Our Communicator of the Month series showcases individuals whose voices have made a lasting impact on our country. In 2023, we recognize 12 Proponents of Peace who were dedicated to resolving conflict and envisioned a world without violence. Whether they advocated for civil education classes or found the common link between the civil rights and peace movements, the efforts of these activists mitigated hostile conditions in many of the world’s most divided countries — including our own. Their cooperative processes led to negotiation, reconciliation and growth — and are still teaching us how to connect back to our shared humanity, even in times of strife.
“People always tell me, ‘We need more people like you.’ I tell them: ‘But it starts with you. You are responsible for what’s going on.’ If people were more concerned, I wouldn’t have to be there.” — Concepción Picciotto
January 15, 1936 — January 25, 2016
Spanish immigrant Concepción (Connie) Picciotto held vigil in Lafayette Park outside the White House gates for 35 years, joining what would become the country’s longest-running anti-war vigil several months after protestor William Thomas first set up camp in 1981. The Pennsylvania Avenue protestors’ agenda of peace has always been vast, targeting everything from government deception to gun control, homelessness, hunger and U.S. intervention in foreign wars. The issue of nuclear weapons, however, has been central to the vigil since its beginning.
In her time as vigil keeper, Picciotto would be neighbor to five U.S. presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, and witness to wars and military conflicts including the Cold War, Persian Gulf War, 9/11, Afghanistan War and Iraq War. She and fellow long-standing protestors — including Thomas, Ellen Benjamin and Philipos Melaku-Bello — withstood heat waves, blizzards and hurricanes; health problems; and hostility from police and tourists, all from the makeshift shelter of a patio umbrella and plastic tarp.
Picciotto and fellow protestors circulated a nuclear disarmament petition resulting in a ballot initiative passed by D.C. voters in 1993. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) worked with the activists to craft a bill that she has introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives since 1994 (most recently, as the Nuclear Weapons Abolition and Economic and Energy Conversion Act of 2021). While the legislation has never gone to the House floor for a vote, Norton continues with the same conviction that powers the still-enduring White House Peace Vigil.
Many of the vigil’s volunteers made their home base in a Northwest D.C. row house called the Peace House. Picciotto spent more time at the Peace House as she entered her 70s and experienced failing health. After she suffered a bicycle accident in 2012, other protestors stepped up to take on more shifts so the vigil would always be attended and avoid having the tent and protest materials seized by the U.S. Park Police, which happened several times over the years. While the row house was sold in 2015, the group relocated to Deanwood in Northeast D.C., where it lives on today.
Following the closure of the row house, Picciotto moved to N Street Village, a shelter for women that was within walking distance of the vigil. She died in 2016, believed to be 80 years old. Her fellow protesters from the Peace House DC held a memorial service followed by a march to Lafayette Park in her honor. Today, Melaku-Bello and others keep the 24-hour White House Peace Vigil going from a black tent covered in anti-nuclear war and pro-human rights posters.