By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Column: THE FEDERAL PAGE;
Thursday, November 16, 1989; Page A25
In a week when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, an awesome display of mankind's yearning for freedom, it seems fitting to check in on Washington's premier symbol of democracy.
This title belongs not to the White House, not to the Capitol. Rather it goes to Lafayette Square, that graceful patch of green across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House that for over a century has drawn the disaffected, the dispossessed and the obsessed -- among others.
The bankers, business people and bureaucrats who eat lunch there on sunny days appear assiduously oblivious to the oddballs sharing the park with them. But every now and then, someone tries to take in the bigger picture.
Bruce Laingen, the charge d'affaires at the American Embassy in Tehran who spent 444 days as a hostage, was sitting on a park bench on Monday, eating his sandwich and reading his newspaper as he does about once a week. He said he is moved by the proximity of powerful institutions, protesters who challenge them, organizations that try to influence them, and the sense of history.
"It's the freedom the park symbolizes," he said, explaining what draws him. "I don't think anyone can fully appreciate freedom unless he's been denied it."
This is likely what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when in 1801 he declared the White House grounds too ostentatious and had the portion now known as Lafayette Square set apart "for the use of the people." Since then, it has been the people's forum, used in myriad ways, to influence what goes on across the street. The White House even used it recently -- to stage a "crack" buy to dramatize the president's war on drugs.
Elder statesman Bernard Baruch met with White House officials on one of its benches, now marked with a bronze plaque as the "Bench of Inspiration." The 1960s and 1980s brought tent cities to protest poverty and homelessness. Yesterday the General Union of Palestine Students demonstrated there.
The Close-Up Foundation, which brings high school students here to see their government at work, shepherds them to the square to meet protesters.
"We like to use it as a spot to talk about different forms of influencing government," said Jeffrey Gordon, a Close-Up leader. "From here we'll go up 16th Street to 'Lobbying Row.' It's a way of showing what works and what doesn't."
On Monday, the students drifted to a man who calls himself "Song," a former portrait artist who has spent the last two years outside the White House between two plywood signs saying, "We need a clean-up. Not a build-up."
"Hey, what are you protesting?" a jaunty teenage boy asked.
"Hey, what should I be protesting?" responded Song, in his Zen-like way.
Song said he is certain that President Bush sees him. "He has to, if he ever looks out the front of his house," he said. "Two in the morning, I'm here. Six in the morning, I'm here. I'm like a conscience -- always there."
As anyone who strolls Pennsylvania Avenue knows, the sidewalk across from the White House is blanketed with men and women engaged in 24-hour protests, their signs aimed straight at the president.
William Thomas has been there for 8 1/2 years. Stroking his tangled beard, staring piercingly over his half-glasses, he engages passersby in talk about nuclear disarmament, mostly, but only because he says he doesn't have time to go into everything that disturbs him.
"Either I have something of value to say, or I'm entirely out of my mind," Thomas said the other day, leaning on his four-foot-square sign that declares to the White House and anyone passing by, "Truth sets us free." He spends much of his time studying and writing. "I think racism, homelessness, poverty and nuclear weapons are an affront to God," he said. "But I may be wrong. Maybe God does want nuclear weapons. That should be determined."
The Reagan administration made such vigils impossible for all but the most driven. It imposed rules banning camping in the park, forbidding protesters to wander more than three feet from their signs (even to go to the bathroom) and barring signs larger than four-feet-square.
Concepcion Picciotto, like Thomas, is undeterred. She has been there, witnessing for peace and an end to injustice since 1981. She wears a helmet, covered by a wig and scarf, because she says she has been harassed and beaten.
She hands out pacifist literature and small stones decorated with doves and the word "peace" in several languages. The other day, a man walked past her papers and yelled out, "Don't let any of that trash get loose."
"Why don't you wake up?" she responded.
"Mussolini would never permit that," the man retorted.
"He means he would never permit freedom," Picciotto muttered.