Park Next to White House Is Demonstrators Haven

One Way to Capture Mr. Reagan's Notice
Is to Erect Big Sign!

Trash as Protest Symbol?

Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON - Concepcion Picciotto has a great view of the White House and it of her. That's the trouble.

When President Reagan gazes past his front lawn, across Pennsylvania Avenue to Lafayette Park, the first thing he sees is Mrs. Picciotto and her sign. "Stop the Arms Race. Dismantle Nuclear Weapons" declares the lettering on one of her largest signs, a l0-foot-by-12 foot (3 meters by 3 1/2 meters) hand-painted piece of plywood that is one in a row of similar signs stretching 40 yards along the sidewalk. Signs and posters of all sizes portray messages, missiles and mushroom clouds, even a white-robed Mr. Reagan cradling a missile amid fiery Armageddon.

Most of the signs belong to Mrs. Picciotto and another demonstrator, William Thomas, who jointly claim the modern Record for presidential protest. Almost round the clock since mid-1981, they have stood sentinel duty here in what she calls a "vigil for freedom, peace and justice."

Mrs. Picciotto, 41 years old, says she began her protest career in 1975. Mr. Thomas, 38, started protesting at the White House, he says, not long after being forcibly expelled from Britain in 1980 (he had thrown away his U.S. passport and declared himself a "stateless person"); last spring, he married Ellen Benjamin, a self-described former yuppie who quit her job and joined his protest.

"We sacrifice our lives," Mrs. Picciotto says. "We want to open the minds of the people to the destruction of the planet."

But Mrs. Picciotto's signs may have shown the White House their last anti-nuclear winter. The National Park Service, the overseer of the historic square, is proposing to ban big signs in Lafayette Park. It cites complaints that the placards "interfere with the view of the White House prevent picture taking and ... generally ruin the aesthetic quality of Lafayette Park." It even calls them a safety hazard: when one blew over, officials say, it crowned a passerby, who required stitches.

Specific Rules

The Park Service's remedy is brutally specific. It's rules, expected to be made final shortly, would restrict each demonstrator to two self-supporting signs, which would be elevated no more than 6 feet, and which always must be attended by someone, within 3 feet. The signs could be no larger than 4 feet square and a quarter of an inch thick.

Why that particular size? The Park Service's "Sign System Specification Manual," which it uses to figure the size of its own signs in the various national parks, decrees that 4-by-4 signs allow 10 lines of letters readable at least l00 feet away. The manual says there isn't any real need in the park to have larger lettering that could be seen from farther away. The American Civil Liberties Union, on the other hand, is unconvinced. "Perhaps this is why so many pedestrians get eaten by bears on Park Service property every year," the ACLU suggests.

The ACLU and some others complain that the rules, first advocated in 1983 by then-Interior Secretary James Watt, needlessly abridge constitutional rights. But many a park passerby is unsympathetic. "I hate to say it, but it's become an eyesore," says Michael De Cavallo, a Howard University student. David Denholm of Vienna, Va. in a letter to the Park Service, calls it a "disgusting display."

Lafayette Park - it is named for the Revolutionary War hero - long has been a haven for people seeking to influence presidents. A plaque still marks the bench where financier Bernard Baruch dispensed sage advice. In recent years, however, the advice has become less and less conventional. A few years back, a group protesting the plight of the homeless lived in tents in the park through much of the winter. More recently, one woman spent a week up a tree there, protesting nuclear weapons.

Those displays pale before some other applications for park permits. One wanted to build "facilities necessary for an actual abortion and a Christmas Day live birth," according to the Park Service. Another sought approval to erect "a spaceship and spaceship landing facilities."

Last summer, one regular demonstrator actually "brought in a bunch of trash to the park as a 'natural resource demonstration,'" according to Mr. Thomas, Mrs. Picciotto's partner in protest. The collection included paneling, doors, paper bags and a porcelain toilet. Mr. Thomas claims Park Police left it there for two weeks to buttress the case against the signs. But the Interior Department attorney, Patricia Bangert, says that, if a person claims trash is a protest symbol, "there isn't a whole lot we can do about it."

Some park signs double as homes. The supports for one 20-footer enclose a living area for Bill Hale and Jimmy Wayne Powell. One afternoon, Mr. Powell is seen changing clothes inside, amid empty beer cans, a rug and ashes from a fire. Emerging bare-chested, with streamers of toilet paper flowing from his seaman's cap, Mr. Powell declares he is demonstrating for "religious freedom for American Indians." The sign above him calls for expanding public libraries.

Mrs. Picciotto keeps the trappings of office as well as home. Her largest signs lean together to shelter folding chairs, a briefcase, typewriter, bicycle, and small trailer packed with anti-nuclear leaflets. She also squirrels away bags, clothing, food and thermoses of hot coffee for the long night ahead.

Foiling Police

She does, after all, sleep here. She sits on a folding chair, she says, her head propped against a sign. "Camping" in the park is prohibited, so when police find her eyes closed she is off to the pokey. But catching her isn't easy. Park residents post lookouts to alert sleepers to police patrols. And making charges stick in court is tough, frustrated Park Service lawyers complain.

Mrs. Piccciotto's weather-beaten face peers out from under a dark wig and scarf. She mostly eats food donated by church groups to homeless people and what she finds in dumpsters behind restaurants. She use park lavatories, though they close at night.

Mrs. Picciotto charges that the growing restrictions on park demonstrators are "like what Hitler did in Germany, they're taking away the rights of the people, bit by bit." The ACLU agrees, partly. It says that while some restrictions might be warranted, the proposed limits are "arbitrary and unreasonable."

The conservative Washington Legal Foundation, meanwhile, counters that the rules are ambiguous, and "too permissive."

Some other groups find themselves in unaccustomed roles. For example, the Sierra Club, which might be expected to worry about damage to the park, is opposing the rules on free-speech grounds. Meanwhile, Reagan administration officials, seldom accused of being tree-huggers, are defending the environmental sanctity of the square.

Precedent suggests any curbs will be upheld. In defense of aesthetics and presidential security, the Reagan administration already has barred signs from the sidewalk directly in front of the White House. The federal courts, although divided, ultimately upheld that ban as well as one on sleeping in the park.

An Interior Department lawyer expects the final sign rule to be published, with "minor" changes, late this month. Its effect will be delayed by a 30-day notice period and possibly by court challenges.

But even Mr. Thomas, the demonstrator, says the writing may be on the wall for the protestors. He says he has proved his point and talks of "getting on with my life". Stroking a tangled brown beard, he adds, mostly to himself: "I've been thinking - Israel would be the best place to try to work for peace."

From the international edition: WALL STREET JOURNAL, January 6, 1986 -- (received in mail from Kuwait)