Concepcion dies after 35 years of antinuclear vigil at White House

On Monday, Jan 25, Piccolo Concepcion died, reported at an assisted living facility, known for her 35 year long vigil against nuclear weapons at the White House. This vigil began all the way back in 1981, during the darkest days of Ronald Reagan and two years before the "Able Archer" nuclear forces wargame nearly led to nuclear war by accident. Many confrontations took place in the early years, and most of the arcane regulations unique to what was known as Peace Park were the government's response. The vigil began with signs leaned on the White House fence, leading to the "no protest zone" used so often for civil disobedience to this day. It then crossed the street and huge antinuclear signs that doubled as small cabins were erected. They were cut down with chainsaws, leading to the current "structures" regulations concerning signs, etc. For all the brutality and crazy laws that went into effect, for all the bad arrests later overturned in court, the government never did manage to shut down the vigil.

The actual demand of the vigil was passage of what was called "Proposition One," an amendment to the US Constitution to force the unilateral removal of nuclear weapons from the US military arsenal.Also included in it was the requirement for dismantling the corporations that manufacture nuclear weapons. Congress refused to consider Proposition One. The GOP chose to focus instead on trying to blunt the European demand that short-range "Pershing" nuclear missiles not be deployed on their territory. With less warning time than ICBM's, forward-deployed short-range missles threatened to increase the risk of nuclear war by accident.

The White House antinuclear vigil was known for graphic photos of civilians burned with radiation by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was seen by every president, king, and dictator ever to visit the White House over the entire 35 year period the vigil was in place. When the park was closed for Inaugurations or the first part of Iraq War II, it moved intact to the H st sidewalk just outside the park. This took place through 7 of those Inauguration closures. This vigil has been widely cited as the longest running single protest ever in DC, easily outlasting both Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union.

The Washington Post cited the fact that no nuclear war ever took place on Concepcion's watch, only to turn around and say no tiger attacks ever took place either. The difference is that all tigers in DC are serving life without parole at the zoo, while the Soviet Union had dozens of nuclear missiles pointed at DC alone. The courtyard at the center of the Pentagon contains a tiny structure known as "ground zero cafe" as it was presumed one of three aiming points for Soviet missiles, the other being the White House and the Capitol. With multi-megaton warheads on board, a hit anywhere near the city would have been enough, In 1983, that Able Archer mobilization exercise was thought by the Soviets to be the real thing. Reagan was known to be crazy, and the Russians had to assume the worst. Finally someone in the UK's MI-6 got word from someone in KGB that the Russians were preparing to go to war for real, and sent word back that Able Archer was only an exercise. A nuclear-hot WWIII was barely avoided, for at least the second time. This was considered by many more dangerous than Kennedy's threats against Cuba over Russian missiles in the early 1960's. Therefore, the Washington Post is entirely off-base with that "tiger attack" analogy.

The antinuclear vigil was also a hub of seemingly all other antiwar protest from it's inception in 1981 through the end of the first Iraq War. Everything from Positive Force's "Meese is a Pig" poster campaitgns to the 24-7 drum vigil during the first Iraq War seemed to have a connection to Peace Park. As US bombs fell on Iraq, drums pounded 24-7 until George H Bush whined "those damned drums are keeping me up at night", to the Washington Post. The result was a brutal and violent club-swinging assault on Peace Park by US Park Police that has never been forgotten. The first night after US warplanes began bombing Iraq in 1991, the College Republicans were hemmed into a protest pit on the SE corner of the park while thousands of antiwar activists filled all other space. Horse cops desperately tried to hold back the front line of the massive protest. This went on night after night and the drums did too, but this effort ended in defeat. The US series of wars in Iraq was nowhere near over, though Saddam did manage to outlast George H.W. Bush.

Further police harassment stemmed from connections between Peace Park and area homeless activists. This was during the days of Mitch Snider, hated by authorities for gaining custody of an abandoned federal government building at 2nd and D that became the CCNV shelter.

In 1988, Ronald Reagan sent US troops to Honduras to stage for an invasion of Nicaragua and potentally El Salvador as well. In reponse protesters mobilized in nearly 200 US cities, and the Peace Park area became a busy beehive with so many visiting activists. With daily protests and US flags burning in front of the White House, Reagan gave up. The troops were brought home after three weeks and the invasion was cancelled. This was a clear win for the antiwar movement, and another victory that can be cited any time someone asked if antiwar activists ever stopped a war.

Also in Peace Park up until the Clinton years, was a wave of intense cannabis legalization protests on July 4 each year. These still take place but are now very small due to post 9-11 Mall checkpoints. Not so in the Reagan years. In those days the "smoke-ins" were known for huge battles between police and protesters that protesters often won outright. In 1983, Lyndon Larouche managed to beat the smoke-in organizers to the rally permit, leading to a march past the site and the FBI building where draft registration forms were burned along with "joints." As police became aggressive near FBI headquarters, protesters began picking up stones and police backed off. For years thereafter, pot arrests in the park on July 4th often led to Park Police being chased halfway around the White House before one side or the other, (often the cops,) gave up. Those fights ended when Bill Clinton, known for "not inhaling" took office.

Shortly before Bill Clinton took office, the Soviet Union collapsed and along with it the risk of major-state, global nuclear war. The nuclear warheads lived on however, and so did the antinuclear vigil.

During the last years that the former Peace House location downtown still existed, members of Occupy DC staying there took shifts at the vigil, giving Connie some much needed time off. The Park Police HATED this, as it raised the specter of an infinitely-sustainable, multi-generational vigil that would never stop until its demands were met. This probably played a role in failed efforts by the DC government to evict Peace House ahead of the eventual resolution of its status. In the end however, the vigil outlived even the downtown Peace House that had supported it for so many years. While there is still a Peace House in DC, it is no longer anywhere near downtown; no longer in fast walking range of all the things that happen in politics in the "Washington" part of DC. Perhaps this sort of thing (which also happened to the Olive Branch house) is a strategic goal of gentrification?

Photo by War Resister's League

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