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Lafayette Park lacks not a statue but a person today: Concepcion Picciotto, fondly remembered by global-peace activists as “Connie.”
Picciotto had kept near-constant vigil for almost 35 years among bulky signs and myriad smaller ones—an act of protest against nuclear armament and violent occupations—until roughly a week before she died on Monday, at the N Street Village shelter. Though the precise cause of her death remains unclear, Picciotto is said to have been 80 years old or more. Although she tapered off from her one-of-a-kind activism only in the last few months of 2015, she remained a fixture on Pennsylvania Avenue.
She is also celebrated as a sentinel of free speech who persevered longer than most others could.
Intimates of Picciotto characterize her as a lover of peace who was often stubborn in her ways but unquestionably dedicated to her beliefs. Those beliefs must have motivated her to stand her ground through five U.S. presidencies—from Ronald Reagan’s to Barack Obama’s—interactions with the U.S. Park Police, and the daily sway of tourists and workers who whisk past the North Lawn.
How many faces from the world over did Picciotto see during her unparalleled life in D.C.?
That chapter began in the late 1970s, when Picciotto—a Spanish immigrant—moved down from New York City following a custody battle with her husband over their daughter. Picciotto thought government officials could help her win back Olga. She stayed for the long haul.
Art Spitzer, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, says he first encountered Picciotto near Farragut Square, where, signboard and photos in hand, she used to speak out about “nefarious government activities against her.” Picciotto, he says, was wearing a tin-foil sheet under a wig to protect herself from “rays” that she believed caused her health issues.
“Originally, that’s what her demonstration activity was about,” says Spitzer, who in 1980 joined the ACLU, a group that later represented Picciotto in a civil suit. “She was protesting that.”
Picciotto relocated to Lafayette Park in 1981, according to interviews with her and others. This is when Picciotto’s story begins to overlap with the story of the White House–facing park, which itself has long been a locus of political activism in the District. Spitzer says Lafayette became even more of a hotspot for free speech due to new regulations under the Reagan administration that restricted how citizens could lawfully protest outside the president’s home; the U.S. Park Police stepped up their enforcement.
Picciotto and the Park Police—an arm of the National Park Service, which oversees Lafayette—came into conflict because she wanted to keep her signs and supplies (literature, boxes, and the like) on site. Moreover, if Picciotto ever left her belongings—say, to use the bathroom or get some food—they could be considered “abandoned property” and thus confiscated by law enforcement. (That happened in 2013.)
Spitzer, who at the time frequented Lafayette Park on account of his involvement in other free-speech cases there, says Picciotto was eager to share her political opinions and ask about legal aid. The director adds that his affable relationship with Picciotto did not last very long into the 1990s. But she did give him a blue stone painted with the word “peace” on it in different languages, as well as the symbol for peace. It’s about four-by-two inches and fits into the palm of his hand.
“That’s what I hope you emphasize, frankly,” Spitzer says, citing Picciotto’s passion for peace. “My own very amateur analysis is that once she had become focused on this political cause of preventing nuclear war and abolishing nuclear weapons, she was able to better [manage] whatever her personal problems were. And live a life that was purposeful instead of a life that was just focused on her problems… This larger cause… kept her going and dealing with people.”
William Thomas probably kept Picciotto going, too. He was a bearded activist born in New York who’d traveled in North Africa before coming to D.C. in 1981, when he founded the anti-nuclear peace vigil that’s stood in Lafayette Park ever since. According to Philipos Melaku-Bello, an activist who regularly changed guards with Picciotto until her death, Picciotto and Thomas met as she was boarding a bus that year on H Street NW, on the north side of the square. Picciotto lost her balance but Thomas steadied her; during the ride, they sat next to each other and discussed their beliefs. Melaku-Bello says Picciotto joined Thomas’ demonstration wholeheartedly—as a partner.
“When William was alive, she was very willing to be anything like William, to be as close as she could be philosophically, ideologically,” remembers Melaku-Bello, who first met Thomas in the early 1980s at Lafayette Park but didn’t become familiar with Picciotto until the 1990s. “Connie never would have taken the way of the Panthers, definitely not Malcolm [X]. She wouldn’t have said ‘by any means necessary’… ‘By peaceful means indefinitely’ is what she would have said.”
Over time, Picciotto and Thomas gathered a group of people who’d cover for each other to keep the vigil constantly manned. This let them comply with protest regulations while some showered or took breaks. But Picciotto rarely missed a shift or ventured too far, Melaku-Bello says: “In the early years, if Connie missed five days [out of the whole] year, that would have been a shocker.”
Throughout the end of the Cold War, Picciotto and Thomas grew increasingly close, relying upon each other for support and love. Picciotto, however, likely harbored deeper feelings for her anti-nuclear companion, while Thomas talked of Picciotto as “a person he trusted,” Melaku-Bello says.
Their dynamic shifted somewhat after March 1984, when Ellen Thomas (then Ellen Benjamin), an assistant to the C.E.O. of the National Wildlife Federation, ambled through Lafayette Park on a cold night. She had come to D.C. to fight against the existence of nuclear weapons. Approaching the White House, Thomas saw “two great big signs and this little bitty woman between them”—Connie. Picciotto was wearing a wig and helmet, bundled up next to a sign depicting a mushroom cloud.
Picciotto told Ellen of a man named William Thomas, “a philosopher.” She met him the next day, during a second trip to the park. The two married a couple of months later, on May 6, 1984.
“Connie didn’t like me after that ever again,” Ellen Thomas says. “But [we] took care of her.”
Ellen Thomas says Picciotto loved William Thomas “very deeply,” and both women got to know each other through the 1980s and beyond. At one point, Ellen Thomas explains, she and Picciotto had a “sign war,” competing over who could put up the most signs along the sidewalk. (“Nancy Reagan got a little annoyed with it,” Ellen Thomas says.) During that decade, the trio and other activists sued the federal government as part of their fight to conduct peaceful protests near the White House. A 1988 ruling dismissed those complaints, but not before Picciotto and the Thomases had been arrested at least once each.
Picciotto also shared her life story with Ellen Thomas. According to her, Picciotto was born an aristocrat in Spain, the granddaughter of a judge who was killed for opposing the Francisco Franco regime. Her parents also died, leaving the girl to be raised by nuns. Picciotto eventually came to the U.S. around 1960.
“I’m amazed by her,” Ellen Thomas says. “I loved her courage. I loved how much she loved [William].”
Nonetheless: “She was the most stubborn person I’ve ever met in my life. Connie and I are grand examples of people who learned to tolerate each other. She didn’t like me much, but I loved her.”
The word “stubborn” comes up repeatedly in conversations with those who knew Picciotto. Tighe Barry, a member of anti-war group CodePink who met Picciotto more than a decade ago, recalls Picciotto being “hard to get along with” for many who crossed her path: “Anyone who’s willing to sit in front of the White House since 1981 has a pretty hard idea of what they want,” Barry notes.
Picciotto lived in the Peace House, a property on 12th Street NW the Thomases had bought with inheritance money from William’s mother, then fixed up. There, she bumped heads with several of its activist residents, Barry says. Picciotto commuted to the vigil on foot.
“Connie never gave up—we gave up,” Barry says. “We weren’t as stubborn and hardheaded and visionary as she was, to be honest. We all loved Connie, we tried to support her as much as we could, but in the end we could never step up to the heights that she reached in terms of activism.”
William Thomas died on Jan. 23, 2009, of pulmonary disease, when he was just over 60 years old. Melaku-Bello says Picciotto was deeply affected by his death, but also became more vocal on certain issues, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “She went hardcore with anything anti-Israel, Judaism,” he recalls, citing Picciotto’s displeasure at increases in U.S. military aid to Israel.
Indeed, Picciotto had a term for a person she couldn’t stand, including other vigil keepers whose shifts Melaku-Bello coordinated: “Zionista.” “It was her code word for ‘It’s not working out.’”
Regardless of her specific political views, local peace advocates say filling Picciotto’s shoes will be difficult if not downright impossible. (According to Melaku-Bello, Picciotto in her advanced age only missed 36 days of presiding over the vigil in 2015, and 32 of them fell between October and December.) Jason, a member of Peace House who declined to provide his last name, says he will “always be awed and inspired by her dedication, her determination to hold fast, and the continual perseverance she had.” Darakshan Raja, a program manager at the Washington Peace Center, adds that Picciotto was a “clear presence” in an age where activism has become a hobby for many.
“A lot of our comrades are committed,” Raja says. “But literally uprooting your life and making it a 24/7 thing for so many years, that’s a commitment not every activist is willing to make or pay.”
The last time Melaku-Bellow saw Picciotto was on the night of Saturday, Jan. 16. He’d arrived at Lafayette Park around 6:45 p.m. to relieve her after a long stretch. Picciotto said her standard goodbye and then walked off toward H Street NW. About 15 minutes later, Melaku-Bellow says, a Secret Service officer on a bicycle approached the vigil to inform him that Picciotto had fallen near the public restrooms, and told Melaku-Bellow not to abandon his post. Another 15 minutes went by. The activist heard an ambulance, assuming it would transport his friend to a nearby hospital. But the officer returned to say she had refused treatment and gotten into a cab instead.
Picciotto was supposed to come back around noon Sunday to switch places with Melaku-Bellow. She never showed up, meaning he had to fill in her scheduled seven-hour shift, and then his second 17-hour shift, without someone to replace him. He watched over the vigil for 41 hours altogether. The next time Melaku-Bellow returned to Lafayette Park, Picciotto was again supposed to be on duty but wasn’t there.
Picciotto spent her last week at the N Street Village shelter, where she’d resided since October 2015, and died on Jan. 25.
What comes next for the vigil—and Picciotto’s memory—is anybody’s guess at this point. But those who knew and respected her already have some ideas. Ellen Thomas says she put out a call for a petition to the National Park Service to construct a memorial bench near where Picciotto kept watch; the bench could feature a picture of Picciotto and William Thomas, and engravings of their names. Barry says a group of Picciotto’s friends from the Peace House and other places will get together in the coming days to plan “not only a plaque,” for example, “but how to keep the vigil going.”
Maintaining the vigil—a piece of protest history—appears to be activists’ immediate challenge. Melaku-Bellow is trying to get volunteers to sign up for shifts Picciotto would have taken, while also striving to legally transfer the vigil to someone else’s name to comply with regulations. He’s also thinking about ways to celebrate Picciotto’s life, whether that involves the Spanish Embassy, or other institutions and public officials who could help, like D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
“Unfortunately huge money doesn’t come into our bucket,” Melaku-Bellow says. “How do you find the money to put on a funeral she’s worthy of?” He’s hoping for donations and support.
Picciotto, though, won’t be around to give what would have doubtless been her strong opinions on the matter. Eyes that glimpsed countless faces, gazing at the White House for years, have closed.
“I don’t know if 30 years from now I’m going to be the guy that still comes an average of only missing three days a month [to guard the vigil],” the activist says. “I ‘can’ do it, but me and you, we don’t know what 80 years old feels like in our bones. The common phrase in English is, ‘Oh, I know how you feel.’ No, you don’t. You don’t know how it feels unless you’ve been there.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery