Columbus Dispatch Wednesday,
October 6, 1999 Page: 01C
NEITHER JAIL NOR PIGEONS
DETER THEM FROM PROTESTING
Section: FEATURES - ACCENT & ARTS
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
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
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
"It won't work, your honor," Ellen Thomas said
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
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 (http://www.prop1.org) 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."
Photo: Alysia Peyton
Byline: Mike Harden
Source: Dispatch Columnist
Series: American Portraits