail message saved by Jeff Sheehy, a press officer for the AIDS Research Institute at UC San Francisco. "Your name is on the list of enemies of the homosexual community. We're out here on the streets and we're going to make sure that you don't open your mouth again to demonize us."
"I don't know what to do," Sheehy said. "I'm afraid to go to work."
Chronicle staff members obtained a restraining order against the two activists earlier this month. Separate orders were served Wednesday covering Klausner, director of STD prevention and control in San Francisco; Eileen Shields, spokeswoman for the health department, and Michael Shriver, the mayor's AIDS advisor.
At the Chronicle, callers threatened five reporters and editors in telephone calls to their homes in the middle of the night, according to court documents. Several of those people have unlisted phone numbers, and the callers sometimes mentioned the names of spouses and children, the documents say.
"When people are threatened at home in the middle of the night, their families are threatened, that extends far beyond a reasonable response" to a story, said Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein.
CDC officials, who also have received late-night calls, said the tactic serves no useful purpose.
"I don't know what this is about other than diverting people's attention from important preventive work," said Dr. Ronald O. Valdiserri, a top CDC official.
The wave of phone calls and restraining orders began after San Francisco launched a syphilis awareness campaign last month, citing a significant increase in the number of cases among gay and bisexual men.
Klausner immediately began receiving threatening phone calls at home. Callers asked his wife and his nanny if they have syphilis, according to court papers. After four days of calls at the end of October, Klausner changed his home and work telephone numbers, his e-mail address and fax numbers.
"They're anarchists. They're criminals. They're not logical people," Klausner said. "Unfortunately, they're powerful because the Internet has amplified their ability to communicate around the world."
Klausner said he has long drawn criticism from Petrelis and Pasquarelli, but the tone has changed in the past four weeks. "They've been turning it from somewhat of a professional attack on someone's positions or scientific work to a personal attack on someone's family."
Criticism of Klausner intensified after the publication of this month's issue of Washington Monthly magazine, which quotes him discussing the possibility of quarantining AIDS patients who refuse to practice safe sex and have infected 20 or more people.
"Gay people are scared and terrorized by the health department in San Francisco, and they want that stopped," Pasquarelli said in an interview Tuesday. "I believe sounding the alarms and holding public officials accountable are definitely within the rights of Americans here. The gay community has been under a microscope by health officials for almost two decades now and the level of hysteria is out of control."
Known for Provocative Tactics
ACT UP San Francisco members have resorted to provocative tactics in the past and have clashed repeatedly with federally funded AIDS prevention groups. A year ago, a jury convicted Todd Swindell and Pasquarelli of disturbing the peace for spraying Silly String and throwing paper at the city's public health director, Dr. Mitchell Katz, in August 2000.
Swindell, Pasquarelli and three other members of ACT UP San Francisco were ordered by a judge to stay at least 100 feet away from 24 employees of the AIDS service group Project Inform. That three-year restraining order arose from an incident in April 2000 in which ACT UP members allegedly threw pellet-like objects at Project Inform's founding director and yelled obscenities at him.
ACT UP stands for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. It began in the late 1980s in New York City as a way to get more research and treatment funds to combat AIDS. ACT UP San Francisco broke away from the national group in 1990, and Pasquarelli took over several years later.
In 1996, an ACT UP San Francisco member dumped kitty litter and feces over the head of San Francisco AIDS Foundation Executive Director Pat Christen. That triggered a three-year restraining order involving the foundation's employees and offices.