The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Thirty-Five, Concepcion Picciotto’s Peace Tent, by Marin Ekstrom and Mykhaylo Ignatenko
Most people visit the White House to marvel at the president’s magnificent estate. However, a far more humble residence lies directly across the street in Lafayette Park: the little tent of anti-war activist Concepcion Picciotto. Despite her old age (she is currently in her late seventies) and petite stature (she stands at less than 5 feet tall) she has stood her ground, literally, for over 30 years. Ms. Picciotto and her remarkable life story serve as an extreme testament to fighting for one’s beliefs, “no matter what the cost.”
Concepcion “Conchita/Connie” Picciotto was born in western Spain, and emigrated to the U.S.A. at the age of 18. After finding work at the Spanish Consulate, she married an Italian businessman at 21. Their birth of their daughter and subsequent divorce marked a turning point in Picciotto’s life. Not only did she lose her family, job, and house, but the court and custody battles ignited her commitment for justice. Around 1980 she began to visit the White House on an increasingly frequent basis. Her contact with fellow demonstrators inspired her dedication to anti-war and anti-nuclear proliferation while increasing her level of fervor to those causes. In August of 1981, she set up residence in Lafayette Park, and has spent her days protesting ever since. According to Ellen Thomas, peace activist and wife of anti-nuclear activist William Thomas, her husband and Conchita Picciotto were protesting separately for similar causes in front of the White House until they both got arrested. After the arrest in 1981, Conchita Picciotto and William Thomas decided to team up and take turns in their newly-founded White House Peace Vigil in order to avoid future arrests. “He was like my brother”, reflected Picciotto in a video report by the Washington Post. Following Ellen Thomas’ advice, William Thomas – using the money that he inherited from his mother – decided to buy a house at 1233 12th St NW that would serve the needs of peace activists in DC. The house was later called the Peace House. Picciotto lives in the basement of the Peace House and walks to her tent in front of the White House with the goal “to make peace and stability in the world so there will be a safe place for future generations”. In those thirty-plus years in the tent and the Peace House Picciotto has endured countless obstacles: poverty, lack of food, surviving the elements, harassment, the death of William Thomas, and even being hit by a cab. Yet despite the hardship, she continues to champion her beliefs and educate the public on the horrors of war and nuclear weaponry.
We recently had the opportunity to visit Ms. Picciotto’s site and collected a first-hand account of the experience. On that particular day, Ms. Picciotto, bundled up in a heavy winter jacket and a colorful head scarf, was huddled inside her white tarp-covered tent. A crowd of students had gathered around her dwelling, which prompted Ms.Picciotto to come out and launch into a speech about her ideals. Pointing to the various anti-war posters decorating the outside of her tent, she condemned the nuclear policies of such nations as the USA and Israel and claimed that the government “doesn’t listen” to the voice of morality. Most significantly, she called upon the “children to mobilize, to campaign…the future is up to you.” While I doubt that many members of the next generation plan to spend the rest of our lives camped out in front of the White House, the idea that we have the power to shape the future through direct action marked a powerful and inspiring message.
Time will tell how long Ms. Picciotto’s campaign will continue. Old age and the harsh environment are beginning to heavily wearing down on her. In addition, since her husband’s death, Ellen Thomas had been supporting the Peace House financially, which she can no longer do. The peace activists are struggling to come up with the money to buy the house from Ellen so that it can forever belong to the peace activists. Despite the challenges, Ms. Picciotto will go down in the history books for her unconventional dedication. If she inspires young people to take greater initiative for their rights, then that will be her greatest legacy of all.
For all of the North Star Project 2013-2014 Reports, see https://mgjnorthstarproject.wordpress.com/
For all of the North Star Project 2013 Summer Reports, see http://www2.css.edu/app/depts/HIS/historyjournal/index.cfm?cat=10
The North Star Project 2013-2014 School Year Reports: The Middle Ground Journal’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We gratefully acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our K-12 outreach program. We also warmly welcome Duluth East High School and Dodge Middle School to the North Star Project.
Under the leadership of our North Star host teachers and student interns, The North Star Project has flourished for two years. For a brief summary, please see a recent article in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:
Having re-tooled and re-designed the collaborative program, we are drawing on the experience of our veteran student interns, ideas from our host teachers, and new projects provided by our incoming student interns. This school year The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. As of the time of this report we have confirmed student interns who will be reporting from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world. We will post their brief dispatches here, and report on their interactions with the North Star students and teachers throughout the school year.
Hong-Ming Liang, Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA, 2013-2014 School Year
(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.