Peace Park: First Amendment on view
By George Neavoll
"I always like to see you with your signs across from the White House," I told Bob Dorrough on a recent trip to Washington. "It's a good backdrop for the First Amendment freedoms we enjoy."
For the protesters of Peace Park, however, those freedoms have been bought with a sometimes heavy price. Mr. Dorrough a handsome, friendly man who keeps a 24-hour vigil with his wife Lynn, once allegedly was beaten by park police with a belt buckle while his hands were handcuffed behind him.
Concepcion Picciotto, down the sidewalk, displays a photo of her own bloodied face after she had been beaten, either by park police or by U.S. Marines. (The story varies with its retelling.)
The National Park Service police officers charged with enforcing the regulations governing Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, strongly deny the beating allegations.
Protesters have been arrested, however, for violating regulations that border on harassment, if they aren't harassment itself. William Thomas (shown here), who with Ms. Picciotto started the Peace Park Anti-Nuclear Vigil on-June 3, 1981, no longer is on the sidewalk, in fact. He's in prison. He was sentenced in U.S. district court on Jan. 28 to 60 days' imprisonment for "camping" in Lafayette Park.
Ellen Thomas, his wife, and two others, Stephen "Sunrise" Semple and Philip Joseph, were sentenced to 50 days in prison each. On March 3, the Thomases were sentenced to an additional 30 days each on the same charge but for different dates.
ALL this seems a little stiff to me. Granted, the Lafayette Park demonstrations began to get out of hand several years back. When the National Park Service banned permanent protest displays from the White House sidewalk in 1983, the protesters went across the street to what they called Peace Park.
A year earlier, Mitch Snyder and his Community for Creative Non-Violence had erected a tent city in the park as a symbolic protest against the plight of the homeless.
The signs got bigger and more numerous, and sometimes were made into lean-tos for protection from the elements. The Park Service responded by issuing a regulation that banned "camping" outside approved areas.
The Supreme Court upheld the regulation in 1984.
Two years later, the Park Service added more, even more restrictive regulations. Now, each protester was limited to two signs, neither to be more than 4 feet square in size or one-quarter inch in thickness. Worse, protesters could move no more than 3 feet from their signs at any time; if they did, the signs could be confiscated and they could be arrested.
Demonstrators were allowed to have a sleeping bag and enough food and protest hand-outs for 24 hours.
WHAT constitutes "camping" has become the real rub at Peace Park, however. Bob Dorrough told me that when he tried to put a plastic sheet over his belongings in a recent rain, park police appeared and told him that was creating a shelter that could be used for camping.
He had to remove it.
The Park Service says camping occurs when a protester moves beyond simply being there to setting up "living accommodations."
"Who is protecting citizens from these law enforcement officers?" asks Concepcion Picciotto in one of her hand-outs. "How can we defend ourselves against their lies and corruption? Are we supposed to keep quiet in the face of this persecution?"
The persecution doesn't come just from the federal government, either. The protesters have to endure terrible insults and verbal attacks from passers-by. "Get that out of the way!" one motorist screamed as I was visiting with some of the demonstrators.
NATIONAL Park Service rangers and police long have had the image of being highly professional, helpful and kind. That Image is eroded, however, by crackdowns on peaceful protesters doing nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights.
Bob and Lynn Dorrough, for example, merely are seeking signatures on a petition to Congress and the Supreme Soviet to ban all nuclear warheads by the year 2000. "We've gathered over 45,000 signatures..., we're seen by 3 million visitors a year, we've had tens of thousands of conversations concerning the threat of extinction," Mr. Dorrough wrote earlier this year.
In fact, I believe the presence of the protesters adds a great deal to the telling of the story of Lafayette Park. The park has been the scene of protest rallies and demonstrations for nearly 100 years, and frequently is compared with London's Hyde Park.
The National Park Service, with its excellent interpretive programs for the National Capital Parks, should regard the protesters as part of a "living history" tableau, instead of being so uptight about someone dozing off or putting up a sheet of plastic as protection from the elements.
The Park Service thus would be restored to its noble purpose, and the Peace Park protesters would have no reason to fear official persecution for putting the First Amendment on display, every day and hour of the year.
Editor of the Editorial Page