It's cold in Lafayette Park---Peace Park, in the post-nuclear '90s. Connie adjusts her trademark leopard-print babushka a little tighter.
Thomas pulls down the sleeves of his parka, almost covering the ace of spades tattooed on his left wrist. Neither of them has any plans to leave, nor, for that matter, any place to go. In a city of transients, Connie and Thomas have attained celebrity by standing still.
For almost 10 years, Connie and Thomas have maintained a 24-hour vigil for peace within spitting distance of tie White House. They aren't the only Peace Gypsies out here, just the most dogged. "Don't Be A LEMMING, SAVE YOURSELF, RENOUNCE GENOCIDAL Weapons, "read their minibillboards. The pair talk to anyone who will listen, distribute flyers from their well-ordered stacks of literature aid hand out the small smooth rocks that Connie paints with hopeful slogans. She proffers a Baggie-wrapped stone enameled and decorated with intertwined doves, "Peace," it says in tidy block letters. Global peace, one presumes--but also local. For Thomas an Connie now face another skirmish in their own war with the U.S. govemment.
Little by little since their early Reagan-era arrival, the U.S. Park Police and the National Park Service (NPS) have; encroached on their sprawling bivouac. In 1983, the protesters were yanked from their station directly in front of the White House for security reasons. So they moved across the street to Lafayette Park Then in 1986, NPS enacted size restrictions on their signage, lest snipers or other security risks be lurking behind large placards for peace. Now, in the latest installment, NPS has proposed new regulations that would limit the storage of personal property in the park to 3 cubic feet --1 foot by 1 foot by 3 feet That's approximately the volume of a large duffel bag: sufficient, says NPS, to sustain a protester for 24 hours.
The Park Service has, in theory, been able to impose restrictions on personal property in the park for a number of years. In fact, protester Connie Picciotto, received a criminal conviction for illegal storage of property -- i.e., too much stuff -- in 1987. But the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the conviction last year, saying the Park Service's regulation had never been published for notice and comments, in accord with the Administrative Procedure Act. So now the Park Service is trying again following the requisite steps to make its 3-foot restrictions official. Why bother! Well, it seems that many White House visitors--especially tourists are uncomfortable with the stacks of sleeping bags. blankets, cooking utensils, and tarps that surround the protesters. In a recent Federal Register NPS points to an onslaught of five written requests over the last three years, all crying for "action against the visual blight in Lafayette Park."
Typical of these: requests are the complaints of a Virginia man. "I am not happy," his letter says, "when I am forced to pass by, and am forced to see the unsightly mess the people who camp and live in Lafayette Park have created in the exercise of their rights political dissent.'' The letter goes on to decry the dissenters' infringement of the taxpayers "rights of peaceful enjoyment." "I am not advocating the removal of these people he concludes, "nor their unsightly and distasteful expressions of political dissent. I disagree with their rights of cluttering up so much of the park...I mean they make it ugly!" The Park Service for its part, finds that the aggregation "has a negative impact on Lafayette Park's historical and finely landscaped nature."
In addition to the cause of peace, then, Connie, Thomas and-their fellow protesters now have their freedom of expression to protect. So Thomas gently asks passersby if they'd like to sign his petition The public has 60 days to respond to the proposed rules, so the Peace Parkers have spent the last few weeks collecting signatures and urging supporters to write to the Park Service's regional director. Until the war is over, Thomas and his friends will be known as the "Save the First Amendment Committee."
As Thomas gathers names, Connie ponders how she could ever reduce her reams paper, her stacks of lovingly painted rocks to a volume of 3 cubic feet. As the wind picks up, she busies herself rearranging the sheets of plastic that cover her life's' work. It is 250, 300 cubic feet worth, maybe more.
A couple of tourists pause to take each other's picture in front of the display. A man in a khaki trenchcoat smiles at Connie as he drops a small stone in one of her wooden file trays For Connie another canvas.
What will Connie and Thomas do if the Park Police are successful in their containment efforts?
"We'll fight them," says Thomas. "Just because we're ugly doesn't mean we don't have something to say," he smiles "And even if we don't have anything to say, we have a right to say it"
--- Joshua Gray