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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

From Outside The Bubble: 1601 Pennsylvania Avenue

<utside the building I work in sits the safest park in the world. Because Lafayette Park is enclosed by the Treasury Department, the Federal Courts Building, and the White House, the streets around the park are closed off to traffic and Secret Service agents are regularly stationed around the perimeter. Despite its close monitoring and proximity to power, ironically, this park is also the scene of the longest standing act of government protest in our country’s history.

While walking to my first day of work I noticed a tent made out of blankets and tarp held up by metal rods sitting in the middle of the park. Through a flap in the fabric I could see a man with a very long and bushy beard peeking back at me. Around the tent were big wooden signs with largely printed words and newspaper articles. I didn’t notice what they said at first but as I continued to pass tent every morning I saw more of the print and noticed phrases such as “Anti-Nuclear Protest” and “Wanted: Wisdom and Honesty.” I realized that this was not simply a homeless man living in the park, but a man making a statement.

A couple weeks after I first noticed the man, I mentioned him to a co-worker. I commented on how odd it was that this protest had been happening in the park everyday for two straight weeks. My co-worker informed me that the man had actually been there and protesting “since the Reagan era.” I laughed – he was clearly exaggerating.

However, just in case there was some truth to the comment, I searched for any mention of his protest online. I discovered that his name was William Thomas and that he had indeed been sitting in Lafayette Park since 1981 protesting a multitude of government actions including war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. His friends had even set up a website documenting his record breaking protest. In 1980, Mr. Thomas moved to Washington to volunteer at a homeless shelter named Community for Creative Non-Violence after attempting to renounce his American citizenship by throwing his passport into the Thames River during a trip to Europe, and when he began his anti-war protest in the park he never expected it to last so long.

When construction began to prepare for the inauguration, the Secret Service progressively restricted more and more access to the park and its surrounding area. One day, I noticed that the tent was missing and I became worried that the man who lived inside had been forced out of his home. I looked around for him and quickly saw that he was safe and had relocated his tent and signs to the very edge of the park. I continued to look for him each time he was forced to move due to inaugural preparations.

I began to consider our relationship a silent friendship. We never spoke to each other but I often worried about him especially when it was exceptionally cold. I always smiled at him when I passed his tent and he always peeked out from the tent back at me.

William Thomas passed away on January 23 at age 61.

When I woke up the next morning and read about his death in the paper, I felt the loss.

I didn’t necessarily agree with his cause or method, but I respected his tenacity. I believe he continued to protest for nearly 28 years because he thought that his vigil was what he could contribute to the world and he was going to give it his all. In his dedication to fight for what he clearly believed to be a moral absolute, I saw a bit of Carleton in him. I learned in his obituary that he wasn’t even homeless. He owned a nearby home that he had purchased many years ago with inheritance money from his mother and even married a woman that he met a few years into his protest. But he chose to spend all his time in the tent in Lafayette Park – talking to tourists and locals about his cause.

The tent is still there and others have continued the anti-war protest. If you are ever in Washington I encourage you to visit Lafayette Park and witness Mr. Thomas’ legacy.

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