By Karen Masterson and Mike Householder
WASHINGTON – Teamwork allows three of the District’s most durable peace activists to protest within yards of the White House in a 24-hour, in-your-face-mister-president vigil.
Concepcion Picciotto, 55, and William and Ellen Thomas, both 50, have lived on the sidewalk across the street from the White House for more than a dozen years.
In a tag-team vigil, two of them hold anti-war signs, pass out literature and circulate a petition while the third takes breaks to use a toilet, take a shower, find a sandwich or sleep.
Without each other, they would most certainly be arrested for violating strict rules that bar protestors at Lafayette Park and the Mall from camping out there, or moving more than 3 feet from their belongings.
Picciotto said 16 years of enduring blizzards, rain storms, sub-zero temperatures and unbearable heat “is a sacrifice.”
But, she said, if she were not explaining to tourists the treachery of war, no one would. “People have to know that war is the destruction of everything and everyone,” Picciotto said.
William Thomas openly questions the practicality of the round-the-clock vigil, but said until he can figure out a more effective way to protest, he will remain a part of the peace trio. “We’re up against some large powers,” he said.
Maj. Robert Hines, spokesman for the National Park Police, said he is quite familiar with their tactics and passion.
He said they and others like them were responsible for the Reagan administration’s request to the National Park Service to tighten protest rules for Lafayette Park. The park “looked like a hobo jungle, not a national park across the street from the president of the United States,” Hines said.
The rules were tightened to prevent using the park for living accommodations.
The rules have deterred many, but not Picciotto and the Thomases. But, William Thomas said, “Anyone who thinks we have comfortable living accommodations out there is irrational.”
“It’s a nightmare to go to the bathroom,” Picciotto said. She said one of the Thomases will stand by her post as she hops on her bike and heads to a McDonald’s or Roy Rogers to use the toilet.
Sleeping is also a problem. “I can’t lay down to sleep, so I sit up all night, and the police watch all the time,” Picciotto said. She catches sleep by sitting on a milk crate, dozing for short periods throughout the day and evening.
Ellen Thomas said she sleeps at nights at an office on 12th Street in Northwest that has become an informal headquarters for their cause. While she sleeps, William Thomas mans her station. He said he spends considerable time in the office during the day.
But Picciotto – looking like a hobbit in a helmet-like wig, bulky weather-worn clothes and furry hiking boots – said she has managed to stay warm even on the coldest days by layering her outfits.
The trio met by happenstance.
Originally from upstate New York, William Thomas came to the District in the late 1970s after a trip overseas. He said while traveling, foreigners asked him if he thought this country’s nuclear weapons capabilities were immoral.
He said he thought about it and decided, “I have to be a peacemaker or an American.” He said to be both is contradictory. So he became a peacemaker in 1981 on the sidewalk outside of what he considers to be the largest symbol of American immorality.
Picciotto, born in Spain, moved to New York City in 1960 to work in international trade and for the Spanish Embassy’s commercial office.
She came to the District in 1981 to get legal help in a custody battle she was losing against her husband for their daughter Olga, who was then only 5. She said she got no help. She has not seen her daughter, now 21, since she lost custody.
With no place to go and no money, she met William Thomas in 1981 on the sidewalk in front of the White House, and decided to adopt nuclear disarmament as a way of promoting social justice. She feels justice was denied to her during the custody case.
Ellen Thomas met up with the other two three years later. Her name was then Ellen Benjamin.
She was strolling through Lafayette Park on a lunch break and wound up talking with Picciotto about peace. Within six weeks, she had joined the cause and married William Thomas.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a middle-class household, Ellen Thomas has adult children and has worked as a writer, paralegal and photographer. She said her first “awakening” came while she was living in Minnesota. “The social activism of the area rubbed off on me,” she said.
But the big push out of the mainstream and into total- activism was that conversation with Picciotto.
“It planted a seed,” she said. She quit her job as an administrative assistant for the National Wildlife Federation and took up her station on a slab of concrete on Pennsylvania Avenue.
William Thomas calls himself a radical, but said his wife has influenced his cause by making him see that staying inside the law produces results. He has an arrest record that includes repeated offenses for violating park rules.
In 1993, his wife convinced him that standing outside the White House with big signs wasn’t enough. She got him, Picciotto and others to push for voter approval of Initiative 37. The initiative put D.C. voters on record in support of dismantling nuclear weapons by the year 2000.
The three now ask tourists to sign petitions that call for disarming all nuclear weapons and converting defense funds to education, health care, housing and environmental restoration.
Gathering signatures since 1987, they now have a list of 400,000 to 500,000 names, William Thomas said. -30-