Columbus Dispatch Wednesday, October 6, 1999 Page: 01C



Photo: Alysia Peyton
Byline: Mike Harden
Source: Dispatch Columnist
Series: American Portraits
Columnist Mike Harden and Photographer Alysia Peyton recently set out to see America, intent on finding out who we are as a nation before the dawn of a new century.

WASHINGTON -- The pigeons have been conducting strategic airstrikes on Ellen Thomas again. Reeling in across Lafayette Park, they bank and dive through tree boughs, drop their payloads, then scream toward the waning sun.

"That's one reason I use an umbrella in the fall when there are no leaves to protect you," Thomas said. "And, no, it doesn't bring you luck."

The painted plywood cathedra where Thomas sits vigil across from the White House is part of an ongoing anti-nuclear protest launched in the summer of 1981.

William, Thomas' husband, inaugurated the round-the-clock demonstration in the first year of Ronald Reagan's maiden term in the White House. The agenda of the protest is as simple as it might be unattainable: Dismantle all nuclear warheads and divert the human energy and financial resources sustaining them to more humane enterprise.

Depending on one's viewpoint, this makes the Thomases either noble martyrs fighting to halt the world's march toward Armageddon or -- conversely -- a pair of relentlessly naive zealots who have chosen to make a career out of a fool's errand.

For all their efforts, the Thomases have seen their beloved Proposition One ("the Nuclear Disarmament and Economic Conversion Act") introduced in Congress four times and shot down (so far) three. The fourth attempt likely will die in committee.

Eleven years ago, they were sent packing to a federal penitentiary for what the Department of the Interior described as "illegal camping." The protesters defended their actions as an exercise of their First Amendment rights.

In sentencing the two, an exasperated U.S. District Judge Charles Richey acknowledged, "I know you're going to come right back when you get out, but I hope that by sending you to prison, it will deter others from adopting your lifestyle."

"It won't work, your honor," Ellen Thomas said she replied.

For three months, the Thomases cooled their heels in federal correction facilities. They were released only to continue their ongoing sparring with Department of Interior lawyers, a protracted skirmish that resembles nothing so much as a pair of ducks attempting to nibble one another to death.

The sign that backs the couples' vigil throne must conform to within one-quarter inch of permissible dimensions (4-by-4). They are prohibited from keeping any more than 3 cubic feet of personal property on the premises. If either one ventures more than 3 feet away from their plywood broadside, they can be arrested.

She claimed, "My husband was arrested for refusing to stop reciting the First Amendment after a Secret Service officer told him to stop. They called it disorderly conduct."

During her first years at the anti-nuclear demonstration site, Mrs. Thomas said it was not uncommon for her to spend as many as 20 hours a day along the curb of Pennsylvania Avenue.

She and her husband have been able to recruit a sufficient number of volunteers to permit them to work more with the Web site ( they run out of a small house on 12th Street N.W. They have been living there rent-free in exchange for renovating it.

To sustain their demonstration, they must adapt a Blanche DuBois appreciation of the benevolence of strangers. They make it from month to month "living simply, dumpster diving when we needed to, a few donations from individuals.

"We pick up bread from a bakery and (day-old) sandwiches and salads from a deli four days a week. I'd rather starve than ask for money.

"For 15-1/2 years, I have been saying that I will do this until there are no nuclear weapons left on Earth," Ellen Thomas said. "I'll be disappointed if I die and it hasn't happened."