After 32 years, Washington peace protest comes to a brief end

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By Carrie Dann and Andrew Rafferty

The longest-running protest in Washington came to an abrupt end outside the White House early Thursday morning - but then, in a dramatic turnaround, it was resurrected.

For 32 years, Connie Picciotto, a tiny 77-year-old activist, has led a 24-hour vigil against nuclear proliferation from a makeshift camp in Lafayette Square next to the White House.

The site was suddenly dismantled by authorities early Thursday morning after it was left unmanned overnight by a veteran amid what organizers called an episode of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Not unlike a Senate filibuster, a 24-hour vigil protest must be continuously attended by someone in order to remain in place. 

The man, scheduled to stay at the encampment overnight, had left the site abandoned at about 1 a.m. Thursday, in violation of National Park Service rules, prompting police to disassemble the shelter -- an igloo-like tent surrounded by plywood signs. 

"At first I felt terrible," Picciotto said when she found out the tent was removed. "But now I see all these people helping to attract attention that we need to stay here. Nevertheless, I was never going to give up. I can't."

By Thursday afternoon, the Park Service had allowed the site to be re-established. 

“A longstanding vigil site on the south side of Lafayette Park was found abandoned early Thursday morning,” the NPS said in a statement. “A U.S. Park Police officer interviewed two people as they left the site to determine whether the individuals were abandoning the vigil. With no one attending the site, the officer collected the materials and placed them in a U.S. Park Police storage facility for safekeeping until they could be retrieved by the owner.” 

“The Peace Vigil will return,” said Michael Barczynski, a local artist affiliated with the of the Peace House, a residence and shelter shared by peace activists who help man the site. “I think they understand the sensitivity of one of our members’ illness, so they’re bringing it back.”

Picciotto has been a near-constant presence at the encampment since 1981, peppering curious tourists with information about nukes and providing a living lesson in free speech to visiting school groups.

She told reporters that she found out about the removal of her vigil from the protester, who left the scene at about 4 a.m. “I think he was not feeling well,” she said.

Regulars at the park took notice of the camp’s absence. "I think it's horrible for the few minutes that the tent was unoccupied that they would take it down," said Nancy Kon, from Boston who was there to protest the Cuban 5. "Connie is an inspiration for all peace activists." 

Another man passing by saw the tent down and said in disbelief "Whoa its gone, that has been here forever."

Earlier Thursday, in a statement posted on the Facebook page of the Peace House, friends of Picciotto pleaded for help.

“The Peace Vigil has been in front of the White House for 32 years. As Congress, Senate, and the President talk about an impeding war with Syria, as US drones kill civilians every day, as violent conflict goes on all over the world, I feel the Peace Vigil is as important as ever,” the group wrote. “In this situation, anything helps - even simply sharing this status.”

In the 1980s, Lafayette Park became a battleground for free speech as officials launched a crackdown on protesters and homeless residences inhabiting the area.

By a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that the government could ban “sleep-ins” in public parks that protesters said were intended to highlight poverty and homelessness.

Two years later, the National Park Service announced new rules that prohibited overnight sleeping and permanent protests in the park, saying that the billboard-sized signage that had become commonplace outside the White House was a “visual blight.”

But Picciotto, who along with fellow activists William and Ellen Thomas was already a fixture in the park at the time, was permitted to remain at her vigil by ensuring that her encampment for anti-nuclear activists was manned 24 hours a day.

After its overnight disappearance, she told reporters Thursday that she expects to have the shelter and her vigil signs back this afternoon.