Playwright Lee Raines looks at the ‘justice’ system

Playwright and actor Lee Raines had prepared with other ACT UP members for months for a huge demonstration in 1989. The brutality they faced that day showed him what the justice system does on a regular basis to communities of color and other groups that often face oppression. 

“When doing civil disobedience, you go through trainings and you plan ahead,” explains Raines. “This was a big demonstration on the second anniversary of ACT UP at City Hall [in New York]. You have all kinds of meetings about where you’re going to get arrested, whether you’re going to give your information over—all these things. 

“I had been planning for months for my first arrest. The night before this demonstration, there was a big meeting which was kind of a pep rally. It was just hours after I had gotten my HIV diagnosis and that night I became obsessed with my blood. I worried, what if something happens and I bleed? Maybe I shouldn’t do this. The guy I was venting to said, ‘You know what, Lee? It doesn’t matter if you get arrested tomorrow, but eventually you’re going to have to go on living your life.’ It was this unbelievably compelling idea that was presented at this unbelievably compelling moment in my life. And so, I went through with it. 

“The arrest was more brutal and horrific than I ever imagined. Most people were getting arrested for blocking traffic near the Brooklyn Bridge. Our group went around to another side of City Hall. We hopped across a fence and walked across the lawn. Our idea was that we were going to present our demands on the steps of City Hall or as close as we could get. As we approached, there was a line of policemen with machine guns. So we sat down in a circle and shouted our demands and waved our papers, and the police came and started handcuffing us one by one around the circle. At first it seemed very professional. Then as soon as the last person was handcuffed, the police turned into monsters with horrible eyeballs bulging, red-faced, and homophobic—screaming at us, ‘You’re all gonna die. You have AIDS.’ They were throwing us into the van and saying, ‘Break their fucking backs. They’re all gonna die anyway.’ It was a mob of police shouting this kind of invective at us the whole time. They were throwing us over the fence in a way that when we landed we could break our bones. So we were scrambling to protect the people being thrown in after us because it was so dangerous. It was brutal. 

“Being inside changed my whole world view in a lot of ways. But I realized, as I came out, that being in jail was not so bad for me because of the way it was set up. I knew that I was in a relatively controlled environment. I had made the decision. There were people on the outside waiting who knew I was in there. They had separated us from the general population. The women who were arrested won a lawsuit because everybody had had a body cavity search. That arrest was very intense for everyone. What I experienced was daily life for half the people in America. It forever changed how I felt about how the U.S. is policed and about systemic racism. This realization came that as bad as it was for me, it was a sliver on a window to the experience of half the people in America,” says Raines, choking back tears.

Last year, Raines wrote the play “Blood Spill,” a dark comedy about living with HIV, as part of playwright Donja R. Love’s “Write It Out!” workshop for writers who are living with the virus (see “Briefly,” November+December 2021). Afterward, Raines was commissioned by the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to write “Unjust” (see next "Unjust"). 

“The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation has produced testimonials of people who were incarcerated under HIV criminalization,” says Raines. “It really is a fantastic way to present the information. The laws are changing because of the work done for decades by the Positive Women’s Network-USA and the Sero Project. You go to a health conference and hear a speech or you hear the testimonials, and the information is so painful. It’s hard to hear. It’s easier to sit in a seat and watch fictional people in a play. I think the fact that it’s fictional allows you some distance and allows you to take in this painful difficult subject in a different way. It can even be a way to get people to listen to a story they may otherwise not be interested in. I think the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation came up with a great way to bring people in and get them into the seat and be open to listening to these stories.”