It looks like something big is about to happen.
Clusters of colorful protest signs stand at the ready around a courtyard, and in the center, where you might imagine a stage would be, a collection of mismatched speakers forms a large X on the spot where rallying speeches and hype music might come from.
But these protest signs have no bearers and the speakers give out no sound. They are two of the permanent art installations that make up the AIDS Memorial Pathway, a public art memorial that extends from the courtyard at Capitol Hill Station to the northeast corner of Cal Anderson Park.
“Something has happened here,” said Tom Rasmussen, the former Seattle City Councilmember who first brought the idea for the AIDS Memorial Pathway to the council in 2016. Funded half by public funds and half by private donations, the estimated $2.8 million AMP project is finally becoming a reality.
During a walk-through at the site last month when the memorial was still unfinished, Rasmussen recalled protests and community gatherings that happened nearby in the 1980s and ’90s. Gesturing in each direction, he named each of the surrounding hospitals where he’d visited friends who were dying of AIDS at the height of the crisis.
With its four permanent artwork installations and online elements (theamp.org) featuring video testimonies and a list of the names of those lost to AIDS in Washington, the AIDS Memorial Pathway, or the AMP as it is called by those involved, holds many stories. But there are simply too many stories, and too many dead, for the pathway to capture them all.
Instead, the AMP aims to tell the common chorus that ties the stories together — the loved ones lost, the community banding together to help and protest, the clubs where they danced their troubles away, the friends who became family.
When it is dedicated June 26, the AMP will become one of only a handful of memorials honoring those lost to the AIDS epidemic and those who fought for and cared for them.
Since retiring from the City Council in 2016, Rasmussen has visited several of those memorials over the past five years. He says the shortage of memorials to a global epidemic that has killed over 34.7 million people worldwide over the last 35 years is largely due to the stigma associated with AIDS.
That’s why projects like the AMP matter, he says. The stigma of HIV and AIDS is still very much alive today, and so are HIV and AIDS.
“It’s part of the stigma and the shaming of AIDS that is visited upon people who are infected with HIV — the denial, the fact that it is often sexually transmitted or transmitted by intravenous drug users. We don’t want to talk about that, right? If we don’t — those of us who lived through it — I don’t know who will.”
Rasmussen hopes that maybe an installation of four attention-grabbing artworks permanently situated in the middle of one of Seattle’s busiest neighborhoods will be an in-your-face reminder to people about what happened here.
“Once you grab people’s attention, then you can start to tell the story,” he said.
The lesser-known stories
“AIDS is a white man’s disease,” the poster read in big white letters. Underneath, in red letters, was the warning: “Famous last words.”
In 1988, with support from Seattle-King County Department of Public Health, the People of Color Against AIDS Network (POCAAN) created the “Famous Last Words” campaign to dispel the myths and stigmas associated with the deadly virus. Posters like these were put up all over communities most at risk.
One myth was that HIV only affected white gay men.
Due to a number of intersecting factors including health care access, income inequality and discrimination, HIV continues to disproportionately affect Black and Latino populations and men who have sex with men. Among women who have contracted HIV, Black women are significantly overrepresented.
Still, the people of color who lost their lives to AIDS, and those who supported them, are often left out of histories about the AIDS crisis.
Interdisciplinary artist Storme Webber wants to make sure those stories are not lost. In her AMP exhibit, “In This Way We Loved One Another,” located in the Cathy Hillenbrand Community Room inside the Station House building, Webber centers those on the margins.
One of those stories is Aaliyah Messiah’s, the program director at POCAAN, which still provides support to people of color living with HIV today.
Working with women of color and children who had contracted HIV in the 1990s, much of Messiah’s work was battling stigmas that her clients had internalized.
Some women did not want to go to the doctor or pick up their prescriptions because they didn’t want people to find out that they were HIV-positive. Some were overwhelmed by tremendous guilt when their children contacted HIV in utero. Some were completely alone after their families disowned them due to their diagnoses.
But Messiah was there. POCAAN was there. In Seattle, many like Messiah stepped up and formed organizations to help those in need when others had abandoned them.
Yet HIV and many of the stigmas around it persist today, particularly in communities of color. Webber’s exhibit is a reminder that those fighting against it persist too.
Thirty-five years after Messiah began working with HIV-positive clients, she finds herself, every day, thinking of the women and children she knew who didn’t make it — especially the children.
“It hurts my heart because I got so close. Sometimes the parent went before the child, sometimes the child went before the parent,” she said. “Different ones come to mind at different times and I smile sometimes. Sometimes the tears drop.”
For Messiah, the AMP is a way to honor those lost, the people she calls the “fallen soldiers to the ones who are standing on their backs and surviving today.”
As Webber’s exhibit shows, people like Messiah are guides for people today, too.
“She’s part of my pathway,” said De Aunté Damper about Messiah.
Damper, whose story is captured in the AMP’s online video library, became a peer mentor with POCAAN after he was diagnosed with HIV in 2014. Five years later, he became the first LGBTQ chair in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when he took on the role with Seattle King County’s NAACP.
Damper says he wouldn’t be anywhere without mentorship from people like Messiah. The AMP, he says, is a way to honor and continue the work of those mentors.
“The day when [the AMP] opens I can’t wait to be holding the hands of leaders like Larry Gossett and [Aaliyah Messiah] and the people who participated in making this space,” said Damper. “The conversation about HIV is getting more silent, but this is a pathway to get a lot more vocal about it.”
“Music can change your life”
“The bigger the speaker, the louder the music, the better. … That’s what we were always looking for, the best sound systems,” said Rasmussen while standing in front of the nearly complete installation of artist Christopher Paul Jordan’s contribution to the AMP: a 20-foot-tall X made of large speakers.
“Also those were the kind of speakers that were used at rallies,” Rasmussen said.
“People would protest in the streets, they would go to the homes or the hospital beds of their friends, and then they might go out at night on Saturday or Sunday dancing. It was a life of incredible contrast … a very turbulent time.”
Jordan’s sculpture represents that contrast — the protests, the rallies, the clubs — and the different voices and experiences that made the history of the AIDS epidemic.
The installation is titled “andimgonnamisseverybody” after a refrain in the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony song “Tha Crossroads,” a tribute to rap artist Eazy-E who died of complications from AIDS. And in keeping with the song’s lyrics, it has already become a crossroads where the living and the dead might meet “so [they] won’t be lonely.”
But standing before the work, seeing it in place for the first time since they joined the project, some of the AMP’s organizers imagine hearing different songs coming from the speakers.
For Jeff Sakuma, health integration strategist for the city of Seattle and a steering committee member for the AMP, the song is “There But for the Grace of God Go I” by Machine, a disco song with a message, taking its name from a proverb that essentially translates to “it just as easily could have been me.”
That song, Sakuma says, reminds him of his nights dancing at the Monastery, a popular LGBTQ+ friendly dance club in the ’70s and ’80s. (LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum.)
For the AMP’s project manager Jason Plourde, it’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” by Sylvester, a song he says captures the energy of the LGBTQ+ community that, although enduring incredible loss, was also proud and united.
Rosette Royale, the AMP’s story-gathering consultant, raises his arms, lets out joyful laughter and dances a little. For him, the song is Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
“It’s just an anthem of living, like no matter what is placed before you, you’re still going to make it through,” said Royale. “Music can change your life. You hear a song and it can take you back. … This [installation] is like a time machine. It will evoke stories in people.”
And it does.
On a scorching day when Jordan himself is visiting the installation, a passerby stops when he recognizes the artist.
“Are you the artist who did this?” he asks. “Thank you!”
The passerby introduces himself as Yes Segura, founder of Smash the Box, an urban planning and design firm focused on equity and health.
Segura says he almost teared up the first time he saw the two installations in the courtyard. It makes him think of the epidemic of violence against Black trans women, he says.
Shirtless and bearing scars from top surgery, Segura says he sometimes comes to the courtyard now to tan and be unafraid to reveal those scars.
“You shouldn’t be afraid to live,” says Segura. “I come here and see these signs and know we can never forget where we come from.”
A living memorial
Rasmussen stops halfway between the construction site at the northeast corner of Cal Anderson Park where artist Horatio Hung-Yan Law’s “Ribbon of Light” artwork will be and the Capitol Hill Station courtyard where Jordan’s installation is located.
Having been immersed in this project for the past five years, the former council member wants to take a moment to remember why he’s been dedicated to this. He opens his satchel and digs out a file folder full of newspaper clippings, photos, letters and memorial programs.
Opening the May 17, 1996, edition of the Seattle Gay News, Rasmussen turns to the pages that list hundreds of names — those who died in the epidemic. He runs his hands down the columns.
“At one point I thought, ‘I’ve lost all of my friends. They’re all gone, they’re all dead,’” says Rasmussen. “It was hell in those early days. … Our friends were getting sick and dying in their 20s, in their prime of life.”
Even in meetings about the AMP, talking about the tremendous loss among others who lived through the AIDS crisis was sometimes too much. Some people even stopped coming to the meetings, Rasmussen said. “Some people just can’t go back there.”
That’s part of the reason the AMP took the form it did, rather than a listing of names carved on stone. The organizers wanted the memorial to tell the whole story — a story that includes joy and acceptance and people overcoming the fear and uncertainty of an unknown virus to help other people.
“There are stories of heroes in this and those people are still with us,” Rasmussen says.
But seeing some of those heroes, his friends, pass away in recent years, he has felt increased urgency to see the AMP finished and to ensure that his file of memorabilia finds a home somewhere safe.
It’s important to Rasmussen and the other organizers that the AMP be not only a place for memories but a living memorial as well, a place where people can draw the connection from then to now, and be inspired to take action.
“I hope it gives people courage,” he says.
So when he approaches the courtyard at Capitol Hill Station and spots a poster taped over one of the permanent protest signs in the art installation by design studio Civilization, Rasmussen is thrilled. He moves closer to read the sign.
“Queer as in Defund the Police,” it reads on one side. “Black Trans Lives Matter,” it says on the other.
“That’s absolutely wonderful,” Rasmussen says, marveling at the fresh sign. “Maybe that will become part of the experience. People will create their own protest signs and just layer them over. It’s definitely in keeping with the spirit of the memorial … to protest, to say that there’s more that needs to be done.”
“Something has happened here, something will happen here,” he says. “It’s going to come alive.”
Taking in the whole scene — the speakers at the center, the protest signs old and new, the scattering of a few people already making themselves at home on the courtyard benches — Rasmussen seems satisfied.