Peace Park and the Presidents

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At the time our round-the-clock vigil for peace through justice (and nuclear disarmament) began on June 3, 1981 -- five months after Reagan's first inauguration -- people were still allowed to demonstrate on the White House sidewalk.

But Ronald Reagan's "trickle-down" theories required that traditions be rewritten. In January, 1983, Department of Interior Secretary James Watt penned a memo declaring his intent to ban demonstrations from the White House sidewalk AND Lafayette Park. The CCNV folks were arrested for their tents in the park. And the unsheltered peace vigilers were simultaneously arrested on the White House sidewalk, also charged with "camping."

In those days the judges were still throwing camping cases out of court.

After a February-April 1983 campaign by the Washington Times (Reagan loved the Washington Times), new regulations were written banishing vigils from the White House sidewalk across the street to Lafayette Park. But this didn't solve the DOI's problem. Our vigil continued. U.S. Park Police and DOI lawyers continued working together to make remaining in the park extremely uncomfortable (even though 24-hour vigils are expressly permitted), using the recently-published "camping" regulation over and over to criminalize what was formerly protected behavior.

During the wee hours of the mornings, when tourists weren't about, U.S. Park Police lurked, threatened, and often arrested the vigilers (sometimes brutally). When drunk marines or Young Americans for Freedom pranksters attacked the vigilers, the police usually were nowhere to be found. In court, several officers lied. At least one friendly officer later apologized for arresting us, explaining he was "just following orders." At that time, their boss was Deputy Chief Lindsey, who took a continuing personal interest in removing the "problem" from the park.

On January 25, 1984, President Reagan said in his State of the Union address,"send away the doubting Thomases." On January 31, 1984, Thomas and Concepcion were arrested. Charges were dropped soon after Reagan was served with a motion for discovery.

DOI lawyer DOI lawyer Richard Robbins closely advised the Park Police how the ever-more-complicated regulations should be interpreted.

In November 1984 Thomas, Concepcion, and Ellen filed a lawsuit trying to put a stop to police misconduct under cover of the DOI regulations. Becoming plaintiffs rather than defendants put them in a slightly more favorable position in the media as well as in court. Police became slightly more circumspect. It took prosecutors four more years and another regulation to find a judge who would reluctantly send the vigilers to prison for three months on "camping" tickets issued by order of superiors.


When Ronald Reagan tried to have a second inaugural parade, it was so cold Inauguration Day 1985 that the "Peace-through-Strength" President was defeated by the weather and called it off, and the quarter-million-dollar bleachers went unused. We were shivering and dancing in the northwest quadrant of the park, giving credit to God for a good sense of humor. Caterers dropped off unused feasts, which we shared with homeless folk stuck outside.

We wrote President Reagan a message in 1985, asking that he leave the bleachers up for the rest of the winter, for homeless people to get out of the cold, wet, snowy, icy streets. We weren't asking for us -- we always remain at our signs with the minimal amount of protection necessary to survive. We asked on behalf of the homeless sleeping on the DC streets despite police harassment. (In November '96 we wrote President Clinton the same request because, after all these years, homelessness remains a problem.)

It could be the Reagans didn't take too kindly to our request. After the inaugural , Senator Mark Hatfield wrote a letter to the National Park Service, copy to First Lady Nancy Reagan, asking that something be done about the "visual pollution" in the park. One might imagine the Senator dancing with Mrs. Reagan at one of the balls, ear bent to her complaints.

The Department of Interior Acting Deputy Director advised the Senator that the law protected the vigilers. DOI Assistant Solicitor Richard Robbins began the next phase of changing that law.

Judge Richey was clearly influenced by the third, newest regulation which was enacted in 1986 after another media campaign. This time we got a little good press mixed in with the bad. A voluminous "Administrative Record" included thousands of signatures (collected primarily by Concepcion Picciotto) on a petition opposing the DOI plans for further first amendment restriction gathered during the 60-day comment period. The Park Service had only a handful of letters (one of them Senator Hatfield's) to justify their new rule.

About this time Reagan's teflon coat was wearing thin. Oliver North's bunch were exposed as liars, accused of drugs-for-guns trade with the Contras, pre-election deals with Iranian kidnappers, allegations which escaped full judicial review.

Reagan's "Evil Empire" rhetoric was challenged by a new Soviet leader who declared glasnost, perestroika, and a policy of global nuclear disarmament. Very impressive demonstrations in opposition to Reagan and Bush's "peace through strength" policies in Central America and the Middle East were becoming regular events. Most scientists were declaring "Star Wars" undoable and hideously expensive. Yet arms merchants kept getting new contracts

Cartoonists were boldly lampooning Reagan's policies. More and more homeless people populated the grates and doorways of the nation's capital, while Reagan declared they "wanted" to be there, and claimed the fact they COULD be there proved that America was a great country.

By the time George Bush gave his inauguration speech in 1989, certain segments of the population were becoming tired of the "Reagan Revolution," which Vice President Bush had implemented and gave signs of continuing as President. A large coalition of peace activists came together to stage a "Counter-Inauguration," featuring a banquet for homeless people outside Union Station, There were several demonstrations, and a prayer vigil at National Cathedral while the Bushes were inside.

By 1989, two other sets of signs and several creative young people, affectionately known as the "Ragtag Band," had for several years increased the number of vigilers, bringing music - petitioners - volunteers - energy - friends - and most importantly, the interested public and a loving influence, to Peace Park. A number of homeless people had been attracted by the vigil, and decided to stay, crowded up against wire fences. The press were characteristically sympathetic to the homeless, uncharacteristically friendly to the vigil. Vigiler Brett Hamrick's signs, standing at the foot of 16th Street, were featured in the inaugural section of the Washington Post, and at least one reporter referred to it as "Peace Park."

Columnist Haynes Johnson wrote about Thomas' sign, Wanted, Wisdom & Honesty." St John's Church on Lafayette Square, aka "the President's Church," gave a homily about peace and tolerance which Mr. Bush unfortunately failed to heed.

In addition to his hotly contested adventure in Iraq, and his various lies to the press (two lies we caught were the "Lafayette Park Crack Scandal" of 1989, and "those damn drums" of 1991, which continued to haunt him in 1996), Mr. Bush encouraged or permitted Department of Interior lawyers to publish a fourth regulation designed to further restrict demonstrators in Lafayette Park to no more than "three cubic feet of property," including literature and whatever is necessary to protect oneself from the elements.

This regulation remains on the books, impossible to abide by and survive winter weather, and evoked by Park Police officers the week before inauguration '97 to intimidate Concepcion and make all vigilers very uncomfortable during bitter weather.

The uncaring attitude which plagued the country for the decade of the '80's may be why George Bush had only one inauguration.

Nevertheless, the damage was done. Regulations had become so restrictive that all our fellow vigilers drifted away.

After Clinton was elected, the Washington Times and Atlanta Journal published friendly AP stories, "Anti-Nuke Activists to Hold Their Line."

When inauguration ceremonies were over, and most of the limousines had vanished for another four years, Clinton's political promises and Maya Anjelou's poem ringing in our minds, we welcomed the Clintons into the White House in 1993 by writing a neighborly letter, advising them of the status quo outside their front door, asking that they help rescind the regulations which are threatening the vigil's existence. We received a (friendly) form letter in reply, and a generally less uncivil police force, for awhile.

However, the exceptions have been very bad indeed, such as the tormenting and killing of a homeless man in December '94, in part captured on tourist's video and broadcast on worldwide TV.

The regulations haven't been rescinded.

And the status quo has
substantially changed for the worse.

Thomas suggested the Secret Service put the White House under a bubble, instead of closing Pennsylvania Avenue. City Paper was among those who thought that a great idea.

Since Mr. Clinton's first parade, the vigilers have brought a successful voter initiative to the people of Washington DC, which has six times been introduced to the House of Representatives by DC's Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton as the "Nuclear Disarmament and Economic Conversion Act." The bill immediately gained nine co-sponsors in 1994, but was stuck in committees. Ellen traveled in November 1994 to Japan, invited to speak to 1,500 peace activists in 1994. The idea has enormous support among people from all over the world.

In 1995 Ellen brought a letter from Congresswoman Norton to the International Court of Justice hearings on the legality of nuclear weapons, which was accepted by the judges as evidence that there were elected politicians within the U.S. government who don't agree with the official policy of "we've got 'em, we're keeping 'em, national sovereignty rules." Although Congress and Mr. Clinton continued to drag their feet on this issue (a "Comprehensive" Test Ban Treaty doesn't go far enough), the World Court has found that nuclear weapons could and should be illegal. Sixty-two retired generals in December 1996 declared nuclear weapons unsafe, unnecessary, and insane. One hundred former heads of state have called for global abolition of nuclear weapons, including Jimmy Carter. 85 per cent of Americans polled in 1998 favored abolition.

This is the good news.

The bad news is that under Clinton, Thomas was arrested twice in 1996, first for merely speaking.

He was physically battered - blood on the sidewalk - by a Secret Service officer on Easter Eve, 1996, for reciting the Declaration of Independence when the officer told him to stop talking. The prosecutors failed to prosecute. Then, on election eve, 1996, Thomas was arrested by a Park Police officer for NOT speaking. (Good news is that he was acquitted after a farce of a trial).

During the second Clinton administration, homelessness continued. DOI Solicitors continued to change the rules. We observed numerous incidents where police officers arbitrarily decided that lone demonstrators, preachers, artists, musicians, and even TV film crews, had to stop what they were doing, leave the park, or (yes!) move their stuff out of the park and into Pennsylvania Avenue. There seemed to be no logic or law to support some of the demands. Yet they usually prevail.

In 1999, at a one-of-a-kind, middle-of-the-night presidential drop-in, the Secret Service were told by President Clinton that the vigilers were "no threat." So far the new President Bush seems to feel the same way.

We heard rumors that Pennsylvania Avenue will reopen to vehicle traffic after the W Bush inauguration. Architect Carl Warnke, who redesigned Lafayette Park for Jaqueline Kennedy in the 1960's, has been asked by the Secret Service to do another redesign with a tunnel under the old street, and flowerbeds where police cruisers now lurk. He said to Ellen on June 2, 2001, that he hopes to create an historic atmosphere in and around the park, with people dressed in period costumes, horse-and-buggy rides, street theater, etc. - for and by the people. Perhaps this will happen. Whether or not, perhaps the police will be less inclined to behave as if they have exclusive domain. Perhaps George W. Bush will be tolerant. Perhaps you will help the new President, as well as the Representatives and Senators, to recognize the importance of protecting free expression outside the White House, and to seriously address the issues being raised by the vigilers day and night.

If we disappear, unless we've left because we've won our way, and nuclear weapons no longer exist on earth, and justice at last prevails, our disappearance from Lafayette Park would be an ominous sign indeed.

So if you're looking for us and don't find us, patrol the whole park.

If you still don't see us, call (202-456-1111-0) or write the White House and ask the President to use his power to de-regulate and protect Lafayette (Peace) Park, and tell the police and Department of Interior lawyers to "leave those harmless peace vigilers alone."

Write us what you think about it all!
1997 Inaugural Introduction | Park Closures | Pennsylvania Ave. Closure
Peace Park | Proposition One
Legal Overview | Regulations