Lafayette Park: D.C.'s open-air bizarre

October 31, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun Staff writer Mark Matthews also contributed to this article.

Washington -- -- Lafayette Park is a green oasis across the street from the White House where people often claim to be God or the president.

Its exotic denizens -- many of whom actually live in the park -- have proven a constant annoyance to the real presidents. Chanting demonstrators camped there helped drive Lyndon Johnson from office. George Bush complained he couldn't sleep because of the pounding of protest drums during the Persian Gulf War.

The government has repeatedly gone to court trying to eject protesters and eccentrics from the park.

But on Saturday -- for once -- they were all on the same side: the president, the Secret Service and the people in the park. It happened when a man suddenly pulled out a semi-automatic rifle and began raking the White House with gunfire.

Among the heroes who helped subdue the gunman, eyewitnesses said, was park regular Robert Edward Haines, 47, who is known for his cowboy hat and his presidential aspirations. His business cards describe him as "an information broker."

In an interview after the attack, Mr. Haines was modest about his role. He said he just wanted to stop the gunman, Francisco Martin Duran of Colorado Springs, Colo. from harming anyone.

The attack took place on a particularly glorious autumn afternoon. In Lafayette Park, men were playing chess on the concrete chess tables, joggers were out in force, and a group of foreign tourists was listening to Concepcion Picciotto and Ellen Thomas expound on their desire for nuclear disarmament.

Ms. Picciotto, who has lived in the park for 15 years and once thought the CIA was trying to use mind-control techniques on her via a microwave, knows just about all the regulars, including Mr. Haines.

"I noticed the cowboy hat guy," she recalled. "And he was pushing a stroller. I thought, 'Oh, my, he has a baby, I didn't know that.' "

Indeed he did. Mr. Haines was taking care of his baby, also named Robert. But he said he was watching something else. He was struck by the demeanor of a man he'd spoken to about his presidential campaign, a man wearing a trench coat on a very warm day.

As Mr. Haines watched, the man pulled a rifle out of the coat, and began firing through the bars.

Mr. Haines left the baby stroller and ran toward the gunman. He was one of three men who wrestled with the man, holding him until Secret Service agents rushed over the fence and arrested him.

Ms. Picciotto noticed the stroller rolling and started toward it. "I was worried about the baby," she said. "Children are the hope for the future."

"Amen," says a bearded passer-by.

And so Lafayette Park returned to normal yesterday. Joggers shared space with protesters, the homeless with picnicking churchgoers, the lazy with those who work weekends and were taking their lunch break.

As it conducts its review of the event, the Treasury Department may yet succeed in closing Pennsylvania Avenue to the public and part of the park with it.

Court cases have waged for decades on whether demonstrators can live in the park, the size of their signs and the decibel level of their protests. As a general rule, the courts have been reluctant to limit free speech, but consistently receptive to one argument from the government -- the need for security.

Yesterday, however, as Secret Service agents combed the front lawn of the White House for spent bullet casings, there was an unspoken truce -- and a rare sense of mutual respect -- on both sides of the black wrought-iron fence in front of the White House.

"I've been spit on, yelled and cursed by the people who come out of that park," said one Secret Service agent yesterday. "But some of them were heroes."

Likewise, those in the park said they were impressed that the agents valued their safety enough that they didn't just open fire.

"The agents, the tourists, the people [from] here -- all of them were heroic," said Raymond Strand, 47, a homeless man who spends his days in the park and his nights on a stoop in front of a church.

"They showed a real concern for their community, their home."

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