The first protest, held on an unexpectedly balmy day in March, featured a karaoke machine, vodka-spiked lemonade and an inflatable hot tub on Cesar Chavez Street. The attitude was giddy, defiant.

Then Sit/Lie was placed on the ballot as Proposition L. It passed in the November elections. And today it went into effect.

The mood today is still defiant, but decidedly more damp. On Haight Street the Brass Liberation Orchestra squats over the wet sidewalk, while a protester carefully spreads out a recyclable shopping bag on the pavement before lying down and kicking his legs in the air like a downed cancan dancer. A light drizzle is falling out of the sky, and anorak-clad holiday shoppers bustle by. A few stop to take photos. Many seem to not even notice there is anyone on the sidewalk — as though the particular set of visual deflection skills developed by many San Francisco residents for avoiding eye contact with sidewalk-dwellers cannot be overridden even when confronted by a brass band in pink spandex.

In the Castro, a group huddles together on a clear plastic painters’ tarp in front of the the former location of Castro Camera, Harvey Milk’s shopfront. They take turns standing on a cardboard box with “Soap” scrawled on it in black magic marker and yelling through a bullhorn. The queer advocacy organization HRC (Human Rights Campaign) recently leased the storefront with plans to sell Harvey Milk-related tchotckes there. Most of the statements issuing from the bullhorn are in opposition to this, rather than directly related to Sit/Lie. The HRC is just the sort of politically timid organization that Milk would have hated, the megaphone says.

There is a connection, though. In 1970, a coalition that included Harvey Milk repealed San Francisco’s first Sit/Lie ordinance, passed two years earlier in response to the Summer of Love. At that time the police used it not only to target hippies, but gay men hanging around outside in the Castro. And so, as gays began to coalesce into a voting block, the law’s days proved numbered.

“Teenagers still come to San Francisco,” says the megaphone. “Queer teenagers, and trans. Without a place to stay. This law is turning them into criminals.”

In the Mission, every protest seems to be rained out. The closest thing to one is at 24th and Folsom, where a woman sits on a folding chair next to a “Sidewalks are for People” sign, talking on a cell phone. The Google map maintained by the protesters indicated there was going to be a tea party.

“You want tea?” asks the woman, looking up from her cell phone. “Hold on a minute.”

“I gotta go,” she says into her phone. She looks back up. “Sage, orange spice, Earl Grey or peppermint?”

She disappears into an open door behind her and emerges with another folding chair and a folding tea table. She unfolds the table and places a little jar of sugar with a tiny silver spoon in it, then disappears again and reemerges with two gilt-edged china cups and saucers, filled with steaming tea.

She places them on the table and looks down on the scene admiringly. “I like my pretties,” she says. The tea is delicious.

On the other side of the sandwich board holding up the “Sidewalks are for People” sign is another sign, advertising a jazz concert. It develops that the woman is named Sara Powell and the storefront behind us is the shop and performance space run by Powell, better known as the Kaleidoscope Free Speech Zone. “We have performances five nights a week,” says Powell. “Quite a few poetry readings. Films, sometimes. Dance. Workshops. Panel discussions. And then we sell music. And books. Handpicked tea from the Native Americans up in the Round Valley. It’s an eclectic collection.”

Powell’s protest is the only one that hasn’t been rained out because she has what none of the other protesters did — an awning. Does anyone make use of the awning besides Powell?

“Definitely,” she says. “There’s one older homeless man. We don’t communicate much because my Spanish is virtually nonexistent, and so is his English. A lot of people — homeless and otherwise — have used this shelter to get out of the rain.”

“Sometimes the homeless people use that phone” — here she points to a battered pay phone that is in the process of being slowly devoured by the tree behind it — “to call the hospital because they’re hungry and they want a bath. That’s probably one of the last working pay phones in the city.”

Powell settles back in her chair and watches the 24th Street traffic go by — the crowd loitering and flirting in front of Philz, the smoke shop across the street lit by neon purple, even at 3 in the afternoon. The customers going in and out of the check-cashing place across the street. Sitting in a folding chair on 24th Street is somehow all the sweeter for being recently illegal.

Was Powell at any of the earlier protests? “To be honest, I wasn’t that active before because I never in my life believed it would pass. This is one of the most progressive cities in the country. To say that you can’t sit on the sidewalk? Really?”

“I love a good protest,” Powell says, cheerfully. “Not that I would go to something just to protest. I’d have to believe in it. But even if it’s an angry RAAAARGH protest — it helps. It gets things out in the open.”

She looks up. A woman is walking toward us, a curious expression on her face.

“We’re having a tea party,” says Powell. “Would you like to join us?”

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. Nice writing and a fair report by Heather Smith.

    The rain may have dampened Saturday’s protests, but the opposition to people being criminalized for simply sitting or lying on the sidewalk is not going away!

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  2. Homeless or not, there’s something to be said for a cup of tea on a rainy day. lc

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