For decades anyone looking out of the North windows of The White House would see a petite elderly woman sitting on the sidewalk across Pennsylvania Avenue. The vigil, the longest of its kind in the American capital, briefly came to an end in September 2013, but was quickly resurrected.
The vigil has been in place since 1981 when Ronald Reagan was in the building. Concepcion “Connie” Picciotto joined the protest’s founder, William Thomas, on the sidewalk and over the decades, she has protested wars, endured blizzards and heat waves. She has become a part of Washington’s history. Thomas died in 2009.
Picciotto has grappled with health problems and the Peace House, where she lives, has an uncertain future. These combine to create a potential problems for the vigil’s continuing existence.
Last fall, as Washington residents on their way to work, people noticed an absence as they walked in Lafayette Square. The white plastic shelter that had become a landmark was gone. Missing too was Concepcion Picciotto, the activist who has been the vigil’s longest-running custodian.
Picciotto, 77, said the structure was removed by Park Police earlier in the morning after an activists filling in at the site abandoned it. The agreement between the activists and Park Police allowed for the vigil to remain in place, 24/7, as long as it was manned. When a relief activist left, it was time for the Park Police to move in.
The push back was swift. Activists who help maintain the vigil passed the news through social media alerting supporters and local service agencies. Tighe Barry, an organizer for Code Pink, called Washington DC delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, after finding out what happened.
Norton’s staff contacted the Park Police and made arrangements for the material to be returned to its spot on the sidewalk. Norton’s office said in a statement that the delegate appreciated the Park Police working to help defuse the dissension about the expulsion of the vigil. Norton went on to say that Picciotto is known for her inclination to protest at considerable costs.
For its part, Park Police released a statement saying the vigil was vacated early in the morning and that according to the agreement, the round-the-clock vigil doesn’t require a permit, yet must be constantly attended. The statement further said that once a determination had been made that the site had been abandoned, Park Police removed the material to a secure facility for safe keeping.
Just a few hours after the well-known peace vigil was taken down, it was returned. As a small group of activists carried planks of wood, cinder blocks and hand-lettered signs, a crowd gathered and watched.
“It’s coming!” yelled one activist. As the materials were carried through the tree shaded park, one activist called out, “Thirty-two years, still going!” Working swiftly, the activists put up the umbrella frame which supported white plastic sheeting. While some reassembled the signs flanking the structure, others carried boxes of pamphlets and other handouts inside and made sure they were organized like Picciotto has kept them through the years.
For now the vigil still continues.
“I am relieved,” said Picciotto. “My signs are back.”
By Jerry Nelson