'Permanent' D.C. Protesters Face Eviction From Park
By Bob Dart
WASHINGTON - If the National Park Service gets their way, Concepcion Picciotto will not spend another winter in the lean-to beneath a homemade billboard across the street from, the White House.
Ms. Picciotto, an anti-nuclear activist who wears a plastic helmet beneath her black beehive wig, is a longstanding member of the community of permanent protesters who live under and around the wooden signs they have erected in Lafayette Park, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
She has been there for four years, except for the time she has spent in court. Her shelter is beside the sidewalk, which makes her one of the closest neighbors of President and Mrs. Reagan. His other neighbors are perhaps a score of other protesters who reside in the park, committed crusaders for their assorted causes.
But their little village of signs was threatened this week by new federal regulations that would restrict the size of the signs and banish the makeshift homes from the historic park.
The new regulations, the park service said, are aimed at ending the "visual blight" in the park and not at curbing the protesters' First Amendment rights to free speech. The new rules would limit the size of signs, the number allowed per protester, and the height at which the signs can be elevated off the ground.
The protesters homes - plywood huts, lucite tents and homemade toilets would be prohibited under the new rules, scheduled to take effect in November.
On Thursday, comment was plentiful among the park protesters.
"It is very sad that they are doing this," said Ms. Picciotto, whose signs warn of a nuclear holocaust. "Freedom and justice are the only things that make America different from other countries."
Nearby, Bill Hale sat on a bench beside his 16-foot-tall sign calling for every public library in the country to set up a community scrapbook. The scrapbook would contain anything anyone in the community wanted to send in, Hale explained. This would be complete freedom of written expression." Every 90 days, each community library would send its scrapbook to the library of congress to keep for posterity and then start over.
Hale, shiftless and black bearded, described himself as a member of the "Woodstock generation".
"This is pioneer territory," he said of the park. We're testing to see what is and what isn't allowed."
Part of that question has already been answered. Last year in a lawsuit that grew out of another public protest in Lafayette Park, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Park Service can prohibit camping in public parks not designated for that purpose. No legal challenge has yet been filed against the specific limits on sign sizes and the Park Services' ban on structures, said Sandra Alley, a Parks Service spokesman.
In Tuesday's Federal Register, the Park Service said the proposed regulations "balance First Amendment freedoms of speech and expression against the rights of park visitors to utilize this historic park for traditional recreational and aesthetic purposes."
The Park Service also warned that the development of Lafayette Park appears to be worsening.
"Recently, an individual requested a permit to establish a library, complete with meeting rooms, in the park. The same individual requested a permit to erect facilities necessary for an actual abortion and a Christmas day live birth," the Park Service wrote in the register.
But making the park prettier is not reason enough to infringe on First Amendment rights, said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the Washington Office of the AC. He said his organization is opposed to the proposed regulations.
"They are unreasonable and unjustified," he said. If the proposed regulations become permanent in November, he said, I'm certain we will be in court to oppose them.
While the legal battle looms on the horizon, though, the protesters of Lafayette Park went about their business Thursday, on behalf of world peace,birth control, free speech, animal rights and a myriad of other causes.
"We're like a community," said Ellen Thomas, a former Washington Bureaucrat who became a park resident when she met nuclear protester William Thomas there last year and married him.
Concepcion Information List | Conchita Personal Story
Photographs | The President's Neighbor