FROM a distance it might be any tree on any city street.
But a soldier is guarding this tree outside the residence of the late Giovanni Falcone, despite a light morning rain. He watches as a lone visitor stops to read the notes tacked to the trunk.
``Dear Falcone,'' reads one water-stained message. ``You were very courageous, you had many projects to combat the Mafia, you are always in our hearts. Barbara.''
Mr. Falcone was a Sicilian judge murdered by Cosa Nostra last year - the investigating magistrate who went deeper than anyone had ever gone into understanding the Mafia mentality, winning the respect and cooperation of Mafia penitents.
The May 23, 1992, assassination was a watershed, coming after a decade of mob murders of local politicians and law enforcement agents. In Falcone, and the three members of his escort who died with him, Cosa Nostra chose the wrong objective. He was too respected, too loved.
Palermo, weary of all the violence, has changed in the succeeding 18 months.
``You see it in the way people react,'' says Giuseppe Costanza, Falcone's driver, whose forehead bears a scar from the highway explosion that killed his illustrious passenger. ``We've become masters of our city and of our lives.''
At the judge's funeral, the young widow of one of Falcone's guards made a poignant, televised appeal. She said she forgave the mafiosi for their crime, but begged them to repent. Then she added tearfully, ``you won't, you won't.''
The appeal was a powerful contribution to a larger movement that helped nurture a new civic awareness.
One group, the Committee of the Sheets, began modestly at that time in an apartment building in the historic center.
Marta Cimino, a sociologist in a center for drug addicts, remembers she and some fellow residents felt they had to do something. In talking it over, they decided they all had bedsheets they could make into banners, scrawling anti-Mafia slogans across them.
``Palermo asks for justice,'' Ms. Cimino wrote on the sheet she hung outside a window May 26, 1992. ``I was nervous,'' she recalls. ``It's not easy.''
But shortly, two girls in the street saw the sheet and put up their own: ``Together we can make it.''
The protest was born. It spread by word of mouth, and soon other sheets began fluttering from structures around the city. The committee, which even included people who had never participated in politics before, agreed to put out a sheet every month on the 23rd. Then on July 19, 1992, Paolo Borsellino, another respected Sicilian anti-Mafia magistrate, was killed by a car bomb. Since then, the committee has protested each month from the 19th to the 23rd.
Demonstrations by the Committee of the Sheets, Roman Catholics, small businessmen, pacifists, environmentalists, women's groups, and others brought a collective opening up.
``Before there was omerta,'' explains a mustachioed young worker at the city's naval shipyard, referring to the Mafia's code of silence. ``Now, no. There used to be fear. Now you can say the word `Mafia.' ''
The Committee of the Sheets has developed a nine-point educational program to help people change their habits and combat the Mafia. Among the points:
* Learn to demand that a citizen's rights be respected, not begged for as favors; to consider public property and services as their own and demand that these not be neglected.
* Teach children to respect law and the democratic process, to abhor violence, and to express solidarity with the less fortunate in society.
* Demand legally recognized receipts, thus discouraging off-the-books labor. Refuse to buy drugs and contraband cigarettes or to patronize businesses suspected of being Mafia-run.
Just how much has changed became clear last month when 3 out of 4 Palermo voters cast their ballots for Leoluca Orlando, one of the nation's most outspoken Mafia fighters.
``Do you understand what it means for Orlando to become mayor?'' asks Maricetta Tirrito, a university student who volunteered for the Orlando campaign over the objections of her parents. ``It means to break the comitato di affari.'' That committee, according to the Italian Parliament's Anti-Mafia Commission, is composed of Cosa Nostra-backed businessmen who dictate to city governments which businesses will receive which public contract.
Many Italians outside of Sicily, however, are cool to Mr. Orlando, saying he has talked a lot but done little.
Ms. Cimino says that people who do not live on the island cannot understand what it meant for Orlando to break the curtain of silence and publicly denounce Cosa Nostra and mob-linked politicos by name during his appointed term as mayor in the late 1980s. It was an opening wedge, she argues, that helped contribute to today's freer climate.
``In general, we have the idea that `to do something' is to do something visible,'' adds Bebbo Cammarata, a local TV news director and Committee of the Sheets member. ``Before, no one said the word `Mafia,' neither the politicians nor the people.''
Back at the Falcone tree, a drizzle leaves small beads of water on a cellophane-wrapped bouquet. Inside is a handwritten note: ``Your death, Giovanni, was not in vain, because it shook the conscience of the Sicilian people. With admiration from Giovanna, Giuseppe, Maria, Sabina, and Carmelo.''