Poster war rocks Lafayette Square

Capital Sketch, by S.J. Masty

Friday, July 5, 1985, Washington Times

It's Independence Day, 4 a.m., and Lafayette Square is almost quiet. Among the barricade of posters, signs and billboards that seem a permanent fixture across from the White House, a few people are stirring.

Over in the bushes, a hairy, shirtless fellow seems to be having a conversation with a tree. He gesticulates wildly, waving a Jack Daniels bottle for rhetorical emphasis. A few more snore softly, sacked out under rough lean-tos protesting everything from imminent nuclear war to the law of gravity.

Generally, the authors never use 10 words when 100 will do, but a hand-lettered placard, with the picture of a single red rose, somberly states: "In memory of Norman Mayer, Dec. 8, l982." Nearby, another says "Norman Mayer -- Be like him -- Dare to struggle, dare to win." Mr. Mayer, in case you forgot, was the public- spirited citizen who parked a truck bomb beside the Washington Monument until he was given early retirement by a police marksman.

This home for the screwball left is, frankly, a weird place. Momentarily, it's going to get a lot weirder.

A white van and a few cars screech to a halt at curbside, disgorging two dozen people, one wearing a blue blazer and the I ~ begin dismantling posters, stacking them in the van. If anything seems .stranger than yippies and winos. it's the guy with the jacket and tie in lafayette Park at 4 a.m.

The signs go on the van and are replaced with a large posterboard bearing the uncomplicated slogan, "God Bless America."

This is the work of the Lafayette Liberation League (L.L.L.), says its director, a whimsical young man in a red, white and blue T-shirt who goes by the name of Jay Young. His colleagues, however, call him Commander Zero.

"We're basically an ecology group," says Mr. Young, who works - days as National Vice Chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom.

"Taking these signs away is our contribution to improving the ecology of Washington. Our sign is made of 100 percent biodegradable materials. It might take 100 years, but it will biodegrade."

"Yeah," says his chum dryly, "We like environment. Everyone ought to have some."

"For too long," Commander Zero continues, "the left clogged up the park with anti-American protest signs, literally across the street from the president's house. But we're nut just removing the Posters, we re also removing other Trash, like beer bottles."

He explains that the L.L.L. has permission from the Park Service to clear away the signs. Anything unattended, from picket signs to Kleenex, say the rangers, counts as trash. Clearly, these umpteen dozen components of the eyesore are unguarded, he explains.

Suddenly, a shot rings out. Well, actually, it's not a shot, but an emaciated and ginger-bearded guy with a pony tail emerging from a bush, screaming at the top of his lungs.

"Police! Police," he hollers. From under a lean-to creeps a 4- foot tall woman with a 2-foot bee- hive hair-do wrapped in rags. Wearing an ankle-length overcoat in the stifling humidity, she takes up the cry in an Eastern European accent. For emphasis, she throws fistfuls of something at the Liberation League. It looks like Kitty Litter.

A few more combatants wander in from their bedrooms, on the steps of a nearby bank, also screaming for the police.

"It's our property," shouts a guy in front of a sign that reads "Property is Theft."

From the opposite lane on Pennsylvania Avenue, a late model Thunderbird screeches into a 180- degree turn, blocking off the white van, a la Clint Eastwood playing Dirty Harry. A middle-age suburban woman jumps out, shrieking for the police, as the dwarf with the beehive tries to bend the windshield wiper off the van. She isn't tall enough.

Finally, a Park Police motorcycle pulls up on the sidewalk as a confused officer tries to figure out what's going on. The looney tunes weren't supposed to start until the Beach Boys concert.

Immediately, he's deluged with bearded, shirtless men demanding that everybody be arrested.

She refuses to give her name because "my mother would kill herself." She also asks that I not mention her T-shirt. "It's a whole-food store. It's not involved," she explains sensibly. There was no whole-food store anywhere in sight. It was probably innocent.

"Death to America," yells a small fellow in a dirty shirt. Nobody says anything, but he gets his picture taken. Another tries to explain why Idaho is a fascist state.

A few more policemen turn up and begin taking names. "I'm with the Confederate Memorial Association" says a lanky kid. "No," he adds, "I don't know the phone number, but it's downtown. You can't miss it."

"This is terrible," says the Virginia housewife, wringing her hands. "It's un-American." She explains that she often stops here to read the signs. "They're an eye- sore, though," she adds. The policeman nods laconically.

The crowd waits for a legal interpretation from Park Police Mission Control. By now, the yippies and yuppies are chatting in small groups. A yuppie asks a yippie the direction of the men's room. The street person points to a shrub. A cute girl in a Catholic University sweatshirt argues against liberation theology with Charlie Manson's long lost brother.

"Reagan, man," says Mr. Manson. "I mean like, lie creates his own reality. Like, all over the world. Like for everybody."

The beehive lady yells. "Noooooo! America means liberty for all. Not for you!" She throws another handful of Kitty Litter on the back of someone's T-shirt.

"Don't go near her," says the socially-concerned housewife. "She's not all right in the head."

"Really?" I ask incredulously "You mean most people don't sleep in parks, wear ankle-length raincoats in July and throw Kitty Litter?" The housewife doesn't understand.

Finally, Mission Control has a legal opinion. Yes, posters arc abandoned property, but no, they don't know what constitutes abandonment. Maybe that means one protester per poster, maybe it means one protester guarding the whole square. The courts haven't decided on that yet.

In the meantime, everybody's posters go hack up, including the one saying "God Bless America." The police pack up, leaving everyone disappointed -- no goo-goo signs removed, no Neo-Franco Reaganites in the Peoples' Slammer.

The housewife takes a slug at him in disgust. "I'm not one of the street people," she says. "I don't drink from the same bottle as street people" Even social concern has its limits. She asks him if he has a glass. Glass? We're lucky he has pants.

Slowly, the street folk retire to their concrete sitting rooms and posterboard condominiums Slowly, the Lafayette Liberation League lines up along the pavement, unfurling a sing. "Young Americans for Freedom for Reagan."

"We're staying here until President Reagan gets up, says a college kid. "We want to sing him a happy Independence Day."