City Paper
February 26, 1988

The Politics of Peace Park

When the Lafayette Park peace vigil began six years ago, it was directed against the masters of war. Today, depending on which protester you ask, the vigil has new enemies—among them the National Park Service, the homeless, and other protesters.

By Michael Willrich

Peace Park was founded in the summer of 1981 when Concepcion Picciotto met William Thomas in front of the White House. Thomas was carrying a sign that read, "Wanted: Wisdom and Honesty." Picciotto, after pleading her case for justice and humanity in New York and on Capitol Hill for a number of years, had recently shifted to the White House sidewalk. Thomas convinced Picciotto that nuclear weapons were the bane of human existence, and the two became partners in protest, embarking upon a 'round-the-clock peace vigil that continues to this day.

But somewhere along the way, peace took a back seat in the Vigil.

Picciotto can still be found in Lafayette Park, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Reagans', standing aside her protest signs and handing out anti-nuclear literature. Thomas can still be found in Peace Park, too, but not as reliably. Right now he is doing time at Lorton Prison along with two of his followers, Philip Joseph and Stephen "Sunrise" Semple, for violating National Park Service (NPS) regulations. Thomas' wife, Ellen, another Peace Park regular, is locked up in federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky, for breaking the same regulations.

"This is the irony of it to me," Thomas says. "Since 1984, I spend hardly any time in the park....The majority of my time is spent in law libraries or at a typewriter trying to protect the rights of Concepcion and the others to stay there on the sidewalk."

The main issue at Peace Park is still peace. But if you visit the park you're more likely to be leafleted on the First Amendment rights of the protesters than on nuclear terror. Other subissues have sprouted in Lafayette Park's greenery. The legitimacy of the newer members of the vigil is questioned by one veteran—Picciotto. One of her latest handouts denounces newcomers as "bums and opportunists," "ex-mental patients... [who] litter the sidewalks of Lafayette Park." On almost every flyer she hands out, Picciotto declares a proprietary interest in the protest, saying that only she and Thomas have been keeping the "true" vigil at Peace Park.

While Picciotto spreads a secular message, most of the Peace Park protesters draw their inspiration from the Bible and their civil disobedience methods from Jesus. While nobody gives orders, many of the protesters look to Thomas for direction. Having cast off all possessions not essential to their demonstration (an exception is made for guitars), the protesters do not pay taxes or receive welfare or food stamps. They have homed in on nuclear weapons as the symbol of a world they believe has swapped love for materialism.

Regardless of their differences, the inhabitants of Peace Park agree on one thing: The National Park Service is destroying their peace forum.

Protesters have converged upon Lafayette Park to petition the government for nearly 100 years, making the site Washington's equivalent to London's Hyde Park. Practically every political march staged in D.C. makes a run past the park.

The National Park Service restrictions on protests at the White House escalated in 1983, when NPS promulgated a regulation that barred permanent protest displays from the White House sidewalk. Protesters can still march in front of the White House with a handheld sign, but they must stay clear of the front and center area, where tourists take photos of the chief executive's mansion.

The new regulation shoved Thomas, Picciotto, and other protesters across Pennsylvania Avenue and into the park, which they then flooded with signs. A Department of the Interior attorney says at one point he counted 180 signs in the park. Some signs were enormous, measuring as large as 20 feet long, and many protesters had several signs strewn about the park. To protect themselves from the elements, the protesters constructed lean-tos with the signs. Some protesters erected elaborate outdoor "offices" with desks and shelves full of literature.

Another legal challenge to Peace Park grew out of the "Tent City" protests Mitch Snyder and his Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) staged in 1982. CCNV raised 40 tents on the Mall and 20 in Lafayette Park to publicize the plight of the homeless. Largely symbolic—there were few demonstrators actually sleeping inside the tents—the demonstration drew the wrath of the government, which responded with a regulation that banned "camping" in national parks outside of approved areas. CCNV took the government to court, but the Supreme Court upheld the regulation in 1984.

Since 1983, Peace Park protesters in need of a place to recuperate have turned to Winnie Gallant, a woman in her 60s who has volunteered her apartment near 14th and N Streets NW as a "headquarters" for the vigil. It's actually more of a locker room arrangement—a place where the protesters come to take showers, to microwave burgers scavenged from Hardees dumpsters, and sometimes to make love.

Remembering the days before the NPS crackdown, when the park looked like a cross between a church yard sale and a Grateful Dead concert, Gallant tears up, describing the period as "the Camelot years."

Thomas traded in his days and nights at Lafayette Park for a stint at Lorton.

In April 1986, NPS delivered another blow to Peace Park by limiting each protester to two signs, neither of which could exceed four-feet square and one-quarter-inch thick. Even worse from the protesters' point of view was the new requirement that protesters stay within three feet of their signs at all times or risk confiscation and arrest.

Since 1984, Thomas has been litigating a civil suit challenging the government's restrictions on Peace Park.

"All I'm asking for in the suit is definitions of the terms sleeping, camping, and storage of property," he says. "Because it's some vague, nebulous combination of sleeping and storage of property that gets us convicted of camping."

The government allows demonstrators to keep a sleeping bag and enough food and protest literature to last them 24 hours. A vigil, in the government's eyes, becomes unauthorized camping when a park policeman decides a protester is using the park for "living accommodations."

On December 22, 1986, Thomas, his wife, Ellen, and four others, including Philip Joseph and Stephen Semple, were arrested and charged by Park Service Police with unauthorized camping.

When U. S. District Court Judge Charles Richey heard the case last April, he dismissed it on the grounds that the vigil was protected by the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment. But the NPS appealed.

The U. S. Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Richey that the "anti-nuclear vigil in Lafayette Park was the product of sincerely held religious beliefs," but it advised that "once camping is permitted for one or a few, it may not be denied to others who seek equal access." The appeals court remanded the case, sending it back to Judge Richey.

With no new evidence, Judge Richey reversed his decision. On January 28, he sentenced Thomas, Ellen, Joseph, and Semple to prison, giving Thomas 60 days, the others 50 days. (Since 1983, the maximum sentence for unlawful protests or camping in Lafayette Park has been six months in jail and a $500 fine.)

Mark Venuti, a Washington lawyer who has defended the Peace Park protectors several times in court, believes Thomas got a stiffer sentence because he has run up a longer rap sheet in the park, having been arrested about 30 times since 1981 for unlawful demonstration. But Thomas has had fewer than 10 convictions, Venuti notes, and this is the first time since Thomas began his vigil that he has spent longer than a weekend in jail.

Judge Richey refuses to answer questions about why he gave Thomas a tougher sentence or any other particulars on the case, saying, "For 17 years I have made it a point not to talk to the press about a decision." There are, as of yet, no transcripts of the trial; most of the records of the case that do exist have been misplaced by Richey's clerk. Thomas request for a transcript was denied—as was his request for a trial by jury.

"We've just been ping-pong balls in the system," Thomas says.

The blinds are drawn in Richard Robbins' office at the Department of the Interior, but the wood paneling is dotted with wilderness photographs: Yosemite's granite Half Dome, fly-fishing on a Western stream. A fan blows dusty air across the room.

Robbins, Interior's assistant solicitor/National Capital Parks, is the author of most of the park regulations. After 17 years at the department, Robbins is finally satisfied with the appearance of Lafayette Park.

"We've got a little more orderly demonstration," he says. "It's a little neater."

Robbins says his job is to balance the rights of demonstrators with the needs of casual visitors to Lafayette Park.

"We host some 1,500 demonstrations per year in the national capital parks," he says, defending the Park Service's tolerance. Having faced the Peace Park protesters several times in court, Robbins is intimate with their arguments.

"They feel they're not getting the message across in the most effective way," he says. "I don't think the Constitution guarantees the most effective way, but it guarantees them access, it guarantees them the right to speak. And we have the right to regulate time, place, and manner. It's only within that time, place, and manner that has formed the core of our differences in litigation."

Some Peace Park protesters think Robbins is part of an intricate conspiracy to silence them, a conspiracy that includes Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel and President Reagan. The Interior Department under Hodel, they point out, has been generally pro-nuke, and the vigil threatens the department.

Robbins scoffs. "Frankly, I'd be personally surprised if Secretary Hodel even knew who the Thomases were or even knew the specifics of our regulations."

Robbins denies charges that Park Police have beaten protesters late at night and have stolen their belongings. When pressed, he does remember one case when a vigiler's complaint was valid.

Two years ago Thomas and Ellen reported that a park policeman had stolen a camera and some film from them. The film, they said, contained evidence of a wrongful arrest. "In fact, it turned out a Park Service employee had stolen the camera," Robbins admits, "and that employee was arrested and convicted."

Robbins rejects criticisms that the NPS is violating the First Amendment. As a lawyer, he lets the courts be his judge.

'We've convicted a lot of people under the Lafayette Park regulations," he says. " That tells me we must be hitting it about right. We've litigated with ACLU quite a bit over the last 17 plus years that I’ve been here. We've lost a lot and we’ve won some. They [ACLU] took a look at the Lafayette Park regulations and [its] litigation committee voted not to object."

Of all the photographs decorating Richard Robbins office, his favorite was taken in Lafayette Park just after the Supreme Court upheld his camping regulations in 1984. Robbins and an assistant flank a protester's sign that reads: "WARNING: US SUPREME COURT IS HAZARDOUS TO YOUR CONSTITUTION." In the picture, Robbins is wearing a big grin on his face.

"Why don't you get rid of this shit?" a white-haired man in a dark three-piece suit hisses at Picciotto as he walks hurriedly past her signs. "Why don't you move on? This is a public park."

Picciotto, a small, weathered woman who wears an oversized dime-store wig held in place by a scarf, ignores the insult. Stacked on the sidewalk are nearly two dozen neat piles of handouts—press releases, Xeroxes of newspaper articles written about her, and copies of her subpoena of Ronald Reagan. Tacked to one of her two protest signs is a photo of Hiroshima after the bomb. On the other she has pinned a close-up photo of her badly beaten face. She claims that she has been attacked several times by Marines, by Park Police, and by members of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom.

Her slogans, like the others at Peace Park, are hard to argue with. One sign reads: "That the world is threatened every day of our lives with man-made annihilation is a disgrace to decency, civilization, and reason."

Like most people at the vigil, Picciotto, who is in her mid-40s, has held a job. For nine years, she says, she worked in the commercial division of the Spanish Embassy in New York. She offers visitors a peek at a picture of herself as a young woman in her luxurious Brooklyn apartment.

Picciotto left her job abruptly in the late '70s for "personal reasons"—she won't volunteer specifics. Piecing together an accurate chronology of her life as an activist is hard, partly because she has a strong Spanish accent and partly because she see-saws from the mundane to the abstract.

Her protests, which seem to have snowballed out of a child custody battle that she lost, began in New York. But she decided her grievances deserved a more important audience, so she moved to Washington, where she says she spent a few years speaking to representatives and senators about her constitutional rights. And then in 1981, when she appeared at the White House with a sign demanding justice and humanity, she met Thomas.

Thomas was born William Thomas Hallenback Jr., but now goes by only his middle name. A former jeweler and trucker from New Mexico, the 40-year-old Thomas says he once owned a house and three cars. In 1984 he told the Washington Post that he was a former heroin addict who had spent eight years in prison for car theft and visa violations. In the mid-'70s he left his wife and turned to the Bible for guidance. Fixated on the idea that money was the root of all evil, he discarded all his worldly possessions and flew to the Middle East. He says he swam across the Suez Canal and walked across the Sinai desert without a visa, campaigning for peace. A few years later, U.S. authorities escorted Thomas back to the United States from England, where he had torn up his American passport and declared himself a man without a country. He was released in New York and then came to Washington, where he got involved in Mitch Snyder's CCNV.

In 1984, Thomas met Ellen Benjamin at Lafayette Park. A self-described yuppie, Ellen joined the protest and married Thomas that same year. (Efforts to reach Ellen at Lexington, where she is completing her sentence, were unsuccessful. Winnie Gallant says that Ellen is the organizational wiz of Peace Park, putting out newsletters and contacting—some say pestering—the media.)

Like other protesters at the vigil, Thomas speaks metaphorically about his life and purpose. While Picciotto calls her vigil a modern-day "soldier's Valley Forge," Thomas compares himself to biblical figures not to Jesus or the saints, but to wayward doubters who found the right path through trials and tribulations.

Sitting in a stuffy Lorton Prison conference room, Thomas describes his arrival at the White House as "similar to the situation Jonah was in. I really didn't want to come [back] to the country in the first place....God told Jonah to preach to the Ninevites, and Jonah said, 'I don't want to talk to those people. They ought to go to hell. They're beyond redemption.' And so he went through his different trials and tribulations and got swallowed by the fish and got spit up at Nineveh and I guess he figured, 'Well, I'm here so I might as well do it.' "

Thomas' purpose, he says, is communication. "Since I've been a kid, you know, I don't like the idea of hell," he explains. "I don't want to see anybody get punished. I'd like to see everybody come to their senses and behave in a rational manner. So that's what I'm trying to do. I sort of think I'm like those messengers that used to come with bad tidings and get their head cut off."

Thomas is a short man with a long, uneven beard and stringy dark hair that he wears in a loose ponytail. When he speaks he peers over the thick black rim of his reading glasses, and punctuates his words with raw, wrinkled hands.

"When I started to think about all the problems in the world," Thomas continues, "I figured nuclear weapons was one of the biggest.... I like to think that people are basically good and I don't think that the American people would have nuclear weapons unless they could justify the apparent immorality of eliminating the population of the earth. And I think the way they do this is through the idea that we need nuclear weapons to protect freedom."

Thomas and other protesters dismiss the mainstream anti-nuke movement as careerist. Furthermore, to work within the economy you must pay taxes, and taxes fuel the arms race.

"The reason I'm not in an office is because I'm dedicating my life to this," Thomas says. "To me it's not a 9-to-5 job. I'm not interested in coming down and walking around in a circle for an hour and then going back to a job that's creating the problem that I'm protesting about."

Thomas has never worked with the mainstream. "They treat me like I'm a leper or something," he says.

Thomas' jail mate, Philip Joseph, was a mainstream activist for the homeless—or "houseless," as he calls them—before he joined the vigil in 1986. He says he dropped out of the system because paying taxes feeds "the beast while I am trying to starve the beast."

Joseph, 25, is a tall, gaunt man who looks like he has been through hell. He grew up in Texas and had several jobs in his youth, including a stint working for the railroad.

"I grew up in the suburbs," he says, "and the only time I saw ghettos was when I cruised by them maybe at 30-40 miles an hour in my car. I finally in Kansas City got out and walked through the ghettos."

His life changed when he saw people living in the ghetto, "with less of what I'd always considered to be 'something,' and they were happier than the people who I'd always known. "

That day, Joseph took his giant gold ring and a gold drill bit covered with diamonds that he wore around his neck and threw them into the street.

Joseph casts a bitter eye on most people who give to charity, calling their donations "waste and refuse that they don't care for anyway.

"Either that or they discount it and take it off of their income tax report. There are over 18,000 people in Washington, D.C., who get fed each day off just trash that is refined and brought into soup kitchens and cooked."

"The stone that was rejected by the builders becomes the cornerstone of the church," he says.

To outsiders, Peace Park protesters look like street people. Some undoubtedly are. The park has always been a "home" for street people, but Joseph and some of the younger demonstrators have attracted more street people by offering blankets and sometimes food.

For Thomas, the homeless are the vigil's Catch-22.

"Because of my philosophy and predilections," Thomas says, "I'm forced to treat these people with the same courtesy that I treat everyone else.

"I try to discourage them from drinking, but sometimes even when they don't drink they'll behave in a manner that will put people off.... I look the same as them, they're behaving weirdly, so we all get lumped together. It messes up my communication."

Picciotto has the same problem with the homeless, but takes a different approach. She shooes them away.

"Thomas is too soft in the way that he feels sorry," she complains. "But I just cannot afford it. [The homeless] scare people away."

Picciotto refuses welfare and food stamps and is remarkably self-reliant, sharing little with the homeless. She feeds herself by rummaging through dumpsters and by selling rocks upon which she paints doves and flags. She makes a point of sweeping the sidewalk around her signs several times a day. Her signs are orderly, and her literature is arranged in neat piles with a painted stone on each one. With the exception of Thomas, Picciotto shuns the other demonstrators.

"They're only here for the adventure," she gripes as she glares down the sidewalk at the other signs. She complains that Winnie Gallant has tried to bring in more protesters to the vigil. "She wants quantity. It doesn't make any difference, quality."

For Joseph, the "houseless" are as important as disarmament. He calls the city's "houseless," wings and mentally ill his "gurus and teachers."

"The White House is a very strategic location to communicate a message worldwide," he says. "[But] I try to speak globally and act locally." He keeps the vigil stocked with blankets, and on cold nights he checks the alleys and grates near the White House, looking for homeless people who don't have enough covering.

"Three men died last weekend, froze to death, within two blocks of the White House. Those were my men," Joseph says. "I do not weep for the three men. I weep for the society that has enabled three men to freeze to death within two blocks of the White House."

In sentencing Thomas and the others, Judge Richey said he knew the punishment would not deter them, but that he hoped it would deter others from camping in Lafayette Park.

Richey is probably right. No new protesters showed up to take the place of the jailed—and after a month in jail, Thomas, Ellen, Semple, and Joseph are rested, showered, and anxious to get back to the park. Thomas says that he's ready to leave Peace Park at any time. He only demands a few concessions:

"If they would show me that I'm crazy, if they would show me that my ideas are impractical or unreasonable, if they would address the issues that I'm out there to talk about, then I would do something else. But as long as they don't, I'm not going to give in to them just because they're stronger than me."

It is unlikely that Thomas will pack up his blankets, papers, and books and leave Peace Park any time soon. Not because he enjoys the fresh air, but because he has a commitment to a cause that few people think is realistic.

"This is," Thomas notes, "the first demonstration I've ever been involved in." CP

Ellen Thomas letter to City Paper, 3/4/1988

Proposition One Campaign