THE TORONTO STAR, December 29, 1997

Clinton's Unusual 'Neighbours'

Lafayette Park, across from the White House,
is home to an odd crowd of regulars

By Kathleen Kenna, Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - President Bill Clinton's closest neighbours are not the usual folks next door.

Some wear hardly any clothes in the middle winter and others wear several layers no matter how high the temperature.

Few shower often; many don't know where they'll sleep at night; and most depend on the generosity of strangers for food and necessities.

Many talk to themselves or invisible friends; some are suing federal authorities (or imagine they are) for old, convoluted grievances; others are being persued by some, all or perhaps none of the CIA, FBI, secret service, justice department, social security officials and police.

Most cling to their belongings like hermit crabs, carrying their belongings on their backs or in battered shopping carts.

They come to Washington from all over the United States to stay at Lafayette Park, an historic square that takes up a city block almost the same size as the first family's home.

Park has been called 'America's Town Square'

Lafayette was once part of the formal White House gardens, known as President's Square.

President Thomas Jefferson ordered the green space transformed into a public park almost 200 yeas ago and today, the only thing presidential about the place is its proximity to the president's home.

Lafayette has been called "America's Square" because it attracts so many demonstrators in front of the White House. At the peak of U.S. entanglement in the Vietnam War, it was called Lafayette Peace Park because mass protests of up to to 10,000 demonstrators were so common it seemed some peacenicks never went home.

Some have certainly lived here long enough.

Concepion Picciotto and William Thomas are the only "legal" park inhabitants, sleeping in cot-sized lean-tos made of plastic and protest signs next to the sidewalk since 1981.

They could die here: Both have vowed to maintain their 24 hour, 365-days-a-year protest against weapns of mass destruction until every nuclear bomb on Earth is dismantled.

It would be easy to dismiss the duo as crackpots. Yet their persistant demand for an end to land mines was realized this month after a crusade prompted 160 nations—not including the US.—to sign a global treaty banning the weapons.

The US. and Russia are mothballing other weapons and destroying nuclear stockpiles (although not at the pace sought by this duo and fellow pacifists) and the cold War ended long before the Picciotto-Thomas peace vigil will.

"I' never dreamed I'd spend my life here," the 50-ish Picciotto says. "It's just a struggle for survival, but I stay here to make a point: All the money that is being spent on the military, on space, on weapons production, should be used for social programs.

"For a rich country, there is too much poverty. There shouldn't be so many People on the street."

With the "peace rocks" she hand painted for donations, and her '60s-style placards ("Make peace not war;" "Give peace a chance"), Picciotto's campaign may appear rediculously outdated.

But the same time two new surveys show the income gap between the rich and poor in the U.S. continues to widen rapidly, her plea for social justice rings true.

Regulations were tightened to prohibit camping

As part of a National Park Service crackdown on the growing number of homeless here, regulations were tightened to prohibit camping, so the pair must dismantle their crude homes every day and not leave their protest sites unattended or park police are bound to remove what looks like a pile of trash.

Former Indianapolis resident Dwight Baird , 46, is one of the park regulars who watches the sites so Picciotto and Thomas can use the washroom at near-by fast-food restaurants .

Because of the tumble of rats that frequent waste bins in Lafayette, Baird is among several homeless who sleep at the edge of the park on the grounds of St. John's Church. (The 1816 lemon-colored building is known as Church of the Presidents because almost every president has visited there and each has a kneeling coushion cross-stiched with his name.)

"The rats don't usually jump on you," sais Baird, still wearing three sweaters and two leather coats after an especially cold night. "There's a lot of free food for them."

Bard gets his free meals at a downtown soup kitchen, and has two years in the park, proclaiming his constitutional rights and chatting with other Lafayette old-timers, tourists, bureaaaucrrats and bicycle couriers who greet him by name.

"It boggles the mind that you can be this close to the White Howe and say whatever you want," says Jon Arnold, 38, a freelance researcher who divides his day between the park and the National Archives. "The other day I heard (anti-aborton) protesters screaming that Hillary Clinton eats babies and nothing happened to them.

"I may not want to hear that, but I wouldn't have it any other way. If we didn't let the fools out here to protest, the rest of us couldn't speak."

The park draws a weird crew of supporters of the First Amendment (the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and other rights), including the near naked Elijah, a dreadlocked 52-year-old who landed here soon after he began a life of "barefooting" across the U.S. in 1981.

Admitting he wears denim cut-offs only to avoid being arrested for nudity in public, the father of six (including a pro football player, he clains) says he's preparing for Armageddon. Elijah reckons—by some biblical interpretation—the world will end in the year 2028.

"I am a nomad. And I'm trying to keep my tan."

Along the park's border, other homeless and jobless men battle all day and sometimes into the night on cement chessboard tables.

'Everyone has the right to demonstrate'

"This is the Super Bowl; this is where the strong play; this is where you'll find the Russian masters," boasts N. S. Kolchak, 46, a.former Louisiana resident who has played chess here, sometimes for cash, since 1978.

"It's a complex game. It's a stupid game," he laughs. "It's an excuse not to have a life."

Maj.. James McLaughlin, former commander of the special forces branch and now a National Park Service official, recalls violent, antl-war demonstrations of 10,000 people in front of the White House, and says Lafayette is a far quieter refuge today.

"I've seen it all" he says. "There's no political issue I haven't heard there. But this is America and everyone has the right to demonstrate."

On the morbid side, demonstrators have brought a dead fetus (for an anti-abort protest) and the body of a dead adult in a coffin (for an anti-AIDS protest), accompanied but a mortician, McLaughlin says.

"This used to be a nice park, where people would sun themselves. . . but it's changed a lot over the years. It's very sad. People come from all over the world to see the White Home and say, 'Oh God. I can't believe I came all this way and it looks like this."