The Washington Weekly - OUR TOWN, September 3, 1984: White House Watch, September 3, 1984

The Washington Weekly - OUR TOWN, September 3, 1984:

White House Watch

Thomas is his name
vigilance is his game

by Craig Stoltz

Thomas has spent more time at the white House since 1981 than Ronald Reagan.

Thomas is his name, he says, just plain Thomas. Not "William Thomas Hellenbeck," the name he was born with some 38 years ago; not "William Thomas", the name inscribed on a 1979 English Baptismal certificate Thomas sought as part of his attempt to renounce his identity as a U.S. citizen; and certainly not "Bill", the name frustrated law enforcement types use when imploring Thomas to obey them.

The cops know Thomas, because Thomas has not spent his time at the White House in it - but on the sidewalk in front of it, and now in Lafayette Park. If you drive or walk by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the early morning hours, Thomas is the one you will see slouched between gigantic, hand-made signs that read: "Wanted: Wisdom and Honesty", and "Civilized People Don't Nuke Fellow Human Beings;" he gazes at the White House, as if waiting for it to blast off.

There used to be one more person keeping vigil with Thomas - Norman Mayer - co-founder of the vigil. He may be remembered as the one who, in December 1982, became impatient with the Reagan Administration, drove a van into the shadow of the Washington Monument and threatened to blow it up unless his demands were met. While waiting in his van for negotiations to begin, Mayer's vigil ended forever. A Park Police officer shot him in the head.

None of which has daunted Thomas, his wife Ellen, vigil co-founder Concepcion Picciotto, and an unsteady handful of passers-through who persist among their over two dozen signs, some of them as large as billboards. One of them commemorates Mayer and urges others to "dare" to "be like him."

Thomas has been at his post nearly every day and most nights since June 4, 1981, when he committed himself to the task of admonishing everybody within eye and earshot of the White House - especially its inhabitants and official guests, but also its citizen visitors and passers-by - that nuclear arsenals are logically indefensible and morally unacceptable. Thomas does this partly because he is a self-proclaimed stateless person who is a "prisoner in the land of the free," and partly because he has assumed the "moral responsibility" of communicating his notions about things nuclear to as many fellow Americans as possible before Armageddon busts loose. He and his fellow vilgilists are committed to live up to their self-imposed responsibilities until, as Thomas likes to put it, "bombs drop."

The life of a vigilist is not an easy one. Among other hardships, they must comply with the letter of a rather vague federal law which prohibits "camping" in Lafayette Park but allows something called "casual sleeping," which allows eating but not cooking, and which allows protest but restricts the number and dimension of protest signs.

To date, compliance has entailed keeping at least one waking protester in constant attendance of the signs always - regardless of time of day, temperature or mood. Sleeping vigil members must retire to a remote location such as a doorway or alley for all but the most "casual" snoozing; when hungry, they must scavenge (in the world of the street, "dumpster" is a verb) or patronize McKenna's wagon, a church-sponsored food truck that makes daily sandwich deposits at Lafayette Park During the day, members of the vigil gather discarded materials for sign-making, talk with any passers-by who will listen and when necessary, place phone calls, write letters and make visits necessary to disentangle themselves and friends from the various arms of government they inevitably offend. For the vigilant, dissent is a full time job.

"People always told me I was a doubting Thomas," said Thomas one recent gummy August afternoon from a curb near a gigantic slanting sign. The sign depicts a mushroom cloud on its front and acts as a kind of lean-to and storage area behind. "I kind of liked that. It seemed to fit."

Thomas began doubting things around the time he dropped out of school in the eighth grade, but recovered sufficient beliefs to become a successful jewelry maker / merchant in New Mexico by the time he was in his twenties. But it "bothered me, he says, that the people I hired to do work were simply applying their energies to materials I had bought, enabling me to make a great deal of money. Actually, they didn't seem to mind the arrangement much, but I did."

His confidence in the American way toppled, Thomas left his wife and embarked on a series of international adventures that include walking centless from Casablanca to Cairo, rotting briefly in an Egyptian jail next to some Palestinian prisoners and reaching a peak of disenchantment, fluttering the scraps of his visa into the Thames River in London in an attempt to renounce his American citizenship. English immigration authorities would hear none of it, so they escorted the unwilling Thomas to New York's Kennedy Airport, where he was forcibly removed from the airplane and, against his will, deposited without ceremony on U.S. soil.

"I had wanted to go to Israel," Thomas broods.

Thus imprisoned in the land of the free, as he saw it, Thomas took to a brief period of domestic adventuring - including one episode where he was removed from the Soviet Embassy in pretty much the same manner he was removed from the English airliner - and eventually met up with Concepcion Picciotto, an American woman of Spanish extraction. Her acute sensitivity to the injustices done to her as a woman, an indigent and a housekeeper, made her a likely ally for Thomas and his scheme to launch a permanent - or as permanent as anyone with Thomas' world view can envision - protest of U.S. nuclear politics. Concepcion, from underneath an enormously vertical black wig, and Thomas from behind a frazzled brown beard, established and maintained their vigil for almost two years when Ellen came along.

Ellen arrived at the vigil with the intention of writing a story about street people. Instead, she became enchanted by Thomas, left her child, joined the protest in the park, and before long, married Thomas - taking in the process his only name as her last.

"It's the first time I ever found anybody saying exactly the same things I had always felt," said Ellen, as she painted a sign reading "We Believe" and listing, in syllogistic fashion, the tenets of the vigil members. The skills Ellen learned as a $25,000-per-year administrative assistant for a wildlife organization are now devoted to the new cause. On request, she will open a briefcase - filled with press releases, newsclips, letters and court documents - and in a moment can put her hands on anything you need.

Concepcion, there at the beginning, looks at Ellen's arrival and presence at the vigil with something less than enthusiasm.

"She is bad for Thomas," she said, narrowing her eyes, and adjusting her enormous wig. "She makes him act crazy sometimes, like a little boy. I think she gives him drugs.

"I believe," Concepcion continued, as heavy raindrops began to plop onto the sidewalk, "that she is trying to divide and conquer. She is trying to break us down, to get rid of us. Ellen is an agent of the CIA, I am certain of it."