ANTI-NUCLEAR ACTIVISTS: Ridiculed by many, revered by some, a handful of activists in Washington, D.C. provide the occupants of the White House with a constant reminder that not all Americans agree with their government's policy on nuclear weapons.
______________ Captions Under Pictures
Ms Picciotto: "People must pressure their governments not to buy weapons any more. There is just too much misery being caused by these. "
Mrs Thomas: "I am not keeping a vigil here to get the attention of the media or the authorities. My intention is to get my message across to the White House visitors."
There are two groups of people on Pennsylvania Avenue who make nuclear weapons their business. One group is inside the White House, the second is outside.
Come sun, snow, or rain these ordinary American citizens have taken their right to free speech to the fullest in their quest to halt the spread, use and existence of nuclear weapons all over the world.
These two groups have disagreed on many issues in the past; this time however, they have something in common.
No nukes, please: Following the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan, the White House expressed its displeasure in both statements to the press as well as in the form of various sanctions levied against the two South Asian states: the cancellation of US government assistance except for humanitarian aid, the termination of military financing and a freeze on all defense technology exports.
According to the members of a group which calls itself Proposition One, the tests were inevitable, and they blame, in part, those inside the White House for creating such a situation.
"Two years ago, when the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT] was being pushed by the nuclear powers, India and Pakistan both refused to sign," said William Thomas, one of the protesters who has been holding a long-term vigil in front of the US leader's office.
Even then, it was generally believed that the two countries had the knowledge and the ability to go nuclear.
"It was only a matter of time before they did," he said. "Although they are poor, they also need power, prestige and security."
Also involved are feelings of nationalism and belligerence, he added.
Mr. Thomas and other members of Proposition One say that the United States did not do enough to stop nuclear testing in other countries. "The US conducted its own nuclear tests this spring. Even though the US signed and promoted the CTBT, it has done sub-critical tests," he said, referring to the March 25 exercises carried out on a Nevada test site, 135 kilometres north of Las Vegas.
The US government contends that sub-critical testing, controlled experiments in which a nuclear reaction does not occur, neither violates the letter nor the spirit of the treaty.
Critics however, argue that the supposedly more sophisticated experiments arc simply a ploy by the US and other declared weapon states to continue their testing activity. They say that the US is not only interested in maintaining its existing arsenal but that it also wants to maintain an active test site in Nevada for use in weapons design and development as well as nuclear testing.
"If the US really wants to stop nuclear tests, it should start by doing so," said Mr Thomas.
The vigil-keepers: Proposition One is a grassroots organization with its goal being total nuclear disarmament and the conversion of the military-industrial complex to more humane and environmentally friendly industries.
Ellen Thomas, William's wife, began her vigil on behalf of Proposition One over 15 years ago, in 1985 (sic). Since then she has braved the elements and the authorities, among other things, to alert people to the horrors of nuclear war.
"About three million people visit the White House every year," she said. "I am not keeping a vigil here to get the attention of the media or the authorities. My intention is to get my message across to the White House visitors."
Mrs. Thomas, 50, says she is there for the children's sake. She holds a cardboard [sic] sign which reads, "Convert the War Machines: Children deserve a future".
"I believe our government, among others, is depriving them of a livable future," she said.
"It's not the kids' fault. It's not even my fault. But the problem exists. And we need to fix it."
Ignoring such problems, or letting politicians make decisions without input from citizens, only contribute to the problems they are creating, Mrs Thomas explained.
"Some politicians are very short sighted; they look from election to election. Politicians follow advice most of the time but they get bad advice, because they usually listen to those who contribute to their political campaigns.
"We need to show the politicians how global nuclear disarmament and conversion of war machines is to the advantage of those who currently keep the war machines running," she said.
Before she began working on behalf of Proposition One, Mrs. Thomas was executive assistant to the CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, a non-governmental organization concerned with environmental issues. It was a great job, she explained, but she believes that Proposition One is a better way for her to help shape the future.
At the time she joined the vigil, Proposition One didn't exist. But, she explained, "the vision was there: amorphous, waiting to be formed by conversations with thousands of people from all over the world.
"I was working ... just like all the other taxpayers who work ... to fund our government's dangerous policies, which were making it easier and easier for people to kill people. This I found offensive," Mrs Thomas explained. "I felt kind of guilty about even paying taxes, and I decided that when my own children didn't need me any more on a day-to-day basis, I would reduce my income to below the poverty level so I could stop paying taxes, which would give me more time to work on issues I believe are important."
Important enough to go to jail, even.
Despite the perception that the US is a land of freedom and openness these vigil-keepers will tell you that this freedom is not absolute. Mr. Thomas has been arrested 40 times since 1981. Both Mr. and Mrs. Thomas spent three months in jail in 1988.
In fact, they say, Americans don't have true freedom of expression. "If they can pay for it, they do. If they just want to stand on a street corner and express themselves, they might pay with some time in jail," Mrs Thomas said.
"But if they can afford to buy a page in a magazine or newspaper, or some time on TV, Americans can say pretty much whatever they want."
17-year vigil: While Mr. and Mrs. Thomas and their "crew" of about 10 others like them take turns keeping "watch" in front of the White House, Concepcion Picciotto keeps a lonely vigil 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. She has been there for 17 years, since 1981.
Ms. Picciotto rails against what she says the White House stands for, decrying the "inconsistencies of the American government to people of other nations".
On this day, Ms. Picciotto, Spanish born but naturalized in 1964, sat atop a milk crate on a small space on the sidewalk. This has been her home ever since she decided to "demonstrate for a living" on - she remembers the exact date -- August 1, 1981.
"People must pressure their governments not to buy weapons any more. There is just too much misery being caused by these," said Ms Picciotto. "People everywhere in the world need better homes and jobs, but their governments are engaged in buying weapons to kill people," said Ms Picciotto.
Surviving the streets: Technically, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, Ms. Picciotto and the others are considered vagrants. They dress in shabby clothing, and look no better than the "bag ladies" and "wingnuts" who live on the streets of Washington, D.C. The difference is that their goal is not just survival; rather, it is to convey their message to millions of people every year.
In the early days of their vigil, Ms. Picciotto spent her waking hours in front of the White House and her nights in Lafayette Park just across the street.
However, following a tightening of the rules, officers of the National Park Service, the agency in charge of Lafayette Park, drove the protesters from the White House entrance area to the fringe of the park grounds.
Additional restrictions were imposed.
Each person is now allowed a maximum of two signs, each of which cannot exceed six feet (1.8 metres) in height.
The protesters are not allowed to lie down as this is considered "camping", which is not allowed in the park. Instead, they sleep in a sitting position on milk crates, leaning against their signs.
Ms. Picciotto abandons her post only when she needs to bathe at a shelter for the homeless or use the toilet at a fast-food outlet nearby. She arranges for a sympathetic volunteer to guard the site when she needs to go to the toilet.
Like Mrs Thomas, she eats and drinks very little so that she will not have to use the toilet often.
Winter is an especially hard time for the vigil-keepers. To keep warm, they pace up and down the sidewalk, Ms. Picciotto explained.
The protesters do not ask for money per se, but small change from passers-by go to printing more antinuclear literature.
To express her gratitude, Ms Picciotto's gives "peace rocks" to those who donate to the cause, a white dove painted on each. Mrs. Thomas hands out documents on nuclear and other genocidal weapons, global arms sales, environmental pollution and human rights abuses.
Mr. and Mrs. Thomas receive leftover baked goods from a local bakery, four days a week. Once a week, activist friends deliver restaurant food to them that would have otherwise been thrown away.
In the winter some of these same friends provide "blankets by the truckload". Those they don't need they give away.
This is a common theme among many of the protesters, surviving on as little as possible, and then sharing what is left over -- the "wealth of the poor", it could be said -- with others.
"The bread, for example, we give to a women's shelter, keeping just a little for ourselves. If we get really hungry for veggies or fruit, there's a grocery store nearby that throws away nearly perfect produce. It seems a shame to allow such abundance to be wasted!"
Eye-opener: Some observers might wonder why these people subject themselves to such a monastic lifestyle, and how they have been able to continue for so long, educating people about war, peace and the dangers of nuclear weapons without getting discouraged.
Mrs. Thomas describes it as an eye-opening experience.
"Occasionally, I'm amazed at how easy life has become, now that I'm no longer chasing the dollar," she said.
"Oh, I don't mean physically easy. I mean easy on the spirit. And it's very faith-building to learn that, when you have a need, God, or whatever miraculous law of the universe it might be, provides."
"Mini-miracles happen all the time."
Closer to home: Though thousands of kilometres apart, there is not a great difference between Thai farmers protesting in front of Government House and the members of Proposition One protesting in front of the White House.
The issue is different, but in both countries protesters are exercising their civil rights. Also in both cases the protesters have a less than friendly relationship with the media.
In Thailand, journalists at Government House have been known to play down the farmers" protests.
"Nothing new, same old issue," some say. Many members of the Thai press focus on the protesters themselves -- they are crazy or troublesome, for instance -- instead of what they are fighting for.
Protesters in the US do have the advantage of legal systems that support their activities. Still, the relationship between the media and the vigil-keepers is, to say the least, not that good.
Mr. Thomas, for example, once sued several newspapers for a scurrilous editorial about a midnight raid.
"Some newspapers ran a series of ugly editorials and mocking cartoons in 1983 in a successful campaign to have vigil-keepers moved off the White House sidewalk," he said.
"Some press people refer to us as 'the homeless' and carry quotes from the police only, not us.
"They became a bit more respectful when we produced our own newspaper in 1985 [the DC Home News] - a 32-page, professional-looking job - and hand-delivered it to every news organization and congressional office in Washington," added Mrs Thomas.
There are exceptions, but for the most part the local media ignores the activities of Proposition One.
On the other hand, many foreign journalists have written about its members, particularly Ms. Picciotto. And they have many allies abroad.
In the case of Mrs. Thomas, an article in a Japanese newspaper led to an invitation to visit Japan in 1994 to give speeches about the group's involvement with House Bill HR-827, which calls for nuclear disarmament and provides for economic conversion.
Whatever it takes: Seventeen years, 15 years, 10 years ... whatever it takes, the members of Proposition One say they will continue their vigil until the US government agrees to their proposals, until nuclear weapons no longer exist.
"And promises are not enough. Though at the moment, that's basically what we're asking for with the bill that's now in Congress as a result of our successful initiative," Mrs Thomas said.
"It asks the US government to promise that it will get rid of all its nuclear weapons if everyone else does, and will use the money saved instead to convert the nuclear weapon industries into something clean and safe for society."