William "Doubting" Thomas, founder of the Peace Park vigil in Lafayette Park outside the White House, died on Friday morning after a long illness. He was 61; he was my friend. I mourn his loss intensely.
Thomas, as he was known to all of us, began his 24/7 vigil for "Wisdom, Honesty, Truth, Justice, and Global Nuclear Disarmament" on April 13, 1981 interrupted only by numerous arrests and a "stay away" order the last year of his life. The anti-nuclear vigil became the most visible statement of an anti-nuclear organization called Proposition One. He was joined in the vigil by his more famous sidekick, Concepcion "Connie" Picciotto, who achieved a small measure of fame when she was filmed by Michael Moore at the vigil for a scene that appeared toward the end of Fahrenheit 9/11. As we mourn the loss of Thomas, we must remember that Connie struggles on and needs our support.
The Peace Park vigil is certainly a tourist curiosity, situated right across the street from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, so close that it has been dubbed 1601 Pennsylvania Avenue. Over the years, the National Park Service has tried to remove it many times, but it remains the eyesore on the front steps of the greatest power the world has ever known, reminding us of our role as a nation in nuclear destruction and urging us to stop now and forever. Unfortunately, that message is as pertinent now as it was when Reagan was ratcheting up the Cold War in 1981. The United States still possesses the world's largest nuclear arsenal; more nations possess nuclear weapons than ever, and the world's energy crisis is increasing calls for nuclear power (or disguise it in the form of hydrogen power, a byproduct of the nuclear process).
This issue is what my friend Thomas fought for, passing out information, talking with strangers, and keeping watch year after year, decade after decade.
Thomas leaves behind his beloved wife Ellen, whose email message reached me this evening. When they were not at shifts at the vigil, they lived in a house not too far distant called the "Peace House," taking in and feeding homeless people, providing space for the Washington Peace Center, and providing a welcome mat to anyone who needed anything or simply wanted the company of good people. Whenever I visited Ellen and Thomas at the Peace House, I was chastised for not coming by enough - tonight, I regret that I didn't.
What I want to reiterate to you all and to Ellen, if she reads this, is the role that Thomas and the Peace Park vigil had on my life. I had a transformative experience in November 2000 because of Thomas and the vigil he started. Without that experience, I really don't think I would have taken the road I went down as an anti-war activist, as a global justice activist, and now as an advocate for buffalo in and near my beloved Yellowstone National Park. It was one of those experiences I will never forget, and it made a profound difference for me and no doubt the people I have been able to touch through my own activism.
If you recall, in November 2000, we had a contentious presidential election involving George W. Bush and Al Gore. I had only moved to Washington, D.C., that past spring in order to work on a Ph.D. in philosophy at Catholic University. However, as upset as I was by the politics and the process of what was happening in Florida, I did not do anything. Never had I protested; never had it really crossed my mind. That was something my parents did during Vietnam; I had thought that era of history was more or less gone, though it had never really stopped. In any event, I was temping at the Urban Institute over in the Dupont Circle area. One morning I couldn't shake the feeling that I needed to do more, but I didn't know what. The only thing that came to my mind was how much I hated the death penalty; however, I didn't really know if that was what was calling me.
I got off of work early in the afternoon and wandered in the direction of the White House. There I saw the Peace Park vigil, which for some reason at that time was set up near H Street on the other end of Lafayette Park, perhaps because the city was getting ready for another inaugural, which tended to move the vigil. I don't recall whether I saw Thomas or Connie, but there was a man there. He looked defeated and sad, as though he needed something from me. All of my being wanted to go up to him and simply say, "God bless you." However, I can be painfully shy sometimes, and I couldn't work up the courage. Instead, I walked away saying nothing.
There have been few times where I felt more guilty than I did at that moment; it is a hard thing to explain because there was nothing technically that I had done that was wrong. Yet, inside of me, I felt this incredible moral failing. And, there was something in that feeling that told me that I needed to be doing more, that to make up for what I had done wrong I had to become active.
And, so I did. I became involved in grassroots organizing, protesting what was happening in Florida. Within weeks, I spent an entire night on the sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court. It never occurred to me that what felt like an amazing feat for me was something that Thomas probably could count years of his life doing in Lafayette Park. I worked with others to try to start a grassroots group. Though that experience burned me in many ways, it didn't ultimately stop me. The lead up to the war in Iraq led me to anti-war organizing, led me to the DC Anti-War Network, and ultimately that work led me finally to know Thomas, to know Ellen, to know about Proposition One and the Peace Park vigil. I'd spend time occasionally covering the vigil when someone had to go for a bathroom break; I joined my partner Genevieve when she and a friend named Midge held a solidarity one week vigil alongside Peace Park. I spent another night in the park honoring the work of the vigil. And, I got to know Thomas little by little.
So, Peace Park and Thomas inspired me to where I am now in so many ways. So many of you getting this know my work right now on Yellowstone issues, but Thomas is an important inspiration that drives me. And, I miss him.
When I knew Thomas, he had this dog named Wise Guy, who died a few years ago. Wise Guy was a pit bull, and yet Thomas kept him at the vigil without a leash. What a sweet dog, and Thomas once got arrested because of Wise Guy not being on a leash. And, yet, through millions of tourists, I never saw anyone afraid of Wise Guy. However, Thomas, when he was in a foul mood, could scare you because he was so passionate and could be so caustic toward the relentless BS from people who tried to defend American war and nuclear policy. He had certainly heard it all, and yet someone would inevitably approach him as though they were giving him an argument he had never heard before. I delighted in watching Thomas talk with people.
It was clear in recent years that Thomas was ill, and I'd often feel sad knowing that. Nevertheless, I was amazed at the way he kept up his commitments despite how badly he often felt. I saw so many activists fall by the wayside over much, much less.
Sometimes, I felt that a lot of people thought the Peace Park vigilers were crazy, and I can only imagine what endless days in the tourist hell outside the White House in all kinds of weather does to one's sanity. However, I have always been convinced that that vigil is the sanest expression of protest against war, that war and those who perpetrate it for any reason are absolutely nuts and that no amount of rationalization in the world can make the carnage of war any more sane. When such power is held in the hands of one man, that's insanity. I heard that a CIA drone killed 18 people in Pakistan today, and few here would blink an eye. How can anyone - are you listening Barack Obama - have that kind of power; how can anyone with that kind of power dare to use it? Thomas was just one man, and perhaps he and Connie alone have stayed sane while we all delude ourselves that the madness of the world is normal.
I want to fight the madness like Thomas fought the madness.
Nuclear war vigils seem distant sometimes to me in the relative paradise of Montana, surrounded by mountains, near the most beautiful and greatest wonders of the world. Here we deal with issues related to the land and those that live on it and the way we should live with land. Yet, another dear friend of mine in the Washington area, John Steinbach - and a friend to Ellen and Thomas - understands perhaps better than anyone how nuclear issues relate with indigenous issues (where on whose reservations so many nuclear tests have been conducted) and relate with land and wildlife issues. Like John, I can't see the Yellowstone I love and the buffalo I love without giving a loving glance back to Ellen and Thomas.
Thomas, we are hurt in ways we scarcely understand by your loss.
The best I can do now is write this ode in your memory and honor, Thomas, and hope that a few people take notice to make the commitment and the connections that your life was about. "Wisdom, Honesty, Truth, Justice, and Global Nuclear Disarmament" indeed.