We’ve been under a stay-in-place order for what feels like a long time now, but it is only a tiny fraction of the patience shown by the Peace Vigil, which has remained across from the White House for more than 38 years. The small tent, festooned with signs, is a familiar site to anyone walking down Pennsylvania Avenue.
The tent does not require a permit, but does have to be continuously manned for it to stay up, according to Park Police rules. Currently, the main volunteer is Philopos Melaku-Bello. He started volunteering part-time at the vigil thirty-seven years ago, but in recent times has been there almost continuously, always willing to talk to passersby from his vigil in his wheelchair (in his previous activism, he was wounded by a landmine blast in Ramallah in 1987).
Philopos sits among a huge collection of signs, some that have been there for many years, and some that are added based on current events.
The Peace Vigil was started by William Thomas in 1981, who was there up until his death in 2009. Thomas went through many legal battles to keep the vigil, with numerous arrests and one three-month stint in jail (the judges stated that they wanted to “deter others from adopting your lifestyle”). Thomas’s claim was that it was a vigil, while the courts claimed that it was a non-permitted encampment. After many years, the Park Police adopted the position that it would be considered a vigil rather than a camp as long as it didn’t contain anything that could sustain a person for more than a day.
A few months after Thomas started the vigil, Connie (Concepcion Picciotto) joined, and became the most prominent face of the vigil until her death in 2016.
There’s been one short break from the continuity – in 2013, a volunteer left the tent unattended and the Park Police dismantled it and took the parts to a storage facility in Anacostia. A few hours later, the activists were able to reclaim the items and set the tent back up, and the site remains as a constant presence and platform for many discussions with locals and visitors.
In the weeks before an Inauguration, the vigil has to move to the other side of Lafayette Square as the area by the White House is blocked off, but everything is carefully moved to its temporary location and moved back again once Pennsylvania Avenue reopens.
In response to the current COVID-19 crisis, the Peace Vigil has added a new sign reminding everyone to wash their hands, and most importantly, “take care of each other.”
In memoriam to Connie:
All photos copyright Karen Ramsey and Victoria Pickering