Peace vigil removed from Lafayette Square after more than 30 years


Connie Picciotto in front of the White House in March 2013. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The vigil outside the White House, an enduring shelter that has greeted five presidents and countless tourists over more than three decades, was nowhere to be found  Thursday.

My colleague Caitlin Gibson reports that the shelter was removed early Thursday morning:

On Thursday morning, there was no sign of the hand-lettered anti-nuclear signs and the white shelter that have been a defining feature of Lafayette Square for decades. [Concepcion] Picciotto and her fellow protesters said that the U.S. Park Police dismantled the vigil overnight after an activist who was supposed to be manning a shift at the site walked away.

Park Police spokesman Paul Brooks confirmed that the vigil was taken down by police in the early morning hours after it was observed to be unattended.

The protest began June 3, 1981, with William Thomas, who arrived and held up a sign reading “Wanted: Wisdom and Honesty.”

He was joined a few months later by Picciotto. Thomas died in 2009 of pulmonary disease. But Picciotto remained, day after day, month after month, year after year. Earlier this year, Picciotto told Gibson: “I have to be here. This is my life.”

The protest has become an institution on Lafayette Square, as much a part of the scenery as the statue of President Jackson or tourists posing for photos.

Picciotto said today that she plans to reassemble the shelter, and activists said that Park Police would return the vigil to the park this afternoon. But even a brief absence is notable given the protest’s longevity.

During its  initial years, the protest was seen by thousands of passing motorists as well as pedestrians and presidents. But President Clinton closed the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to vehicular traffic in 1995 as a security measure after the Oklahoma City bombing, and it hasn’t reopened to drivers since. (The street was also closed to pedestrians for a time before reopening in 2004.)

“I miss the trolley passing by,” Picciotto told The Post shortly after the street was closed in 1995. “The people used to take pictures of me. I see the flashes going ping, ping, ping.”

Last year, Picciotto was hit by a taxicab while riding her bike to Lafayette Square. Even that didn’t convince her to take much time off: “It’s my life there,” she told John Kelly. “It’s my vigil. It’s my message.”

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.

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