By Kathleen Tyman
The new, carefully painted signs on the White House fence
read "Wanted: Wisdom and Honesty," among other noble but
obscure demands. They are the property of William Thomas, one of
three self appointed protesters-in-residence.
Thomas and Concepcion Picciotto have been in their chosen
spot on the sidewalk everyday for more than a year. Several
months ago, they were joined by Arthur Harris, 41.
Until last June, they kept a 24-hour-a-day vigil. After
dark, they would unroll dirty bedding and curl up into a heap on the sidewalk, often joined by transients and other homeless
But at 4 a.m. on June 17, the Park Police broke up these
strange bedfellows, in compliance with a new regulation banning
living accommodations in unauthorized locations, including
"sleeping activities or ... the laying down of bedding for the
purpose of sleeping."
The police raided the small encampment and confiscated a
dozen or so placards and ordered the inhabitants to leave.
The transients fled, but Thomas, Picciotto and Harris, who consider the sidewalk their home, held their ground and were
William Thomas, a bearded young man with scraggly
hair and dirty jeans, looks like a leftover hippie. He says that how old he is and where he comes from are irrelevant.
His green eyes wander, but he speaks articulately about
his philosophy of world citizenship and his adventures in
attempting to practice it.
He says he has wandered across north Africa and much of
Europe, challenging national boundaries and authorities by
refusing to have anything to do with visas, travel permits or any other form of bureaucratic control over his movements.
He has spent time in jails in several countries, including seven months in England after throwing away his American passport and refusing to cooperate with authorities.
Finally, he was deported to New York, and now he says he
is being kept illegally in this country. He doesn't want to be
here, but he cannot leave because he refuses to get another
passport. It is to protest that injustice that he has spent 15
months in front of the White House.
Conception Picciotto is there because "I just
want to be heard." She is a small woman in her early 40s
with gentle eyes and soft voice, and she pulls from her bag of
carefully kept papers a picture of herself in a previous life,
dressed in an evening gown, her hair beautifully coiffeured, in a comfortable apartment in New York which used to be her home.
She tells of a husband and an 8-year-old daughter, a job
she once had at the Spanish Embassy, a "respectable life" that
disintegrated into a homeless wandering that ended last August in front of the White House. She has been there ever since.
Friends at the Center for Creative Non-violence,
sponsors of a drop-in center where Picciotto has sometimes eaten
and showered, say she had a "breakdown." She tells of
estrangement from her husband, a court's denial of her right to
see her child, and of being "driven like a ping-pong ball" from
place to place by police in her efforts to settle somewhere.
She wears a "helmet" on her head constructed of wigs and
aluminum foil, which is to protect her from "short waves and
gases" that she says the government is directing at her.
Harris' unwashed frightful appearance belies his gentle manner.
He is the most taciturn of the fences family. There because "I
couldn't find anyplace else to be." "The government is doing
something to me or allowing somebody else to do it," he
A former construction worker from San Antonio,
Texas, Harris says he is no longer allowed to work. He plans to
stay on the sidewalk "until my situation changes and I find out
what the government is doing to me and why."
Since their arrest in June the three have been retreating
after nightfall to the crannies of nearby buildings, tucking
themselves inconspicuously into doorways or under arches. If they are discovered, the police chase them.
The case against Picciotto was dismissed because of a
technicality brought up by her government-appointed lawyer,
Richard Lurye. Thomas and Harris were released and ordered to
appear at a hearing in September. On Sept. 20, both were
convicted by a magistrate of sleeping in an unauthorized
location. Thomas got a 90-day suspended sentence; Harris, 45
days, also suspended. Both are under one year's probation not to
violate any District regulation.
The new signs have multiplied since Thomas' conviction.
They seem to be his way of striking back.
The case against Thomas and Harris is being appealed to a
District Court. Their lawyers say the case has a constitutional
For the poor and homeless, Lurye said, "sleeping becomes a form of symbolic speech. At the very least, (the regulation) is careless with respect to its impact on First Amendment rights," he said.
Also interested in the case are the American Civil
Liberties Union and the Center for Creative Non-Violence. In a
case won by the center in January, the U.S. Court of Appeals
ruled that demonstrators sleeping in the course of conducting
their First Amendment rights do not constitute camping as
prohibited by National Parks Service regulations. The Parks
Service decided to more clearly define "camping," and thus the
WASHINGTON TIMES STAFF