World AIDS Day is Friday, but the City of Jacksonville is dedicating the whole week to awareness, beginning Monday with the unfurling of parts of the AIDS Memorial quilt.
The quilt, considered one the largest pieces of folk art in U.S. history, is made up of squares containing the names of the disease’s victims.
The Lee High School Choir opened the quilt ceremony with a rendition of Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror. And after a couple more heartfelt songs and a few speakers, Mayor Lenny Curry officially proclaimed December 1st World AIDS Day in Jacksonville.
“Our hearts go out to those affected and we offer them and their loved ones our support, but we cannot stop here. We must do all we can as a community to help educate and inform the public on ways to prevent the spread of HIV,” he said.
During the height of the crisis more than 30 years ago it was unthinkable for most city governments and political leaders to address the disease as openly as today.
Mark Milano is a New York City activist who first joined the protest group ACT UP shortly after being diagnosed with AIDS in 1982. His brother Phillip is the communications director for Jacksonville University.
“ACT UP was a very loud, angry group saying ‘we are sick and tired of this issue being ignored. We are sick and tired of business as usual,” Mark Milano said. “We are going to go and put our bodies on the line and demand that you speed up the research and that you do the things that you would be doing if this wasn’t a disease affecting gays and junkies and poor people.”
As of 2016, 675,000 people in the U.S. had died of AIDS since the epidemic began in the early 1980s. But for many today, like the 6,000 currently living with HIV/AIDS in Duval County, it’s no longer a death sentence.
Still, Milano said although public attitudes, treatment and stigma have dramatically improved, he doesn’t feel as though AIDS is prioritized like it should be.
“It’s shocking that 30 years later, I still have to go to D.C. and put my body on the line to protest the same things I was protesting 30 years ago, but I will keep doing it until the day I die,” he said.
Duval County has the third-highest HIV infection rate in the country.
Pieces of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, featuring the names of North Florida and Georgia victims of the disease, are on display in the Jacksonville City Hall atrium.