While the White House has seen a variety of U.S. Presidents come and go, one thing has remained constant--the protest encampment across the street. For decades, Concepcion Picciotto and her late friend William Thomas kept their peace vigil just outside the gates of the White House, warning the public and each incoming president about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the need for dismantling. Now their supporters are trying to turn their long-standing protest into a permanent memorial. However, it is proving to be no easy task.
Concepcion certainly knows a thing or two about challenges. She has been facing them down ever since she chose to join Thomas in protest across from the White House in 1981.
"Thomas and I have made a lot of sacrifices all these years here by being through not only the elements, snow and rain, but then the government regulations, arrests, beatings, gassings... very hard, very hard," Picciotto says.
After Thomas' death in 2009, Picciotto took up the cause on her own, continuing her all-day and all-night protest with occasional help from supporters. Late at night, long after the swarms of tourists have passed, she falls asleep sitting upright in a fold-up chair. Any sleeping materials in her make-shift tarp shelter are banned by police. And she says it's not uncommon to be woken up and harassed by those same police and by complete strangers walking by. Yet still, she stays.
"I have a cause," she says emphatically. "We are here to protect the entire planet and all living things."
As daytime returns, more people start streaming past her protest encampment. Tourists snapping pictures of the White House can't help but notice the images behind them of mutilated bodies and mushroom clouds that cover some of Picciotto's protest structure. As they get closer, they start to read some of the signs and anti-war quotes scattered throughout.
"This is my first time here, my husband and I," she says. "And we're all about this. We believe in peace. We believe in anti-war. We wont even let our children go and join the war because it's not our fight."
A man sitting nearby shares a different view.
"The person doing this seems a little loony, and it trivializes the very serious issue," he says.
A different man takes it all in while a little more hesitant to pass judgment either way.
"I can't say I'm against it or for it," he says. "It's just hard to believe it's been here that long. It's pretty amazing."
The Peace Vigil
The structure has been standing since 1981. Yet, even with a 31-year history in the neighborhood, Picciotto knows the police will take it all down the moment she leaves with no one there to replace her. That's partially why now, Picciotto's supporters, many who came from the Occupy movement, have started modest efforts to make her peace vigil a permanent monument. Plans are underway to draft up a formal proposal to create a National Peace Memorial in Lafayette Square Park.
"I would like to have a spot that would represent the commitment and the further commitment that it is going to take to have peace," Charles Holsopple, the man who thought up the idea said. "That when people come there, it is a solemn sacred spot. Not because those people have been there for a length of time but because of the task at hand in front of the people of the planet."
Holsopple came to D.C. last fall and soon joined the Occupy Movement on Freedom Plaza. It was during this sustained protest experience that he and his fellow activists came to know Picciotto whom they now affectionately call "the original Occupier." While he and most of the now exiled Occupy activists support the proposal of a National Peace Memorial, the online world has been less generous.
It has only garnered a few hundred signatures on Change.org out of a displayed goal of billions. Eventually the proposal would need authorization from either Congress or the President. And according to Peter May at the National Park Service, that seems unlikely.
"There is guidance in the Commemorative Works Act that says that a new memorial should not encroach on an existing memorial and there are memorial elements already in Lafayette Square," he says. "So it's hard to picture how something new might be put in there without potentially encroaching upon it. It doesn't mean that it can't be done. It just means that it's another complication."
He says most new memorials are authorized at a rate of one per year, if that many, and there already eight or more other formal proposals that need to be considered. Even if, by chance, the peace memorial gets the go ahead, people like Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, still will not be impressed.
"We do have a peace monument already in front of the Capitol, and it doesn't seem to have stopped the government from waging war and dropping bombs on people, so I don't know why we think another symbolic gesture is more likely to accomplish that goal," Sanchez explains. "It would be more effective to devote time and energy to drawing attention to how much we're failing to promote peace, than to essentially erect another monument to a commitment that is not in evidence."
Still, Holsopple remains undeterred. He plans on producing a series of videos and posting them online to help encourage people to back the plan for the memorial. And while Picciotto likes the idea, she doesn't see herself ending her round-the-clock protest anytime soon.
"It's up to God," she says. "As long as I can make it, I will be here and I don't feel like I'm going to quit at all."
[Music: "In the Still of the Night" by Stephane Grappelli and Yo-Yo Ma from Anything Goes]
D.C. Gigs: Concepcion Picciotto