WASHINGTON – Sporting a bright orange “I CAUCUS FOR DARFUR” shirt and an equally vivid crop of strawberry blond hair,Janessa Goldbeck motioned at the throng of Asian tourists ambling into Lafayette Park on Monday.
“Chinese tourists,” she said,”I hope we don't offend them.”
But before she could explain,the answer arrived in screaming droves of college students,marching along Pennsylvania Avenue,carrying butane torches and signs and a banner stretched across the front of the column. They were,in part,protesting the Chinese government's dealing with the Sudanese government.
“China is underwriting the genocide in Darfur!” they shouted. “Don't let this be a genocide Olympics.”
It was nothing strange for Lafayette Park,the seven-acre space directly across from the White House. The green space affords the best and closest view of the White House. It's where foreign and domestic,old and new,minute and immense all collide.
It's where a 60-year-old Spanish woman and the leader of the free world can call each other neighbors.
Goldbeck,22,and other ENOUGH staff members – Lisa Rogoff,25,and John Bagwell,26 – lingered in the park,trying to work out last-minute details before the crowd's 90-degree turn in front of the White House.
“Are we going back around?” Goldbeck asked to no one in particular.
“Yeah,” someone said.
The tourists,actually from Japan,watched with mild enthusiasm,clicking digital cameras and pulling recorders from bags.
A middle-aged man in a dour business suit tapped Rogoff on the shoulder,thrusting his silver camera into her hand and pointing at the tourists,now assembled just 10 yards away.
As the protesters swung toward the park,Rogoff hurriedly snapped a few photos of the group of 20,with the White House,and the Darfur marchers,in the background.
“That was a little weird,” she said,in between bursts on the radio she was using to coordinate the marchers. “But I didn't really have a choice.”
Protests at the park are an everyday affair and they intersect with the bikers,joggers,rollerbladers and professionals who pass without much notice. They do not have time to chat or listen to protest songs. For them,Lafayette Park is another block to traverse on their way to a meeting at the Treasury Department or the Eisenhower Executive Office Building,which bookend the White House.
For protesters like Dana Fleitman,an American University sophomore who attended the Darfur rally,it's so much more.
“I think that we need to send a message to President Bush and the executive branch,” Fleitman said.
Some,like the Darfur rally,draw crowds to the cause,attract onlookers and garner at least some media attention. Others,such as Shalom International's rally on Tuesday to defend Jerusalem,lure little more than fleeting glances.
When one of the Shalom protesters,18-year-old Melody Norris of Richmond,Va.,wandered away to pet a U.S. Park Police officer's horse,the rally was six members strong – most of them standing shoulder to shoulder in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Theresa Cao,wearing an Israeli sash,trumpeted a shofar,a Jewish instrument traditionally made from a ram's horn. She held what looked like a smooth,twisted tree branch over her head and emitted a loud blast.
“It's a wake-up call to the world,” she said,before launching into a speech about the Annapolis Peace Conference.
But none of those protests is as fascinating as Concepcion Picciotto's 24-hour,365-day-a-year peace vigil. Picciotto,a Spanish immigrant,and William Thomas,a Vietnam veteran,have kept their peculiar vigil in rotating six-hour shifts since 1981.
Tourists often chat with the peace activists,who sit between signs depicting President Bush as a terrorist or showing the horrific effects of nuclear bombs. Thomas usually brings his 10-month-old puppy,Sophia,a Labrador-pit bull mix.
The sound of their protest is mostly silent,the occasional chats interrupting the noise of the pigeon flock swooping and diving,the buses on H Street clunking to a halt,the officers' radios crackling.
This was not always the case. Lafayette Park has been,at various times,a pleasure park for the president,a slave market,a race track,a zoo and an encampment for soldiers during the War of 1812.
After unbuttoning his gray parka and kneeling in front of Picciotto's vigil,where she sat flashing the peace sign,27-year-old Adam Franco smiled as he began taking picture after picture of Picciotto's strange home. She spends her days in a plastic igloo,neatly packed with literature and protest signs painted in other languages.
Franco,a Middlebury,Vt.,resident,came to town for a technology conference and stopped in the park for some last-minute photos.
“I wanted to take a picture of myself spitting at the White House,” he said.
Did he notice the statues?
“I've been paying more attention to the willow oak trees,” he said,gesturing toward an especially warped trunk.
The trees were once the main attraction of the park,when it was simply named “President's Park.” In 1824,the federal government decided to name it in honor of Revolutionary War hero General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette of France. His statue and those of three other foreign fighters of the Revolution ring the park: France's Major General Comte Jean de Rochambeau,Poland's General Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Prussia's Major General Baron Frederich Wilhelm von Steuben.
Before that,the grounds were part of the White House front lawn. Thomas Jefferson ordered that Pennsylvania Avenue extend in front of the mansion to receive guests,cutting the lawn in two. The street has been closed to traffic since the 1995 attacks in Oklahoma City, except for law enforcement,official motorcades and the quadrennial inaugural parade.
Exhibits at the White House Visitors Center a few blocks away depict the park as a once-empty area,designated as a green space. Even then,city planners knew the public needed a viewing ground for the White House.
Other buildings sprang up and now line the streets jutting out from the park,including some of the most sought after residences of the 18th century,such as the Decatur House,and historical sites such as the Blair House. Foreign heads of state stay at Blair House when they visit Washington,but it was also the site of an attempted assassination of President Harry Truman that resulted in the death of a Secret Service agent.
Pausing in the center of the park,Nadine Betti looked lost.
The 76-year-old from Santa Clara,Calif.,stood near the Andrew Jackson statue with her daughter Margaret Betti,poring over an unfolded map.
“Maybe you can help us,” she said,shooting glances around the park.
“We were in a cab and it was in an accident,” she said. Passing the map to her daughter,she re-enacted the crash with her hands.
“He was zooming in front of us,” she said,crashing her hands together.
Still a little shaken,she asked again for some directions,pointing at spots they'd circled on the map: Washington Monument,Lincoln Memorial.
“We need to get our bearings,” she said still staring at the large building straight ahead. “Is that the White House?”
To see more photographs from Lafayette Park,visit this photo gallery.