After 18 Years, Why Won't Stacy Abney Get Off The Steps?
The Washington Post
August 19, 1993
Early this month, Stacy Abney finished paying another in his long, loopy string of debts to society. This one cost him 6 months and 19 days, during which time he celebrated his 82nd birthday in the unlikeliest of places: the Department of Corrections' Youth Center No. 1 in Lorton. Gramps visits the Planet of the Punks. That gross mismatch of person and place seems the ultimate admission on the part of the criminal justice system that it doesn't quite know what to do with -- much less what to make of -- Stacy Abney.
By his own count, in the past 18 years Abney has been arrested 57 times. Records show he subsequently was hauled into court on at least 13 occasions, and convicted on about half those charges. He is uncertain how long he has cumulatively been behind bars. "But it's a gang of time," Stacy mutters. "It's around six or seven years."
The dates change. The crime and the crime scene never do. One misdemeanor appears over and over and over on Abney's rap sheet: "Unlawful entry, U.S. Capitol." Unlawful entry is legal patois for trespassing, which in the case of Stacy Abney translates to refusing to leave the premises he has occupied, except for jail time, for nearly two decades.
Only the president of the United States can boast of having a more prestigious home address than Stacy Abney. The downside for the president is that every four years he has to beg 250 million landlords to renew his lease. Stacy doesn't ask anybody for anything, except maybe a little change.
Stacy Abney's life of crime can be best expressed as an aphorism: The man's home is his hassle. For 18 years he has been living in the carriageway underneath the main steps on the east side of the Capitol building. He doesn't smoke, doesn't drink and has deliberately distilled his existence to a few hunks of cardboard, a blanket and a couple of small boxes neatly filled with spare clothes. He is as consistent in his own way as the law of gravity; a human subway train that makes only two stops: jail and Capitol Hill.
"Stacy has a particular, I guess, mental bent, and nobody's ever gonna change his mind," explains J.G. Lewis, one marcher in the parade of public defenders who have drawn Abney's cases. "You could probably cut his arms and legs off and he would still be back there."
Stacy Abney isn't just another homeless person; he is a homeless protester. He wants redress from his government. Think of him as a round-shouldered, 6-foot-1-inch, 175-pound eternal flame of discontent. Burning, burning, burning. Through rain, sleet, snow and pigeon droppings. Through five presidencies. Through rising hemlines and the fall of communism. Through the entire run of "Cheers." Through three James Bonds and three Redskins Super Bowl victories. Burning, burning, burning.
His consecutive streak puts Cal Ripken's to shame. On June 15, 1975, Abney left home in East Texas and boarded a Trailways bus bound for Washington. On June 17 he began a one-man, round-the-clock, round-the-calendar vigil, starting in Lafayette Square and quickly relocating to the Capitol steps. It took him 16 days to get his first arrest under his belt. The target of his protest was, and remains, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which Abney claims owes him more generous benefits than it has coughed up for assorted ailments he says he suffered in World War II.
In 1946, the VA granted him a modest service-connected physical disability allowance. For years afterward, Abney complained to VA representatives, politicians and servicemen's organizations in Texas before heading north to stir things up. The federal government rates him 20 percent disabled, good for $162 a month. Abney, however, doesn't see a dime. VA rules require that checks be deposited promptly to continue one's eligibility. Abney technically forfeited all benefits when he stopped cashing his checks in a huff some seven years ago. Abney is convinced his body's wracked with 100 percent-level pain, all of it war-related. He's all "buggered up," he says. Aches from head to toe. Chest pains. Balky knees. Weak heart. Gout. High blood pressure. Yet he could never experience enough discomfort or enough discouragement to make him give up and head home.
"I ain't scared of a jailhouse," Stacy says, sitting in his familiar spot about 10 steps up the Capitol staircase, a few feet from the conga line of visitors that snakes into the building morning till night.
"If I was scared of a jailhouse and po-leece, I never would've left [home]. But I never would've believed they was this rotten. Golly gee, Good God Almighty. I figured it for five or six weeks at the most, then I'd be back home."
Oops! He miscalculated. Bad. He has never made it back to Texas for so much as a holiday visit. Been on the job nonstop, seven days a week, all these years.
"The guy is a serial sleeper on the steps," says Jonathan Shapiro, a Justice Department attorney now based in Los Angeles who chalked up an Abney conviction in 1991. "I don't know what else you can do. You can't lock him up forever. It's a public place and it's the Capitol. He's got the same rights to visit as anybody else. But he doesn't have more rights. ... Believe me, the Capitol Police don't want to arrest this guy and we don't want to prosecute him. But he's the one who holds the key to the jailhouse and he keeps lockin' himself up.""
* * *
No band of mimes lives underneath the Eiffel Tower, no unemployed coal miner crashes on the couch at Buckingham Palace. The Stacy Abney saga is quintessentially American: constitutional law with sitcom potential. There is an aura of Mayberry goofiness about the arrangement. There is also an overlay of dead-serious questions regarding individual rights vs. collective security.
On normal days at the Capitol, when the primary task for the police consists of keeping hordes of tourists from trampling the flower beds, Abney presents no problem. Difficulties arise when the grounds go on security alert, as happens for inaugurations, State of the Union messages and short-term crises such as the Persian Gulf War. The Capitol is then like a tavern closing up for the night and Stacy Abney the one customer who ignores last call.
By now the scenario plays out like a dog-eared script. Two Capitol police issue him precisely three warnings that he must vamoose or face arrest. Stacy politely declines to budge. Stacy then gets carted off to D.C. Jail for booking and, when the U.S. attorney deems fit, prosecution.
Two Abney cases -- known around the courthouse as Abney I and Abney II -- resulted in Court of Appeals decisions that have set baselines for acceptable conduct at public forums such as the Capitol and Supreme Court. "There's case law regarding Mr. Abney that we review as part of our training," says Sgt. Dan Nichols, Capitol Police spokesman.
One ruling affirmed that sleeping on federal property can be considered a form of free speech guaranteed by the Constitution; it is unrealistic, the court reasoned, to expect someone to conduct a 24-hour vigil without napping. In addition, Abney is the prototype for what has come to be known as the "lone demonstrator." Two or more protesters can be legally construed as constituting a demonstration and, thereby, held to a stricter behavioral standard. Lone demonstrators are unique creatures, their every action and utterance accorded the full flak jacket protection of the First Amendment. In short, if you're protesting and want to push the envelope of both the law and the authorities' patience, fly solo.
Few, if any, protesters have flown solo longer than Stacy Abney. And he does it the old-fashioned way. No bullhorns. No handbills. No chaining himself to the bumper of Speaker Foley's car. Just an old-timer sitting on the Capitol steps, using the Sunday newspaper as a seat cushion and holding a large, hand-printed sign. Its message makes clear that spelling and punctuation are not his strong points, no big surprise considering he has a fifth-grade education and weak eyesight: "ONE OF THE BLACK DOG SLAVE LOS MY HEALTH IN WW II BAD HEART HI BLOD PH GOUT AND MOR I CAN NOT GET ME G.I. RIGHT AR S.S. AR FOOD STAMPS BECAUS I AM A NEGORE I CAN NOT HELP FORM THE USA AT ALL IN 1992."
The sign approximates the way Stacy speaks when he gets revved up about the VA and his health. His voice loses volume, but gains momentum. Bridges connecting thoughts get washed out. Talking with Stacy Abney can be a bit like asking how to get from Capitol Hill to the White House and receiving directions via Lincoln, Neb.
Inquire about the significance of "black dog," which frequently crops up in his conversation and court testimony, and he'll arrive at an answer -- sort of -- after 20 minutes of verbal detours and dead ends. He begins with his role in pre-D-day preparations, turns left at the Potsdam Conference, makes a quick side trip to Harlem ...
His listener wonders aloud where the black dog fits into all this. "Hold your fire," Stacy cautions, chuckling. "Keep your powder dry."
His monologue eventually comes to a halt somewhere near the end of World War II. Franklin Roosevelt is offering emergency munitions to Stalin. The Russian dictator accepts, but -- Stacy is quoting him now -- not before upbraiding the president on America's treatment of minorities: " 'I'll take [the arms] under one condition. You leave your black dogs home. War is not for slaves. War's for free people fighting to save their own country. Slaves got no country.' "
From where in the well of memory does he dredge up that anecdote? Does it ring true? "I can assure you that Stalin never said anything like this," says Robert C. Tucker, emeritus professor of politics at Princeton, who has devoted more than 20 years to writing a three-volume biography of Stalin.
The black dog may lack a historical pedigree, but don't be too quick to dismiss it as static given off by a cross-wired mind.
"Stacy talks very fast and if you don't listen to him you think he's talking a lot of nothing," says public defender Fran D'Antuono, who first represented him in the early '80s. "But Stacy's actually a very coherent man who's had a lot of life experiences and a great deal to say. Follows politics closely. He's very courteous. He's very clean."
D'Antuono is one of the few Washingtonians who have gotten close to him. After all, your circle of friends shrinks considerably when you spend nearly a quarter of your life encamped at a national landmark. ("I get lonely," admits Stacy, "but I don't get tired of bein' lonely.") He has dozens of loyal acquaintances. Congressional staffers, tour guides and maintenance workers will stop by to say hello, maybe drop off a sandwich.
The person he has grown closest to is theoretically a competitor. Rita Warren has been a fixture on the Capitol steps for 13 years, a relative newcomer who only pops up from June to Labor Day -- except for a two-week special appearance at Christmas time -- and keeps banker's hours at that: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Warren may dress as a chic lady golfer, but her mission is to shower tourists with the love of the Lord. She places a life-size Jesus mannequin and two lambs on the steps near Stacy. Religious hymns and rousing patriotic tunes blare from her boombox. Rita Warren is Italian, lives in Fairfax City with two daughters and two grandchildren, and has discovered her soul mate is an old black man from Texas.
"We hit it off because we believe in demonstrating," chirps Rita Warren, straining to be heard above her favorite tape, "The Majesty and Glory of the Restoration."
Stacy continues to impress her. They were chatting one day last year and he reeled off the names of all the presidents. Sequentially. Washington to Bush. "The man is not stupid," says Rita. "He's stubborn. That's what he is. Very stubborn."
Rita brings Stacy slices of his beloved pumpkin pie and a turkey dinner every Thanksgiving. Stacy, in turn, keeps an eye on Jesus whenever Rita ducks inside to make phone calls.
For a while, Rita had persuaded Stacy to go to her house on Christmas Eve and spend the night. Despite all the good cheer, the guest of honor always got antsy. Felt he was slacking off on his protest. Golly gee, Good God Almighty, what if a VA big shot stopped by the Capitol bursting with the Christmas spirit and dispensing disability benefits? After a few years, he stopped accepting the invitation.
Stacy Abney is not the bitter soul one might expect from reading his protest sign. He is given to tossing his head back in delight at a good joke, and no one gets him going like his Capitol step sister.
"I say, 'Stacy, look at us,' " says Rita, taking in the grounds with a sweep of her hand. " 'You and I are the richest people in the world. We have no money, but we got peace of mind. Look at the property we own and we pay no lights and telephone bill. And nobody can evict us!' "
* * *
Stacy Abney never posts bail. In his mind, posting bail would brand him as a common criminal, and Abney is about as uncommon as a criminal can get.
Should a judge be gracious enough to forgo the formality of bail and release him under his own recognizance, he won't show up in court. Nor will he sign his name for the Capitol Police property clerk. Consequently, he never reclaims his possessions after being released from custody. There are enough old signs and items of moldy bedding at Capitol Police headquarters to stock the Stacy Abney Museum of Protesting.
Abney never married, but still has relatives in Texas. Every few years a niece or nephew will show up at the Capitol, urging him to go back home.
But Chauncey Abney saves his breath. He keeps such a tight lip about his younger brother, he won't divulge when they last saw each other.
"He told me not to bother gettin' into his business and I promised I wouldn't never get in his business," says Chauncey, who lives in Dallas. "I don't know anything. No. We don't have no connections."
Stacy doesn't say much about his pre-protest days, but drips of information leak out. Born June 10, 1911. Raised in Quinlan, which lies about 30 miles northeast of Dallas but nonetheless felt the spooky presence of the Ku Klux Klan. "My daddy's mother's first cousin, they lynched him I'd say somewhere 'twixt 1918, 1923," says Stacy.
He comes from a family of scratch-out-a-living farmers, says he studied agriculture and farmed for a while after the war, but quit because of his delicate condition. However, all that has happened in the last 51 years is really epilogue. Normal life ended for Stacy Abney on July 7, 1942, the day he was drafted into the Army.
Pvt. Abney became a driver-mechanic. He served in England, France and Germany with nuts-and-bolts support outfits like the 4405 Quartermaster Service Company. "He's got a good record," says Marian Ashford, supervisory archives specialist with the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. The Army showed its appreciation with the usual glittery thank-yous. The Good Conduct Medal. American Theater Campaign Medal. World War II Victory Medal.
Abney's complete wartime medical history was forwarded to the Veterans Administration decades ago. Army personnel records only hint at his professed aches and pains. "He suffered from hemorrhoids," says Ashford, scanning old documents. "That was in 1945 to '46, before he was discharged. Then he had an ulcer and then he had bronchitis in '44. Then he had a fractured left hand in '45."
The facts and fictions of his grievance are interred in a confidential, six-inch-thick VA file. James R. Fischl, veteran services officer for the Washington Regional Office, has followed the case since 1978 and admits never having come across another quite like it. "His records have been gone over thoroughly. It's been to the Board of Veterans' Appeals," says Fischl. "He's very articulate and it sounds very, very convincing. I wish it were correct what he's saying."
A 100 percent disability pays recipients $20,760 a year, a sum that by all accounts Stacy Abney has zero chance of ever collecting. He would readily qualify, though, for an old age pension of $7,600. Fischl says VA social workers have tried unsuccessfully to get him to sign on the appropriate dotted line. Fischl even pitched the idea personally.
"He's not rude or anything. You can't dislike him," Fischl notes. "You get frustrated 'cause you know what you want to do and you know what can be done. And then you just feel, 'Why can't I do that?' You feel like a failure sometimes because you can't help him. ... It's not right that anyone should live like that. One night out there would do me in."
The nights can be swamp-sticky hot or meat-locker cold. The days offer another kind of challenge: boredom. Stacy is generally out of his alcove under the steps shortly after dawn. Eats some fresh fruit for breakfast. Goes inside and washes up. Hits the steps by around 8 o'clock. It is unlawful to solicit money at the Capitol, but there's nothing wrong with subtle persuasion. So he lays a hunk of cardboard on the steps and spreads a towel on top. The towel keeps quarters tossed by tourists from rolling all the way to RFK Stadium.
And then he sits down. Sits and observes the tableau of humanity unfold. Notes when the Aqua Cool truck makes its daily delivery of spring water to alleviate the parched tongues of Congress. Notes that the Capitol Police finally got approval to don mesh hats for the summer. Notes that there are fewer foreigners than usual among the crush of 27,000 daily visitors.
Occasionally a grump gets offended by his presence. Occasionally a flag waver gets inspired by his sign. One day early this month, a college-age kid from Amarillo, Tex., walked up, smiled broadly and extended a hand. "I appreciate you kickin' the Nazis' butts," he drawled.
No Superior Court judges want to shake Abney's hand. They're more interested in his head. Since 1975 he has had to undergo no fewer than 14 court-ordered psychiatric examinations to determine his competency to stand trial. Passed them all. If nothing else, the psychiatric reports paint a portrait of a man blessed with consistency of character.
November 1975: "He stated that he believes in God and feels God is good.... He stated that apparently God knows nothing about the Veterans Administration. ... Mr. Abney is preoccupied with his illnesses."
June 1992: "Mr. Abney was alert, cooperative, fully oriented, and in no acute distress. ... He has a strong, insistent belief that the government owes him disability from his military service in World War II."
Assistant U.S. attorneys periodically try to pop the lid on his psyche. Jonathan Shapiro prosecuted Abney when he was arrested for not abandoning the Capitol steps in January 1991 during the tense opening days of the gulf war.
From the court transcript:
SHAPIRO: And what did you do in efforts to protest the grievance that you had about your benefits?
ABNEY: I left home, come up here ... just like I left the 7th July of 1942 going in the Army. I knowed I wasn't coming back home until we win the war in Japan and Germany. And I left home without going back home until I get my GI compensation benefits. ... I want to die on the battlefield. And that is what this has turned into, a battlefield.
The jury found him guilty. Judge Gregory Mize sentenced him to 180 days, then promptly suspended it because the defendant, as usual, had declined to post bond and had already served seven months awaiting trail.
Since then, Abney has been booked three times, tried twice, convicted once, and spent another 11 months in jail.
Whose competency is more suspect? On the one hand there's a 20th-century Quasimodo seeking sanctuary underneath the U.S. Capitol. On the other hand there's a bureaucracy channeling its energies into making multiple, comic-opera arrests of a senior citizen who has never committed a felony.
Public defender Fran D'Antuono believes the police and prosecutors won't spare the rod because, well, it feels pretty good to administer a few whacks now and then. "I think they've developed an institutional burr under their saddle," she says, "and it's called Stacy Abney."
"It's worse than that," says public defender J.G. Lewis. "I think that the case comes in and it goes through the system and that's it. I think they give it no thought whatsoever."
If that's true, somebody ought to start. Between the money and staff time invested in arrests, psychiatric exams, jury trials, appeals and incarcerations, Stacy Abney threatens to become a cottage industry. "It's easily millions of dollars they've spent on him," says Lewis. "Easily."
Lewis and D'Antuono have subjective opinions. Attorney Jeffrey Frishman knows Stacy Abney purely on a nonprofessional basis. In April he reported for jury duty and wound up on an Abney case. Same old story: defendant taken into custody the night before the Clinton inauguration for failure to leave the Capitol grounds. Abney did not testify and the jury pondered his behavior for a day and a half, weighing it against the government's high-stakes security needs. They never did reach a decision. A mistrial was declared and the U.S. attorney dropped the charges.
"When I was in the jury room, I was thinking, 'Isn't there a better way?' " recalls Frishman, trying to fathom why the government keeps carting off and recycling this one lone demonstrator. "He could sleep on my front lawn for 17 years and I'll start stepping over him. I'll even give him some orange juice in the morning."
Howell Howard agrees. Before his retirement he was a staff psychiatrist with what was then the Districts Legal Service Division. He conducted several competency examinations of Abney. In 1989 Howard wrote a memo to the clerk of the Superior Court pleading for someone to do something to bring the situation to an end. He's still waiting. "Somebody has to get this man off the merry-go-round," says Howard, "or he's just gonna freeze to death underneath the steps of the Capitol. ... We spend too much money going around and 'round and 'round and 'round and 'round for something that should be easily solved without Stacy having to die."
Easy to say when you're not the one trying to persuade Stacy Abney to move off those steps, argues Kevin Ohlson, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office. The Justice Department never comments on why cases are brought to trial. Ohlson will only say that the government must avoid any perception of "selective prosecution," especially when First Amendment rights are involved. "Sometimes the law conflicts with the desire to treat people as individuals," he says. "If anybody has any ideas on how to handle Stacy Abney, we're all ears."
People do have ideas. The most sentimental and least feasible is for Congress to pass a special Abney bill. Acknowledge nearly 20 years of meritorious protesting and give him his damn 100 percent disability. If that's asking too much, grant him protester emeritus status and exempt him from Capitol Police security sweeps. Or take a cue from the Fish and Wildlife Service and adopt a catch-and-release policy. Arrest Abney when absolutely necessary, hold him in the tank a night or two, but don't press charges. Another possibility: Conclude that an 82-year-old man doesn't constitute a clear and present danger and, uh, ignore him.
Actual resolution of his disability complaint could be a moot point. Look at it this way: If a man spends 18 years getting dressed for dinner, maybe he's not that hungry after all. One curious footnote to the Abney affair is that he is not without financial resources. In 1946, he bought 60 acres of undeveloped land in Quinlan. The tract lies about a half-mile from Lake Tawakoni, a popular playground for Dallas retirees. The property has an assessed value of $76,800, but locals estimate it would sell for between $2,000 and $5,000 an acre.
There's another financial thread dangling. Back before the Capitol Police cracked down on panhandling, Stacy's pockets would sometimes be far from empty when he got arrested. The property clerk is babysitting all those confiscated funds, rumored to total some $40,000.
"Yes, we're talking a fair amount. It's not a small piece of change," says Lt. Frank Lund, who wishes the owner would take enough interest in his nest egg to fill out a claim form.
* * *
We humans grope and claw our whole lives in hope of finding a niche, that figurative clearing hacked out of the underbrush of day-to-day routine where we lie down and say with some measure of relief, "Yup, this is it for me. This gives meaning to the mystery of life." That niche can be a career, or two entwined hearts, or a political cause or a sense of place. Even when that place is as unspectacular as a drafty carriageway with thousands of strangers stomping overhead.
Stacy Abney may have tipped his hand once: to Rita Warren during a frigid night on the Capitol steps last Christmas season. "I said to him, 'Stacy, why do you stay?' " says Rita. "He said, 'Because it's my home. Where am I going to go? A nursing home? I want to die in the open air.' "
For now at least, he is back home, back in the open air. He let his beard grow in prison. It is gray and tennis-ball fuzzy. He reminds you of Steve McQueen in the closing scenes of the movie "Papillon": old and grizzled and "buggered up" -- and still willing to jump off a seaside cliff to fulfill his dream of escaping Devil's Island. Papillon would have make a splendid lone demonstrator.
The morning Abney was released from jail, he hiked over to the Capitol and plopped down on the steps. Still in his prison blues. Still wearing the plastic Department of Corrections ID bracelet on his right wrist.
Instead of these hard steps there could be a rocking chair on some creaky front porch down in Texas. There could be great-grandchildren scrambling all over him like frisky kittens. Could even be a wife puttering in the kitchen, a kindly, churchgoing woman with a sure-fire home remedy for gout. How about it, lone demonstrator? Would you still buy that one-way bus ticket to Washington if you had it to do all over again?
"I'd do it all over a hundred times if I live that long," says Stacy Abney, gazing at the Statue of Freedom, now undergoing repairs in the Capitol plaza. "I'd do it one thousand times if I live that long."
His powder is dry. The battle rages on. Gen. MacArthur had it wrong. Not all old soldiers just fade away. Some do their best fighting long, long, long after the war is over.