NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER
After Four Years of Working For a Nuclear-Free World, Washington Protesters Face Regulations They Say Will Assault Their First Amendment Rights.
by Susan Hanson
Political Affairs Reporter
HAND-PAINTED and built with whatever materials their park- dwelling makers could collect, the row of signs stands squarely before the White House. Some are wooden, some flimsy poster-board and some bear photo reminders of the Hiroshima blast. For more than four years, the signs have stood along Pennsylvania Avenue proclaiming -- to Midwestern tourists, Washington bureaucrats, White House guards and, most recently, Great Britain's Prince Charles and Princess Diana -- their assorted pleas for a weapons-free world. Now they and their makers are under siege.
"This is a disgrace," muttered one Lafayette Park pedestrian as She hurried past full-time peace activist Concepcion Picciotto and her now embattled "Live by the bomb die by the bomb" billboard. In mid-August, the National Park Service, with regulatory muscle and full White House support, muttered
its own complaint. Citing safety hazards and visual blight, park officials proposed a dismantling of the protesters' self- proclaimed "Peace Park". Beginning in January, the previously unregulated antinuclear vigil is likely to he regulated. The now-towering signs will be limited to six feet; protesters will
be limited to two four--by-four foot signs apiece, and, with what critics say is an impossible demand, demonstrators be required to remain within three feet of their signs.
The park-dwelling protesters, an unconventional lot, have not taken the proposed regulations lightly. They claim the new rules are an attempt to censor their- antinuclear message and an assault on their First Amendment rights. "With four-by-four signs, my message is no more likely to be noticed than if I was sitting on a park bench reading a newspaper," said William Thomas, who began his nonstop disarmament vigil on the White House sidewalk in 1981. In 1983, park service officials, citing a presidential security threat, forced Thomas and fellow vigiler Picciotto to take their protest across the street. "The government is pushing the line further and further, and if they keep pushing, there won't be a line," warned Thomas, who several years ago abandoned his New Mexico jewelry-making business for full-time peace-keeping and street-living.
He and other Vigil protesters (including his wife, Ellen; Picciotto; 68-year-old Winnie Gallant) and vigil newcomer Prima Blakus have vowed to draw the line, "They're not going to drive us away," declared Ellen Thomas who in 1984 renounced worldly possessions and mainstream living and joined her then future husband on the streets. The small but determined band is now mobilized. A petition drive Is underway, and a lawsuit, charging high-ranking U.S. officials with conspiring to undermine their freedom of speech, is in the courts. The group recently organized an additional pressure point: "Friends of the First Amendment In Lafayette and other federal parks," a broad-based coalition of peace groups and community sympathizers. Their cause has also attracted the American Civil Liberties Union -- which may file suit.
For longtime vigilers, the new Park Service rules are only the latest difficulty in their four-year fight to communicate their antinuclear message. They have endured cold winters, hunger, insults. arrests and repeated vandalism. Last Fourth of July, a group of conservative collegians arrived on the scene, destroying signs and mounting their own "God Bless America" billboard. Still, vigilers insist their job is not without its satisfactions. "Some passers-by will insult you, but others will thank you and bless you," said Gallant, whose downtown Washington apartment serves as a support center for the homeless vigilers. "We've witnessed the growth of the peace movement, and we are a tiny part of this thing that has brought (President) Reagan and (Mikhail) Gorsbachev together."
Blakus, who arrived at the vigil in June, has a simple answer for those who suggest the cluttered "Peace Park" is an eyesore: "I tell them nuclear war is a greater blight."
Concepcion Information List | Conchita Personal Story
Photographs | The President's Neighbor