Ellen Thomas' Speech for
Japan Peace Conference 11/3/94

It is a great honor for me to be here today, and a great responsibility, for I have been trusted to speak on behalf of many wonderful people from all over the world.

I was born on the northern continent of the Americas. But more importantly, like you, I'm a human being who loves her children, hates violence, and prays daily for solutions to the incredible problems facing this and future generations. I believe that there is only one race, the human race. I was born the same year as Japan's Showa Constitution, 1947. As a California schoolchild, I was taught to dive under my desk in case of a nuclear attack. I asked, "Why?" I had seen magazine photographs of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and couldn't imagine how rolling up in a ball could save me. The teachers never had an answer.

In 1984, after raising two children and working in the corporate world to support them, I decided that nuclear weapons were so horrible I could no longer pay taxes to support them. I quit working for money and began working as a full time volunteer for global nuclear disarmament.

Since then I've usually been sitting on a busy public sidewalk outside the White House, observing and talking to thousands of people, as a member of the 24-hour-a-day vigil which began in 1981.

Under President Reagan, the U.S. government promoted a policy of "Peace through Strength." The vigil maintained that the government's policy amounted to peace through war. The gravest threat to humanity seemed to be nuclear weapons, a problem which seriously threatened the continued existence of life. The vigil tried, by example, to illustrate a policy of peace through reason, encouraging dialogue and understanding as an alternative to violence and weapons. Day and night, summer and winter, the vigilers were available to speak to passersby.

When the vigil began in 1981 it was absolutely protected as free expression under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. When the vigilers were arrested, courts always freed them.

From 1982 to 1992, during the Reagan and Bush administrations, four new regulations were written which turned our protected form of expression into a crime. For years we were jailed, lied about, threatened, and sometimes beaten.

In 1988 several vigilers, including myself, were sentenced to months in federal prison, charged with "camping." Unfortunately, this created bad law. Judges in courts around the United States now cite as legal precedent one or more of the regressive regulations which were written against our vigil.

Whenever we were jailed, immediately upon release, we returned to the vigil, because we knew we had the right under the U.S. Constitution. Eventually the right won out. As I speak here today, the two founders of the vigil -- my husband, Thomas, and Concepcion Picciotto -- are in what has come to be known as "Peace Park," in front of the White House. Concepcion is world famous for standing at her signs day and night more hours than any other human being. Thomas, in fact, was the person invited to this conference. He sends his regrets that he was unable to come himself, but the government won't allow him to leave the country because of his beliefs.

We are still occasionally threatened, but have not been arrested since February, 1992. Thomas thinks the government allows us to stay because our ideas are not taken seriously enough to pose a real threat, so we are good publicity. But I like to believe this proves that when people are patient, persistent, nonviolent, and truthful, governments eventually act reasonably.

Once, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, the Indian peacemaker Mohandas Gandhi replied, "I think it would be a good idea." It is said that law determines civilization. All too often law protects property or ideology at the expense of life. During our prolonged stay at the White House, we have observed how law can change for the worse. Yet slavery, human sacrifice, and cannibalism have been eliminated by law. If law is only something that people create, we ask ourselves, why not create good law? Proposition One is an idea to change law for the better.

In 1987 we developed a petition asking the U.S. Congress for a Constitutional Amendment to mandate that the U.S. eliminate its nuclear weapons by the year 2000 -- along with the then-Soviet Union -- and use its influence to convince all nations on earth to "end war and all military operations" worldwide.

Despite the Cold War, the petition was a big success. Over time it was revised slightly, most importantly to require that the billions of dollars saved by eliminating nuclear weapons be used to convert the nuclear weapons industry and provide for human needs such as housing, health care, education, food, and, perhaps most important, environmental restoration.

Each of three years we hand-delivered letters to all Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress, informing them that many thousands of people had signed the petition from all over the world, and asking that they "bring the idea to the floor for a vote." Apparently petition signatures were not enough. In three years we received only three verbal replies from the politicians' aides: "We have to hear from our constituents."

Thus Proposition One was born, the idea of solving humanity's biggest problems, on a priority basis, through direct voting by the people.

Voter initiatives, or plebiscites, are true democracy, the means by which ordinary citizens can put an IDEA on the ballot for a vote. A community obtains the right to voter initiative by amendment to the state's Constitution. Normally this isn't easy; most politicians aren't interested in giving citizens the ability to write the laws, preferring to reserve that privilege for themselves.

Fortunately Washington, DC, has initiatives. Volunteers collected 25,000 signatures, enough to put Proposition One on the ballot as "Initiative 37." On September 14, 1993, despite a last-minute attack by the media and vocal opposition from local political figures, DC Initiative 37 won at the polls.

Initially DC's Congressional Delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, had vowed to ignore Initiative 37 if it passed. She opposed the idea of a Constitutional amendment as "inappropriate for issues of war and peace." We argued that a Constitutional Amendment is entirely appropriate where issues of life and security are so clearly involved.

When the voters said "yes!" to the idea, Delegate Norton wisely listened. In January, 1994, she proposed House of Representatives Bill No. HR-3750: "The Nuclear Disarmament and Economic Conversion Act."

While HR-3750 does not ask for a Constitutional Amendment, we are very pleased that Ms. Norton introduced the legislation.

Peace on earth may require an entirely new way of thinking. Ms. Norton's bill begins to challenge the basic values of the country, and helps to alter the military-industrial complex, a major economic influence, particularly in rural communities whose primary employer has been a nuclear weapons plant, such as Hanford, Washington and Savannah River, South Carolina. We have a moral obligation to help these communities heal from the environmental devastation, medical experimentation, and continuing lies. HR-3750 could pave the way. As Delegate Norton has said, if enough people unite behind this idea, it could become a global reality.

Initiative 37 has had a positive effect. It has brought people hope. A few journalists and many activists have spread the word about Proposition One to other communities nationwide.

So far eight Representatives have signed on as co-sponsors with Delegate Norton. Within our limited resources we have been spreading the idea as widely as possible.

Groups in New York, California, Michigan, and Maryland are actively working on the idea, and in other states people are talking about working on it. Ploughshares Project in Canada has helped us send thousands of letters and produce a videotape. Emissaries to Moscow in 1990 and 1991 were very warmly received.

Raised in the American education system, I was taught little about your country's history or politics. Just recently I learned about Article 9 of your Constitution, and was struck by the coincidence between our effort to amend the U.S. Constitution with Proposition One, and your struggle to legitimize Japan's courageous renunciation of war by Constitutional decree.

This is not the first time that our experience coincides with Japan's. In 1984, when we named the square in front of the White House "Peace Park," we were unaware that there was an older "Peace Park" in Hiroshima. We quickly found out from a Japanese visitor, of course!

How appropriate that sister "Peace Parks" came independently into being at the two points where the decision was made, and the bomb was dropped.

Technology can be a blessing or a curse; the choice is ours, together, NOW: either to continue to pollute and destroy our heavenly home, or to employ knowledge with the respect for life that humanity's continued existence demands.

As Shotoku Taishi wrote in 604 A.D.: "When big things are at stake, the danger of error is great -- therefore many should discuss and clarify the matter together, so that the correct way can be found."

God bless you with your peace work. God help us all. Heiwa!

Ellen Thomas, 11/3/94
Misawa City, Japan