This past weekend, I had the chance to spend a few days in Washington D.C. with some friends. On International Workers’ Day, I set off to the National Mall in hopes of finding some sort of protest in support of the Baltimore Protests or a myriad of other causes that are often taken up on May Day. Unfortunately, I was sorely disappointed: In the place of dissidents, I found only school groups touring the monuments. In need of something to do, I wandered the Mall, eventually finding myself sitting in the diminutive shadow of Concepcion Piciotto in Lafayette Park, across from the North Lawn of the White House.
While she can’t stand any higher than 4’9”, Ms. Piciotto has long been the subject of my personal admiration and curiosity, and it seems that every time I go to DC, I have the urge to sit in solidarity with her. Yet, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never really interacted with her more than a simple hello or a flashed peace sign.
For those who are unaware, Ms. Piciotto is the current manifestation of the White House Peace Vigil–a round the clock protest that makes its home across the street from the White House. For the vast majority of its history, the protest has been staffed by its founder, William Thomas, Ms. Piciotto, and Ellen Benjamin. Since Mr. Thomas’s death in 2009, however, Ms. Piciotto has largely run the vigil on her own.
As I sat in silent semi-solidarity near Ms. Piciotto, she was approached by a woman and her two children. “Go on guys, she’s important, she’s been here since 1987,” she said, as she hustled her kids to take photos in front of Ms. Piciotto, who simply smiled, put up two fingers and handed out her flyers to the two boys.
I was taken aback by the whole episode. It was an encounter between the radical and the moderate, and, perhaps, an indication of how seriously the status quo American takes the concept of radical reform. Ms. Piciotto has protested for 34 years along with a handful of other activists for an end to American nuclear arms, aggressive US foreign policy and indiscriminate support for the Israeli state; yet, to this mother, Ms. Piciotto’s revolutionary reimagining of the American state was not nearly as important as her value as a tourist attraction.
I had a professor who was fond of editing Gandhi’s famous mantra that “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” to suggest that the status quo has one other trick up its sleeve: then, they make you an icon. We see “iconization” throughout American culture – Martin Luther King Jr. is iconized by his “I Have a Dream” speech, freezing his impact in 1963 and ignoring the revolutionary messages of the Riverside Baptist church speech, and Malcolm X is iconized as “a hateful black man who came to understand that even white people have value.” So too is Ms. Piciotto: She has been made out by some to be the ideal of American dissent, but by doing so, her message of peace has been diminished.
Perhaps that’s the point here. Idolizing people who do amazing things is good, but idolizing their message–their whole message, no matter how damning–is more important. Ms. Piciotto is more than a tourist trap or a photo opportunity, she is a dissident with a message. Teaching our children that individuals have value because of how long they have stood, sat or protested in one place rather than what inspired them to make that stand is both lazy and dangerous. Ms. Piciotto, William Thomas, Ellen Benjamin and others have occupied the space in Lafayette park for 34 years because they believed in an America and a world beyond nuclear weapons and a more just American foreign policy–surely that should be enough to attract and inspire our kids.