For Milk's birthday, sit on a sidewalk!

The perception of the Haight is scaring away tourists and causing businesses to lose money


Sit/lie, a law that prohibits sitting or lying on a sidewalk near a storefront, has had a long and tumultuous history in San Francisco.

Forty years ago, it was used against hippies in the Haight and gay men in the Castro. Gay activist Harvey Milk came out against it after 14 gay men were arrested one night outside a gay bar. Thanks to the efforts of the ACLU and LGBT organizations, the law was struck down in 1979.

A little over a year ago, some businesses in the Haight pushed for a new sit/lie, characterizing their neighborhood as a war zone ravaged by violent, drug-crazed homeless kids sitting and lying on sidewalks. It proved a successful strategy for passing a sit/lie initiative at the polls after the Board of Supervisors rejected the measure by an 8-3 vote.

Now police in the Haight are beginning to enforce the new ordinance with warnings and citations, something that was supposed to improve things for the merchants. But the perception of the Haight as a scary and dangerous place has stuck, so tourists are staying away and businesses are losing money, according to a recent article in The Bay Citizen.

Karma is a bitch.

Berkeley businesspeople are traveling down the same path. They've convinced some City Council members that the homeless and others sitting outside their stores have caused a drop in sales. Berkeley may soon have a no-sit ordinance to accompany its no-lie law.

What's a poor activist to do? Organize, of course. This Sunday, May 22, activists on both sides of the bay are holding another "Sidewalks are for People" day (several were held last year during the campaign against SF's sit/lie), with outdoor events that assert our right to public space. It's also, not coincidentally, Harvey Milk's birthday, a state-designated holiday since 2008.

In the Castro, QUEEN (QUeers for Economy Equality Now), a coalition of queer groups and individuals who want to push economic justice to the top of the gay agenda, will stage a QUEEN-In at Harvey Milk Plaza (Castro and Market streets from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.). Participants are encouraged to bring games, picnic lunches, musical instruments, conversation, etc. Live music will be featured, and a soap box (like the one Harvey used on that same corner) provided for people inspired to give prepared or extemporaneous speeches (they don't have to be about sit/lie).

At 1 p.m., everyone will march to Harvey's old camera store, which is now being rented by Human Rights Campaign, a group that has come under fire in recent years for excluding transgender people from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and for its complete lack of open meetings and accountability to the community. May 22 is reportedly the official opening of HRC's new store at that location.

Harvey would indeed be proud that on his birthday, his legacy of resistance is being honored by activists in two cities protesting an unfair law that he fought 40 years ago. 

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a queer activist for the past 40 years, is a founder of QUEEN and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: the early years of gay liberation (City Lights).

For a complete listing of events, check out the Facebook pages "Sidewalks Are for People: Harvey Milk's Birthday!" and "Stand Up Against Sit/Lie Berkeley."