The Hartford Advocate - December 16, 1993
Give Peace a Chanceby Edward Ericson
Birds keep coming up to us, landing on the signs, pecking around in front of us on the sidewalk.
Midnight, an eight-year-old mutt with a big voice, barks at the birds and passers-by. Some people are afraid of her, but Ellen Thomas says she never bites. She stays pretty close to hte pallets. She likes her ears scratched.
Ellen takes off her thick socks and lays them out on the sidewalk to dry. Last night was tough, with a cold wind driving a rain that knocked cars off the road. Last night Ellen slept here in Lafayette Park, directly across from the White House, wrapped in Gore Tex and plastic under a sign that says "Trust God and Disarm Everywhere!"
Aside from one or two instances of serious illness, plus a stint in prison, she has been here, under these signs, every day and night since April 13, 1984. This is a vigil.
Just walking by, it's not hard to mistake Ellen for a regular homeless person. Bing outside all the time lines one's face a certain way. It does things to your hair and teeth. And this park is a veritable homeless condo. One of the hedges is hollowed out to create a makeshift urinal.
But Ellen Thomas has a home, of sorts. The office of Proposition One, the vigil's official name, even has a computer and an E-mail number. Ellen's husband, Prop One founder William Thomas, staffs it most days now with a volunteer or two. He sat out here for three years before he even met Ellen.
Her two children grown, her divorce ancient history, Ellen quit her job and came upon this vigil. It was as if her whole life were a preparation for this, she says. Finally, something important to do.
She will sit out here until all nuclear weapons are destroyed by constitutional amendment, never to be replaced with any similar weapon of mass destruction. She has a petition.
"On September 14," Ellen says, "we won a ballot initiative based on the proposition." The measure calls for the district's congresswoman, Eleanor Holmes Norton, to introduce a constitutional amendment banning nuclear arms by the year 2000 and requiring good faith negotiations toward total peace. The vote was about 41,000 to 31,000. Norton has refused to abide by the initiative, although she says she may introduce a legislative bill.
"Good for her," The right-wing Rev. Sun Myong Moon's Washington Times said in an editorial headlined "Those Wacky District Voters." "May it go quietly to some committee and die." Total disarmament. Complete Peace! What rubes!
It was only the latest attack on the vigil. In the 1980's the Young Americans for Freedom, a bullethead group with ties to the Moonies, staged several "raids," busting up the signs, rousting the bigilers. Proposition One sued them and lost. "But they were more respectful of us thereafter," Ellen says.
The police have come and gone, too. She knows most of them now, and has attained a measure of respect law enforcement types grant to such immutable objects. The laws have shifted - ridiculous, sublime, back to ridiculous. Ellen Thomas has sat, handing out leaflets, under signs that say "Peace Though Love. Peace Through Reason."
"It cost the taxpayers $75,000 to send me to prison for three months for wrapping in a blanket when it was 32 degrees out," she says. Unlike some people involved in what loosely might be called the Peace Movement, Ellen was not calmed, nor purified, by incarceration. "It was psychologically damaging," she says. It took her a year to get back to normal. She stayed outside, under the two big signs, free.
Some years ago the city passed an ordinance known as the "three-cubic-foot-rule," which banned any person from taking up more than three square feet of ground space anywhere, any time, with their stowed gear.
The day the ordinance went into effect, a police sergeant approached Ellen to inquire after her stowed hear. "As you can see, " she rememvers telling the cop, "it's all in use." The sergeant smiled and bid her good day.
During the Persian Gulf War the definition of camping changed four times: First, sleeping all night was camping, then two hours, then a half hour. Finally she was threatened with arrest for sitting on her blanket, because that constituted "camping." A cigar box in which she keeps flyers and petitions was dubbed an "illegal structure."
There have been miracles out here, as you might expect. Ellen remembers the worst night of 1989, a terrible storm, freezing rain, the wind blowing the plastic off her shivering body again and again. "I'd run down the plastic, and I was trying to tuck it in underneath me," she says, "but my hands were so cold they weren't working and I was thinking, 'I wish I had some gloves." Well, no sooner had I thought it then I looked up, and right about there (she points to a spot about 20 feet away) these gloves just blew in."
A woman from Idaho signs the petition, as do three college students. People snap pictures from a safe distance. The homeless in the park take water from the fountains. Birds alight on the pallets beneath the signs. Midnight barks some more.
Ellen Thomas sits. She talks to the students. Every so often White House interns bring her some food, but they don't give their names. She occasionally has contact with the people who enjoy abusing other people. Over the years she has learned patience in these situations. "Even on those very rare instances when I was treated violently - and I can count them on one hand - I didn't react violently," Ellen says. "And that is very statisfying."
Ellen says she would like to travel some day, see the world. She has learned to turn these matters over to God, she says. "Sometimes that's the hardest thing to do."