Behind a group of lined-up police officers and a temporary black metal fence separating the two protests are Israeli flags and “We want peace” chants. On the other side,Palestinian flags,and loud “End the occupation now” chants. Soon,the protests begin converging,turning the closed-off Pennsylvania Avenue between Lafayette Park and the White House into one large protest zone. Police officers on horseback ride through the area,forcing many of the protesters to the curb and into the park.
On the brick curb of the sidewalk,in the middle of it all stands a tiny woman,hardly 5 feet tall,who’s poking and wielding off unruly protesters with her picket sign,which has a Palestine flag on it. Behind the woman sits an old tarp used as a tent,with more signs and a cooler inside. On either side of the tent are two large easel-like pieces of wood with photos and anti-nuclear weapons slogans painted on them.
At times she chants “free,free Palestine!” like the other pro-Palestine protesters,but her voice is easily drowned out,barely audible to those around her.
“It was like a war,” she jokingly said the next day.
This is nothing new for Concepcion Picciotto,78,a lifelong peace activist,who’s spent more time on that curb than the past four presidents have spent in the White House combined.
For 33 years,Concepcion – or Connie,as some call her – has held a peace vigil on the edge of Lafayette Square,outside of the White House’s north lawn,and she has no plans of stopping.
Some see Picciotto as a blemish in an otherwise clean area near the White House,but others see her as a symbol of something bigger. Philipos Melaku-Bello,52,takes shifts at the vigil when Picciotto leaves for the night.
“I see the vigil as something that,if it ever ended,this is the last great hurrah of the great society era of the era of JFK and LBJ,” he said. “This vigil stands as a living testament in U.S. history of longevity.”
Picciotto,who came to the U.S. from Spain,is notorious among tourists and other Washington visitors for maintaining longest protest in U.S. history.
Two other men volunteer for the cause,and take Picciotto’s place when she’s not there. When she isn’t at her usual spot,she lives at the Peace House,an organization that promotes peace and positive social change. William Thomas,a peace activist who initiated the permanent vigil before Picciotto joined,bought a row house about a mile away in 1980,naming it the “Peace House.” According to its website,it was used as a place where vigil keepers could rest,shower and eat.
Melaku-Bello chooses to volunteer because he supports the cause. The former drummer in several punk-rock and reggae bands traveled the world in the 1960s and ‘70s,performing concerts and holding peace rallies.
“This is how much freedom of speech we had at that time,” he said. “Look up and down and you will not see one other person that’s a permanent protest down here. So we’re the last of it.”
He said the causes they support are just as important as the symbol of the vigil itself.
Picciotto’s job will never be finished. She said there are too many people who need to be educated and made aware about “the fate of the world.”
“It is very sad that people don’t think about what’s going on in the world,and the nuclear war and the United States in Iraq,” she said.
She said tourists and visitors constantly ask her how long she has been in the location,which upsets her because they aren’t asking about actual issues. She keeps a large bin of handouts for passersby and hangs photos relating to nuclear war around her tent.
Picciotto began protesting in 1981 with Thomas,who died in 2009.
“When Jimmy Carter was president,Thomas and me were arrested,and then we became a team,” she said.
She hasn’t even considered abandoning her vigil or moving it elsewhere,because she said the White House is the headquarters of the world,controlling everything from banks,to the population,to TV and media.
Picciotto said that being out in the open every day has taken a toll on her. She recounted the story of being hit by a taxicab last year while she was riding her bicycle,breaking her shoulder.
“The taxi knocked me down on K and 18th [streets] and drove away,so people tried to stop the taxi but it didn’t come back,” she said.
Regardless of what happens,no amount of pain will end Picciotto’s 33-year reign.
“I will keep it up. I drag my feet,I move slowly,but I can do it,” she said. “Physically,I can do it. I know I’m healthy,but sometimes it’s hard for me to endure. I’m not going to give in.”
Reach reporter Xander Zellner at [email protected] or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.