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From Lafayette Square Lookout, He Made His War Protest Permanent

William Thomas, shown with wife Ellen, maintained an antiwar vigil in Lafayette Square for almost 28 years.
William Thomas, shown with wife Ellen, maintained an antiwar vigil in Lafayette Square for almost 28 years. (1993 Photo By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
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A steady run of visitors dropped by to see Mr. Thomas -- from Philip F. Berrigan, the antiwar activist and former Roman Catholic priest, to Japanese survivors of the World War II atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1991, the Berlitz Travel Guide ran a photo of his vigil with the caption: "It is the right of every American to take a stand and make a point."

Months after Mr. Thomas took his spot near the White House, Concepcion Picciotto, a Spanish-born woman of like pacifist bent, joined the vigil. She constructed a snug, well-insulated tent as a refuge.

Mr. Thomas told a Cox newspaper reporter that she arrived initially in need of medical help for her legs, and he found her a doctor who could help.

"She trusts me," he said. "I'm the only person in the world she trusts."

In 1984, Ellen Benjamin, an official at the National Wildlife Federation who is now affiliated with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, noticed Mr. Thomas as she walked through Lafayette Square.

She liked his signs. They spoke. "I finally met someone," she recalled last week, "who thought about peace as I did." They soon married. Though not your typical Washington power couple, they were surely the most visible in defying power.

Mr. Thomas was one of the unflagging forces in the early 1990s of Proposition One, a ballot initiative calling for nuclear disarmament that was approved by 57 percent of District of Columbia voters. Eight times since, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has introduced similar legislation in Congress. The bill has yet to get out of committee.

Mr. Thomas's legal scrapes came from his insistence that he was vigiling, not camping. In case after case, the courts sided with the government's claim that Mr. Thomas was no more than a happy camper violating federal regulations.

Except for one three-month prison stretch, which included Benjamin, he was usually held overnight and released in the morning.

Mr. Thomas wrote in May 1996 that he sometimes "questioned the practicality of my vigil." But he added: "Figuring that it is more realistic to try to keep the world from changing me than for me to try changing the world -- I've decided to continue my vigil until I'm shown something better to do."

He was never shown.

Colman McCarthy, a former Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace, an organization that fosters conflict resolution. He teaches courses on nonviolence at six Washington area schools.

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