Peace Park: First Amendment on view
By George Neavoll
Editor of the Editorial Page
April 24, 1988,"I always like to see you with your signs across from the White House," I told Bob Dorrough on a recent trip to
Washington. "It's a good backdrop for the First Amendment
freedoms we enjoy."
For the protesters of Peace Park, however, those freedoms
have been bought with a sometimes heavy price. Mr. Dorrough a
handsome, friendly man who keeps a 24-hour vigil with his wife
Lynn, once allegedly was beaten by park police with a belt buckle
while his hands were handcuffed behind him.
Concepcion Picciotto, down the sidewalk, displays a photo
of her own bloodied face after she had been beaten, either by
park police or by U.S. Marines. (The story varies with its retelling.)
The National Park Service police officers charged with
enforcing the regulations governing Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania
Avenue from the White House, strongly deny the beating allegations.
Protesters have been arrested, however, for violating regulations
that border on harassment, if they aren't harassment itself. William
Thomas (shown here), who with Ms. Picciotto started the Peace
Park Anti-Nuclear Vigil on-June 3, 1981, no longer is on the sidewalk,
in fact. He's in prison. He was sentenced in U.S. district court
on Jan. 28 to 60 days' imprisonment for "camping" in
Ellen Thomas, his wife, and two others, Stephen "Sunrise"
Semple and Philip Joseph, were sentenced to 50 days in prison
each. On March 3, the Thomases were sentenced to an additional
30 days each on the same charge but for different dates.
ALL this seems a little stiff to me. Granted, the Lafayette
Park demonstrations began to get out of hand several years back.
When the National Park Service banned permanent protest displays
from the White House sidewalk in 1983, the protesters went across
the street to what they called Peace Park.
A year earlier, Mitch Snyder and his Community for Creative
Non-Violence had erected a tent city in the park as a symbolic
protest against the plight of the homeless.
The signs got bigger and more numerous, and sometimes were
made into lean-tos for protection from the elements. The Park
Service responded by issuing a regulation that banned "camping"
outside approved areas.
The Supreme Court upheld the regulation in 1984.
Two years later, the Park Service added more, even more
restrictive regulations. Now, each protester was limited to two
signs, neither to be more than 4 feet square in size or one-quarter
inch in thickness. Worse, protesters could move no more than 3
feet from their signs at any time; if they did, the signs could
be confiscated and they could be arrested.
Demonstrators were allowed to have a sleeping bag and enough
food and protest hand-outs for 24 hours.
WHAT constitutes "camping" has become the real
rub at Peace Park, however. Bob Dorrough told me that when he
tried to put a plastic sheet over his belongings in a recent rain,
park police appeared and told him that was creating a shelter
that could be used for camping.
He had to remove it.
The Park Service says camping occurs when a protester moves
beyond simply being there to setting up "living accommodations."
"Who is protecting citizens from these law enforcement
officers?" asks Concepcion Picciotto in one of her hand-outs.
"How can we defend ourselves against their lies and corruption?
Are we supposed to keep quiet in the face of this persecution?"
The persecution doesn't come just from the federal government,
either. The protesters have to endure terrible insults and verbal
attacks from passers-by. "Get that out of the way!"
one motorist screamed as I was visiting with some of the demonstrators.
NATIONAL Park Service rangers and police long have had
the image of being highly professional, helpful and kind. That
Image is eroded, however, by crackdowns on peaceful protesters
doing nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights.
Bob and Lynn Dorrough, for example, merely are seeking
signatures on a petition to Congress and the Supreme Soviet to
ban all nuclear warheads by the year 2000. "We've gathered
over 45,000 signatures..., we're seen by 3 million visitors a
year, we've had tens of thousands of conversations concerning
the threat of extinction," Mr. Dorrough wrote earlier this
In fact, I believe the presence of the protesters adds
a great deal to the telling of the story of Lafayette Park. The
park has been the scene of protest rallies and demonstrations
for nearly 100 years, and frequently is compared with London's
The National Park Service, with its excellent interpretive
programs for the National Capital Parks, should regard the protesters
as part of a "living history" tableau, instead of being
so uptight about someone dozing off or putting up a sheet of plastic
as protection from the elements.
The Park Service thus would be restored to its noble purpose,
and the Peace Park protesters would have no reason to fear official
persecution for putting the First Amendment on display, every
day and hour of the year.