DC protest group stands test of time

July 9, 2000, Matt Hagengruber, KnightRidder

Wash.DC - Ellen Thomas sits on a blue Mexican serape blanket, which partly covers a large blue protest sign directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. It's adorned with the slogans "LIVE BY THE BOMB DIE BY THE BOMB" & "CONVERT THE WAR MACHINES". She's been sitting there, peacefully protesting since 1984. The signs have been there since 1981, and so has her husband, vigil founder Wm. Thomas, whom they call simply "Thomas."

Ellen Thomas talks quietly with passers-by and hands out fliers to tourists, schoolkids and business people. Only those who stop to read the signs are offered a flier. Many toss them once out of view, but a few will read the newsletter, and a few more might check out the group's Web site. At the base of a large tree, her dog, Bo, lounges in the late-morning summer heat. He pants even though he just got a haircut.

Ellen Thomas is just one of a handful of volunteers who spend their evenings, nights, mornings, weekends or afternoons in the shade, with their back to the White House, looking into Lafayette Park. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. 19 years and counting. They're protesting nuclear weapons. They want the U.S. govt, along with the other nations of the world, to give up their nuclear weapons and divert the money spent on the arms to humanitarian and environmental causes.

"Basically, the core motivation is my beliefs," Wm Thomas said. "I believe that energy & resources should be expended in a constructive manner, and I live in a society where constructive use of those resources isn't highly valued."

Party lines

They have been successful in introducing in the U.S. House of Representatives an initiative known as Proposition 1, which calls for the disarmament of nuclear weapons. The proposition has been introduced 4 times by D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, but it never made it out of committee.

William Thomas began the Lafayette Park vigil in 1981 with Concepcion Picciotto, another protester who sits about 20 ft away with her signs. The protesters have endured bitter cold, pulsing heat and jail time in order to promote their message to tourists and now three presidents. One group member claims that President Clinton once pulled up at 3 a.m. and spoke with him for several minutes, but the story can't be substantiated. Ellen Thomas is relieved of her vigil duties after several hours by Donn Condron, another protester. He's been involved in the vigil since its inception, but didn't start protesting until last June.

"I've done all kinds of things, construction, carpentry; but I used to come over here on my lunch break," he said. "We used to use my apartment to make the signs."

Group members have to be careful with how they protest. Displeased presidents and Secret Service agents have pushed for ordinances over the years that limit their protesting, such as allowing only two signs and the right to remove the signs if protesters are more than 3 feet away from them. "When the Republicans are in office, it's more stringent," Condron said. "With the Democrats, it's not as bad." Thomas concurs, pointing out that the group is banished from the White House side of Pennsylvania Avenue. But the vigil is still going with no end in sight.

"The police tried to get rid of him (Thomas), but we just keep on going," Ellen Thomas said. "There used to be a concerted effort to get us out of here, but it doesn't seem to be a policy to remove us anymore, and we appreciate that."

"Planted some seeds"

Ellen Thomas became involved in the group after her two children were grown. "I was working at the National Wildlife Federation," she said. "I decided that when I didn't need to worry about providing for my daughter, I was going to reduce my income to below the poverty level so I wouldn't have to pay taxes, because I don't agree with the policies" of the U.S. govt. She met William Thomas soon after and the two were married in 1984. Since then, she has spent time in prison for "camping" in Lafayette Park. She and Thomas were arrested in 1987 for wrapping themselves in a blanket to keep warm, which, according to the U.S. Park Police, is considered illegal.

Ellen Thomas believes that after 19 years, something has been accomplished. "We've planted some seeds because 3 million people visit the White House each year," suggesting that some of those visitors leave with a different perspective on nuclear weapons. Many people who pass by the signs think that the protesters are homeless, but that isn't the case. The group lives and works out of an office on 12th Street in Northwest Washington, where they run their award-winning Web site. They received the office, a former crack house, free in exchange for bringing it up to code.

Through it all, Ellen is proud to point out that she's there to offer a solution. "I'm doing it because I choose to do it. I meet a lot of interesting people and learn stuff I wouldn't otherwise learn," she said. "I'm not here to complain, I'm here to fix."