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Peace protests near White House growing

By STEFANY MOORE

WASHINGTON, Dec. 2 (UPI) -- Finding vacant space in the grassy area across from the White House is proving to be no easy task these days, as more and more activist groups are setting up camp to protest a potential war with Iraq. But Conchita Picciotto, who has called Lafayette Park her home for the past 21 years, welcomes the company.

"It's nice to have more people around," she says.

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The Pennsylvania Avenue park has long been a home to activists, some of them permanent residents, most of them temporary visitors. But as talk of war with Iraq becomes louder, the number and variety of activist groups in Lafayette Park continues to grow.

The scene near the White House is only a small part of a growing peace movement that is showing its face in a very visible, sometimes very loud way, across the nation.

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As tourists make their rounds for photos at the gates of the White House, across the street protesters can be heard chanting, Buddhist monks can be seen praying and colorful signs of protest litter the sidewalk.

In the middle of the park, a women's group has staked their claim on a portion of the land. They are staging a 4-month-long vigil in opposition to war. They call themselves Code Pink, "A pre-emptive strike for peace." Many of them are members of women's groups such as National Organization for Women; others are parents and concerned citizens.

The organization maintains that the Bush administration is "squandering" money that could be used for public health or education to attack a nation that poses no immediate threat.

One of their signs reads, "Bush says Code Red; we say Code Pink." They wear buttons on their pink jackets saying, "Women For Peace."

Jodie Evans, one of the organizers, says she is worried her 18- and 21-year-old boys back home in Venice, Calif., might have to go to Iraq if there is a war.

"I'm worried about more than my children," she adds. "I'm worried about my country and about my world."

A few feet away, a group of Buddhists from Massachusetts have secured their space. Flanked by large posters with graphic photographs of Iraqi children injured in the Persian Gulf War, half a dozen men and women sit on a large blanket, quietly beating drums with sticks and praying.

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Clare Carter, a Buddhist nun who wears a yellow robe over her winter clothes, says the world should be concerned about the Iraqi people, most specifically, the children. Her organization is holding a week-long vigil and fast.

"It's a humble effort," Carter says, "But it's from the heart."

By far, the most permanent fixture in Lafayette Park is Picciotto. A U.S. citizen of Spanish descent, she has spent the past 21 years of her life living there as part of a 24-hour anti-nuclear peace vigil.

Through the cold, the rain and the snow, Picciotto mans her post. Directly in front of George W. Bush's home, she remains on the sidewalk all day and all night. She keeps a plastic tarp for when it pours.

Standing at barely 4 feet 10 inches tall, she resides between two large signs with pictures of nuclear explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki above photos of mangled bodies. The large, black text reads, "Stay the course and this will happen to you."

Picciotto opposes the use of nuclear weapons, war with Iraq, and is a supporter of the Palestinian cause.

Despite the seemingly grueling lifestyle, she seems to remain jovial. She jokes with tourists as they pass by, and her face is almost always smiling beneath a scarf that covers her head.

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She does acknowledge, however, that her life is, well, "difficult," she says. For example, she has to sleep sitting up because it is against U.S. Park Police regulations to lie down.

"I don't even remember what a bed feels like," she says.

Though one would assume her to be in a constant state of boredom, Picciotto always looks busy. She is sweeping the sidewalk of leaves, speaking with passersby, or feeding the hordes of pigeons that seem to follow her every move.

When she sees a stark white pigeon scurry up to her feet, she interrupts conversation to pour a handful of peanuts into a dish.

"His name is Havel," she says. "He is my pet."

Picciotto stands guard as the bird digs in, making sure to protect him from other pigeons that want a bite.

"Get away!" she shouts to the invaders.

"Everybody wants peanuts," she says with a laugh. "But I cannot give peanuts to everybody."

A nearby shelter brings Picciotto bread every couple days, and she keeps two large Gatorade bottles of water among her things. Friends and supporters come by often to bring her food or the daily newspaper.

William Sylvester, a machinist from New Mexico on vacation in Washington, stops by to chat with Picciotto about the war in Iraq and brings her a pastry with some orange juice. He says he heard about Picciotto's vigil a few years back and was looking forward to "breaking bread" with her.

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"I feel compelled to at least bring some juice," Sylvester says. "I sure don't have that kind of dedication."


(Photos available WAP 2002120206 through 2002120210)

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