For reasons connected with the high cost of parking at the fancier Washington hotels, my occasional early-morning walking route to a press breakfast takes me across Lafayette Park, just opposite the White House.
Here, where Henry Adams once built a great house, and where Andrew Jackson still rears his horse in equestrian splendor,my dedication to the constitutional right of petition undergoes -and invariably flunks-- a stern test. It is not unlike the test your belief in free speech would undergo if someone were screaming political slogans in your ear every time you hit the sidewalk.
The test for me is the clutter of billboards, placards, tents, mock cemeteries and whatnot that now disfigures one ofWashington's most agreeable squares, and one of the few refuges of distinguished architecture.
I was delighted, therefore, to read that the National Park Service: intends to crack down on the demonstrators who (often in absentia) have turned Lafayette Park into a junkyard, a zealot's haven but a citizen's eyesore.
New regulations would restrict the size: of placards--a long, ugly row of which now conceal, at eye level looking across Pennsylvania Avenue, the north facade of the White House. They would also have to be attended, or they would be treated as abandoned property.
The Park Service is, if anything, over-cautious. But depend on those who confuse vandalism with liberty to find even these mild measures objectionable.
The American Civil Liberties Union, bless its myopic soul, predictably finds this tightening frivolous, perhaps unconstitutional. "They want to make Lafayette Park look more pretty," said an ACLU spokesman, "[but] we just don't think that is a very weighty concern to justify the infringement of First Amendment Rights.
Not a weighty concern An exercise of rights that blights, all day every day, a public square? How far, one is led to speculate might libertarian numskullery go?
If someone with a burning message is moved to bedeck the Washington Monument with a huge wraparound banner the 100-foot level, or hang a sandwich board with anti-nuclear slogans around Mr. Lincoln's neck in the Lincoln Memorial, must tho aesthetic interests of tens of thousands be dismissed?
Why must the rest of us suffer, in silence some trashing of the commonwealth every time a world-saver with $20 to spend for a signboard and a paint brush goes into action! By long legal usage, even the most essential personal liberties are subject to reasonable "time, place and manner" restrictions when their exercise becomes a nuisance or a menace to others.
It is, as Holmes told us. no legitimate exercise of free speech to cry fire falsely, in a crowded theater, causing a panic. And nd even the silliest judge in the land would uphold your right to ring my door- bell every day at 3 a.m. to deliver your urgent warning against nuclear power.
This is not a plea for banning the right of timely and appropriate petition. It is an argument for measure, and for what might be called the Fifth Freedom: the right to enjoy unlighted the graces of the American landscape.[WHAT WOULD THE LANDSCAPE LOOK LIKE AFTER A NUCLEAR WAR?]
And by the way, while thousands of tourists must seek their first southward glimpse of the White House across a forest o[ placards, just who is being petitioned for a redress of grievances! Ronald Reagan is at the ranch. Congress is in recess and even when in town does business near Lafayette Square.
The petitioners and demonstrators should be permitted to do their thing at set times in the park, or in front of the White House or wherever they wish, then fold up,their demonstration sets and move on.
Outrage over the casual spoliation of the American land and cityscape of which the trashing of Lafayette Park is part--is made the keener by visits to European cities. They somehow manage to avoid becoming political gulags without sacrificing their visual grace.
Not so us. Like the clutter erected on the west side of the Executive office Building, like disfiguring, shoddy, box-like office buildings, steamy parking lots, instant-food strips. daily litter sufficient to make a landfill of the Pacific Ocean bed the junking of Lafayette Park is of a piece with our national tolerance of ugliness: And this in the name of liberty! Thomas Jefferson, who had much to say on that subject, was a man of taste who saw that virtues need not be graceless, nor beauty incompatible with liberty. A citizenry that becomes visually brutalized exposes itself to political brutalization as well.
The cluttered landscape of Washington's Lafayette:Park provides: a haven for protester and their causes - and a visual black eye for lots of residents and tourists, Concepcion Picciotto, who lives between placards emblazoned with mushroom clouds, says new restrictions proposed by the Reagan administration violate the Constitution.
"You can say a requiem for the First Amendment," she said Thursday from the park, located across from the White House. "I think it's very unfair."
The American Civil Liberties Union says if the new regulations go into effect unchanged, it will sue.
But for Joseph Plock, a bank officer, who passes the demonstrators on his lunch hour, the proposed rules don't go far enough.
"I think they (the signs) should all be ripped down," he fumed. "It's litter."
From a 12-foot-high proclamation opposing the bomb to a "Stop the Arms Race Now" message in seven languages, about two dozen signs border the White House side of the park.
Among the main changes, which are subject to a 60-day period of public comment: Each protester would be limited to two signs no larger than 4 feet by 4 feet and they would have to stay within three feet of their signs.
"We've had everything down there from desks to make-shift toilets," says Park Service spokeswoman Sandra Alley.
Nevertheless, it's a curiosity for tourists.
Concludes 15-year-old Ivan Austin of England: "If I was the president, I wouldn't like it much."
(picture: SIGNBOARD PROTESTS: placards line Lafayette Park across from the White House. photo by Lee Anderson
New Rules to Curb Lafayette Protests
'Visual Blight' Cited
By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
The National Park Service, arguing that the proliferation of permanent protest displays is causing "visual blight" in Lafayette Park, has announced new regulations that would restrict both the size and the number of protest signs there and prohibit the plywood huts and other structures that have sprung up across the street from the White House.
The regulations, according to the Park Service, are intended to control the manner, but not the content, of protests by demonstrator;s who have settled into the park on a long-term basis and turned its picture-postcard beauty into what many call an eyesore.
"We've obviously had a lot of complaints about conditions in the park," said Sandra Alley, associate regional director of public affairs for the Park Service's national capital region. "We're not trying to curb First Amendment rights, but we are seeking some sort of balance.
Hand-carried signs would be exempted from the new regulations, and protest groups would be allowed to set up temporary speaker's or "soapbox" platforms for rallies in the park.
But other "structures"--the huts, chairs, desks, makeshift toilets, kitchen sinks and other personal items that officials say protesters have brought in or "stored" in the park--would be prohibited.
Under the new regulations, scheduled to take effect in late November after a period for public comment, signs placed or set down in the park must be no larger than four feet in either dimension and no thicker than one quarter inch. They may not be elevated more than six feet from the ground at their highest point and may not be combined with other sigrls to form larger structures.
No protesters may have more than two such signs in the park at any one time, and those signs must be "attended" at aII times, meaning that: someone must be within three feet of the sign or it will be considered abandoned property.
Park Service officials say they need the tighter restrictions because protesters have begun setting up billboard- like, hand-painted signs along the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the park, obscuring the view of the White House. posing a Safety threat in high winds and generally ruining the park's esthetic quality.
But park protesters and civil libertrians, who have tangled with the Park Service before, raised concerns yesterday thnt the new restrictions could violate constitutional protection of free speech and free expression.
"They`want to try to make Lafayette Park look more pretty in the view of some people," Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU's local office here. "We just don't think that is a very weighty concern to justify the infringement of First Amendment rights."
Though an around-the-clock antinuclear vigil has been going on in the park for more than two years, court decisions have prohibited overnight "sleep-in" protests there. Long-term demonstrations on the sidewalk in front of the White House also have been banned, a move that has made Lafayette Park all the more attractive to protesters.
"I came here June 27 and I just haven't gotten home yet," said Prima Blakus of Portland, Ore., who sat in a chair at the southeast corner of the park yesterday and flashed the peace sign to passing motorists. "Now I've gotten stubborn,I'm waiting for world peace." More than 50 signs--encouraging everything from world peace to, birth control to freedom of religion--were set up in the park yesterday, sharing space with lunching office workers and drawing the attention of tourists. Only two demonstrators, Blakus and Concepcion Picciotto, were in the park with the signs.
Picciotto, an organizer of the anti-nuclear vigil, said she and a companion, William Thomas, built several of the larger protest signs that face the White House. "The more weapons they build, the more signs we have to have to show the people what is happening," she said.
But Park Service officials, in a memorandum accompanying publication of the regulations in yesterday's Federal Register, warn that without the new restrictions the "dumplike atmosphere" and "building boom" in the park could get ~worse. They say they have received requests for permits to establish a library in the park, a landing spot for;l spaceship and facilities to perform an abortion.
Beaten, abused, living rough, they stand like some moral Maginot Line on a permanent White House peace vigil...
SPECIAL REPORT By COLIN McALPIN
ON June 1,1981, a man and a woman began a remarkable vigil for peace in a small park across the street from the Washington White House... there messages line the sidewalk facing the home of the President of the United States, signs of all shapes and sizes, in various colors, with drawings of the mushroom cloud of skulls...angled side by side, they stand like a moral Maginot Line resisting the White House.
The man and the woman-Concepcion Picciotto and William Thomas- live under the stars, exposed to the rain and snow, summer and winter, without tent or sleeping bag. They feed like the pigeons and squirrels in the park, on what comes along, sometimes from the nearby McDonald's or Hardees bins.
It is a starkly contrasting picture in the capital of the world's greatest nation. On the south side, in the great mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue live Ronald and Nancy Reagan...across the street in Lafayette Park, without address or visible means of support, are Concepcion and William, with their messages of peace.
Concepcion was born in Spain and educated by nuns to live by high spiritual and social principles and values.
She takes the time to talk to passers-by about why she and William maintain their lonely and long-lasting vigil: "As a young dreamer, I came to the United States searching for something different - a more promising way of life. Over 20 years ago I became an American citizen. Peace, justice and freedom have always been my ideals, and I believe that these ideals should be available for all people."
When she became a citizen she swore to uphold the constitution...but today she says she sees that the constitution is just a game, a mere facade, a stage play.
Concepcion is a small, untidy woman, surrounded by the rubbish of her camp life. All she wants, she says, is to be "given the opportunity to be heard properly before being hastily condemned because of my actions and activities as a United States citizen."
Sitting in the humid evening of a Washington summer, with the tourists carefully steering a path out of her reach, she told me of the ordeal of maintaining the vigil.
She and William have been arrested innumerable times. He was severely beaten by a Park Police Officer while taking photographs of the Officer assaulting another protester who was handcuffed. She has been forcefully strip searched, and suffered defamation of character by the same officer. "Our signs are regularly confiscated, and broken," she says. "We just come back and defend our rights to free expression in the courts, make more signs, go on with our work."
They seldom sleep, only in brief snatches. If the police catch them asleep they will be charged with camping: "We are not camping, but exercising our right to 'speak out' against the forms of political and technical insanity which presently threaten all life on earth."
On December 8, 1982, one of her mentors and friends, Norman Mayerwas killed at the nearby Washington Monument, suspected by the police of having dynamite in a van parked alongside the tower.
Concepcion - known as 'Connie' to a growing worldwide army of supporters of the anti-nuclear lobby-was then joined by the 38-year-old William, an intellectual known simply as 'Thomas' to the millions around the world who follow this story of the only round the clock peace vigil against nuclear weapons being conducted anywhere in the world.
For their pains, quite literally, they have been attacked and beaten by right wing 'patriots' as well as the police. But their anti-nuclear vigil continues to send a message to the White House.
'Decent, Civilized People Do not Nuke Fellow Humans', says one... 'Live By The Bomb, Die by The Bomb', another. 'NATO and Warsaw Pact Countries Stand Astride The Same Uncontrollable Weapons Pile. The World Trembles at Its Fate', says another...'There Is No Shelter From the Nuclear Bomb', says another.
Press from around the world have photographed this quiet couple; people come from every country in the Western world to see if they are still keeping up their vigil...they do, sneaking a couple hours of half-sleep whenever they can before the police come around to shine a light in their faces-"I have a psychic antennae that picks up an approaching policeman at fifty feet," says Concepcion with a smile, "I can be awake before his night stick starts to poke me into the caged wagon."
Concepcion and William are the lonely watchers at the gate. And they'd like to hear from you. They can be contacted at C. Picciotto and W. Thomas, White House 24-hour anti-nuclear vigil, P.O. Box 4931, Washington, D.C. 20038