Filling in for a famed White House protester


Bill Miniutti, 62, a Vietnam vet, tends the anti-nuclear protest site in Lafayette Square across from the White House in Washington, DC on July 19, 2012. It has been tended pretty much nonstop since 1981 by Concepcion Picciotto. She was injured July 13, 2012 in a bicycle accident. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)
John Kelly
Columnist July 22, 2012

On Friday the 13th, a taxicab struck Concepcion Picciotto as she bicycled to the place she’s pretty much called home for the past three decades: a ramshackle compound in front of the White House.

Concepcion tumbled from her bike and onto K Street, landing on her right shoulder. A crowd soon gathered and urged her to go to the hospital, but she just pushed her bicycle to Lafayette Square.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Concepcion, a short, wizened, sun-browned woman in her 70s, is as much a fixture there as the statue of Andrew Jackson. She’s been protesting nuclear weapons since 1981 amid a welter of homemade signs, seeking shelter from the heat, cold and rain inside a cocoon of plastic sheeting.

Thirty-one years. “Ironman” Cal Ripken Jr. has nothing on her streak.

But Concepcion’s long protest went on a temporary hiatus last week after she finally went to the hospital, and an X-ray revealed a broken clavicle. This posed a challenge: The Park Service tolerates Concepcion only as long as her protest site is occupied and she doesn’t actually sleep in the park. For a few hours each day, Concepcion — “Connie” to those who know her — retreats to a house on 12th Street NW to bathe, eat and grab some shut-eye.

And so other residents of the house — known as Peace House among area activists — have been filling in for her. Bill Miniutti was in front of the White House one day last week. “I’m a Vietnam veteran,” he said. “I understand war. We have to stop it.”

Bill, 62, is from New Jersey originally. He retired to Florida, then came to the District four months ago for the Occupy protests. He said he suffers from the effects of Agent Orange.

I wondered whether Concepcion’s accident might convince her that perhaps she’s spent long enough in the baking heat or the freezing cold staring at the house the president lives in.

“A lot of people think it’s a life wasted,” Bill allowed. But he believes she has made an impact. “She didn’t stop all the wars, but we didn’t have a nuclear one. I think that’s a great achievement.”

I called Concepcion, and she vowed to be back soon. “It’s my life there,” she said. “It’s my vigil. It’s my message.”

There is still the not-inconsequential matter of Peace House, however. The house is owned by Ellen Benjamin, widow of William Thomas Hallenback, the peace activist who started the vigil with Concepcion back when Reagan was president.

After her husband’s death in 2009, Ellen moved to North Carolina. She has allowed peace activists to live in the house but has wanted to sell it since last year. A deal to sell it to some Occupy protesters fell through. She’s told residents they’ll have to move by Aug. 31.

“I have to sell it,” Ellen said. “I just can’t wait any longer.”

Ellen said if she lists the house on the open market it would be priced around $600,000. She would take $500,000 from the Occupy protesters. “The reason I’m asking them so much less is I would like the Peace House to continue, and I would like Connie to continue to live there,” she said. “If I sell on the open market, that’s very unlikely.”

Send a Kid to Camp

There’s never been a better time to donate to Camp Moss Hollow, a camp for at-risk kids from the D.C. area that is supported by readers of The Washington Post. A donor is matching all gifts, up to a total of $100,000. And Clyde’s is again offering gift certificates. Donate $150 to $249 to Moss Hollow and receive a $25 coupon for Clyde’s, the Hamilton, the Tombs or the Old Ebbitt Grill. Donate $250 or more and get a $50 coupon. (Certificates will be mailed in early September.)

To donate, go to washingtonpost.com/camp. Click where it says “Give Now,” and designate “Send a Kid to Camp” in the gift information. Or mail a check payable to “Send a Kid to Camp” to Send a Kid to Camp, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237. The campaign ends Friday.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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