On Thursday morning, Washington residents passing through Lafayette Square noticed a startling absence — the landmark white plastic shelter, framed by large wooden anti-nuclear signs, was no longer stationed across the street from the White House. Also missing was Concepcion Picciotto, the legendary protester who has served as the vigil’s longest-running caretaker.
Picciotto, 77, and her fellow protesters said that the vigil was taken down by Park Police in the early morning hours 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 left unattended — a violation of National Park Service rules.
The resulting outcry was immediate. Residents of Peace House, a home in Northwest Washington where Picciotto and the other activists who tend the vigil reside, spread the word among supporters and contacted local social service organizations for help.
Tighe Barry, a community organizer for Code Pink, a social justice organization, said he called the office of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) on Thursday morning after learning what had happened.
Norton’s staff contacted Park Police and helped arrange for Picciotto’s vigil materials to be returned, according to a statement released by Norton’s office.
“I appreciate that the Park Police have worked with us to defuse a growing controversy about the removal of Concepcion Picciotto’s belongings,” Norton said in the statement. “She is well known for her willingness to engage in principled activism at considerable personal costs. She and her friends and allies have abided by the rules, and this single mishap by a fellow activist should not torpedo her long-standing vigil.”
Park Police said in a statement the vigil “was abandoned early Thursday morning” and that under the law, “a 24-hour vigil requires no permit but must be continuously occupied.”
The statement went on to say that “once it was determined that the site was abandoned, the officer collected the materials and placed them in a U.S. Park Police storage facility for safe keeping until they could be retrieved by the owner.”
The vigil has been a fixture along Pennsylvania Avenue since 1981, when Picciotto first joined the vigil’s founder, William Thomas, on the sidewalk outside the White House. Over the decades that followed, Picciotto and Thomas — a self-described philosopher and activist who died in January 2009 — protested war after war, endured blizzards and heat waves, and gradually became a storied part of the city’s history.
The future of the vigil has been in doubt in recent years. Picciotto has grappled with health problems, and the Peace House where she lives is at risk of being sold if the resident activists can’t afford to purchase the property.
Thursday’s incident was hardly the first time that the vigil’s presence has been threatened by authorities. But other similar encounters — including the removal of the vigil and the arrest of its caretakers — occurred years ago, when Thomas was still alive.
Picciotto said that the man who was covering the vigil overnight left sometime during the early morning and returned to the Peace House. Feriha Kaya, who manages Peace House, said the man is a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
By the time other activists got to the park, Picciotto said, the signs and the vigil shelter were gone.
Shortly before 1 p.m. Thursday, two Park Police officers approached the activists gathered in the park and told Barry that he could retrieve the vigil materials on Picciotto’s behalf.
“I am relieved,” Picciotto said when she learned the news. “My signs are coming back.”
They were in her possession again less than two hours later.
Picciotto said there was never any question in her mind about whether her work in the park would continue.
“It is needed now more than ever,” she said. “Look at the situation with Syria.”
Picciotto said she was frustrated by the hassle, but it would only be another road bump in the long history of a record-holding act of protest.
“This is just so much trouble for nothing,” she said. “It’s frustrating. It’s hard to be there. I’m in the heat, I’m in the cold, I’m in the snow.”
Picciotto has acknowledged that the long-term future of the vigil is anything but certain. But by midday Thursday, the sidewalk across the street from the White House was once again home to its iconic installation, and the vigil’s dedicated caretaker had solemnly resumed her work.