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D.C.’s Professional Protesters
Andrew Bestor isn’t crazy, but since June 2005, he has spent his weekday mornings holding picket signs and passing out pamphlets to Capitol Hill commuters outside of Union Station. Wearing a crisp tie and bulky, professorial glasses, the middle-aged former Boeing employee earnestly disseminates his home-made literature to harried Hill staffers, hoping just one of them will pause and let him make his case. Today, despite his well-groomed appearance and relatively inoffensive-though rather cryptic-sign stating “Cap and trade is C.I.A. bone,” most walk past, dismissing him as just another fanatic.
Bestor has a specific agenda: he feels that there are too few restrictions on the actions of the C.I.A. and hopes to persuade powerful people who walk by him every day to increase legislative oversight of the organization. He’s convinced that the agency subversively manipulates events across the globe, and belives so whole-heartedly in his cause that he quit his job in order to devote himself fully to his morning demonstrations.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in history from Allegheny College, Bestor puts more thought into his picketing than one might expect.
“I’ve settled on handing out 17 pieces of paper cut into three pieces-that’s 51 handouts, and that takes me through a morning rush hour,” he said. “The signage is helpful to me, too. The biggest mistake new people make coming out is having too much clutter on their sign.”
Bestor is not alone in his solitary occupation as career protester. Across the District, many who feel under-represented or ignored take up a picket sign and a stack of pamphlets and bring their arguments to the people. In D.C., it seems, every issue has its champion.
The wide strip of pavement between Lafayette Park and the White House serves as a stage for no fewer than five groups of activists on a clear spring morning. Lost in the commotion of vocal protesters is the little old woman who started it all.
Concepción Picciotto, who lives under a makeshift tarp at the edge of adjacent Lafayette Park, lets her display speak for itself. Two six foot tall, hand-painted wooden signs which flank her makeshift shelter read, “Live by the bomb, die by the bomb.” The setup is tattooed with anti-war slogans, political cartoons, and bumper stickers (one reads, “Ban all nuclear weapons, or have a nice Doomsday.”). Since beginning her round-the-clock “peace vigil” in front of the White House in 1981, Picciotto has practically become part of the sidewalk.
Standing outside her makeshift tarp hovel, she brandishes her picket sign wildly as tourists snap photos from a safe distance; she plays a role that seems equal parts zoo animal and public lecturer.
Picciotto’s skin is leathery and her few remaining teeth jut out of her parched mouth at strange angles. Delivering her caustic anti-war rhetoric in a shrill, thickly accented chirp, she commands nearly as much attention as the executive residence that lies in front of her.
What could compel someone to forego the comforts of indoor living to dedicate a lifetime to a single cause?
“In the beginning, I started because of corruption,” Picciotto said. “The people are ignorant. Everyone should be here.”
Her message has broadened in the last 28 years. She now holds a sign denouncing Israel’s recent offensive in Gaza and props up a poster featuring a deformed baby that reads, “Depleted uranium lasts forever.” While arguing for the destruction of all American nuclear warheads, she asserted that America is run by “Zionists” (according to her pamphlet, “barbarek, backwards, mentally deficient, zenophobic so-called Jews” [sic]) and called Joe Lieberman an “abomination creature.” While Lieberman’s connection to the issue is unclear, her rant attracted up to three dozen listeners at times. Though not everyone agrees with her, Picciotto is content with making others think.
“The people must be awakened,” she said.
During her speech, several people applaud and call Picciotto “a true American” (she’s originally from Spain). When it starts to rain, a man comes by and says he’ll bring her an umbrella.
“The Zionists use intimidation, but I want the good people to take over,” Picciotto said. “We must save the nation and save the world.”
Pacing back and forth on the opposite end of the patio in front of the White House, the constituents of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, are championing another provocative cause. The small group shouts an angry message decrying the moral decrepitude of America (“God hates fags!” yells a teenage girl). Their signs flash snappy, shocking slogans like “God Hates You” or “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Though their display receives a fair amount of interest from onlookers, they are far from being the only attraction in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
National Park Service regulations prevent sign-bearing demonstrators from standing still on the sidewalk in front of the President’s house, so the groups each strut across the stretch and display their banners in hopes of catching someone’s eye. It’s strangely reminiscent of a catwalk at a fashion show-an oddly diverse and colorful parade of dissenters. While each group fights for its own cause célèbre, they are all united in seeking the attention of anyone and everyone.
“Where else should we be, if not here,” Shirley Phelps-Ropper, a member of Westboro Baptist Church, said.
The pageantry occasionally goes beyond the standard picket-and-banner fare. A group dressed in orange prison garb with black bags over their heads processes solemnly in single file from the street and lines up against the iron fence that encircles the White House grounds. Centered on a sign that reads “Close Guantanamo Now,” their somber demonstration is all the more jarring because of its silence.
Other protests are more spontaneous. Colin MacDonald, a freshman at George Washington University, heard that the Westboro Baptist Church would be picketing in D.C. and organized an impromptu counter-picket using Facebook. Brandishing pithy, handwritten signs featuring slogans like, “Jesus loves me, this I know, even though I’m a big homo,” his group of approximately 40 teens and young adults gather and face the pacing Baptists. Howling into a megaphone, MacDonald leads the spirited group in renditions of “God Bless America” and “Jesus Loves Me,” while a squadron of mounted police look on calmly from a short distance.
The folks from Westboro seem not to mind.
“It doesn’t matter what you agree with. Destruction is coming,” Phelps-Ropper said as she balanced four signs in her hands while dragging a tattered American flag under her feet.
Unlike the other groups, the Westboro protestors aren’t trying to convince anyone of their controversial beliefs.
“We don’t have any hope in this country. What I believe is what Isaiah preached. They asked him, ‘How long will you preach this doom and gloom?’ He said, ‘Until this nation is mowed down like a big lawn of grass,’” Phelps said. “That’s the only real expectation we have based on our 19 years of preaching this plainly.”
Though they aren’t looking to sway anyone to their cause, the Westboro Baptists manage to draw the ire of some onlookers. Phelps confides that because they’ve encountered widespread resentment and hostility to their message, the Baptist activists prefer picketing in heavily guarded areas like this, where they benefit from police protection.
It’s a keen move. At the end of their demonstration, when the Westboro picketers begin retreating down the street, mounted policemen step in to block MacDonald’s singing mob from chasing them. In an excited rush, one dreadlocked young man bumps into a police officer, who pushes him against his car and threatens to arrest him.
The officers appear unfazed by the chaos. Lieutenant Phil Beck, who monitors the no-stop zone directly in front of the White House lawn, treats the demonstrators with professional detachment. “It’s not a problem,” he said. “It’s everyone’s right in the United States to be able to express their freedom of speech.”
While that freedom is on plain display in front of the President’s house, it’s unclear just how much the protesters are actually accomplishing.
“Every day, people tell us, ‘Get a job,’” Guantanamo Bay protest leader Carmen Trotta said.
On the other side of town, near the Naval Observatory on Massachusetts Avenue, John Wojnowski performs his own daily demonstration. He became iconic in D.C. for displaying a sign proclaiming, “The Vatican Hides Pedophiles,” but his current banner simply reads “Vati-con Pathology.” A timid Polish gentleman with silver hair and sunglasses, he has stood outside the Vatican nunciary since the fall of 1997 to protest the Catholic Church’s handling of pedophilia scandals. He claims a priest molested him when he was a boy in Italy.
“Eleven years ago, I was miserable, crying,” he said. “I was so helpless, so crushed.”
In 1997, he began writing letters to the Archdiocese of Washington arguing his case, that the priest who molested him in his childhood be brought to justice. When his appeals were repeatedly ignored, he did what he considered “the only option” and began standing outside the nunciary with his homemade signs, hoping that Vatican officials would be unable to ignore him.
Speaking in an earnest, rapid stammer, Wojnowski remembers that while his display wasn’t well-received at first, he found the protest to be empowering.
“Every day, people drove by, calling me a loser. I said, ‘I’ll show them.’ I would be a loser if I gave up my fight.”
Now, people honk and wave kindly at Wojnowski, who has become a landmark in the area because of his steadfast commitment to displaying his signs during the afternoon commute.
Still, Wojnowski realizes the limitations of his protest. He never finished the eighth grade, and he wishes he had stronger writing skills to better communicate his message. His website’s fiery invective belies his friendly but reserved demeanor in person. (The site decries the Catholic hierarchy as “a geriatric mafia of pathologic ignoramus,” [sic] among other things.)
The Church ignores him for the most part, but Wojnowski is happy with his achievements.
“I’m proud of my signs,” he said.
According to Joe Radko, leader of the D.C. chapter of the Support Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Wojnowski’s efforts can’t hurt.
“Nobody can argue that the sign is incorrect,” he said. “Any publicity is good publicity.”
Most District protestors would agree. They are often content to know that though they sacrifice “normal” lives for a message, their persistent efforts make their cause impossible to ignore. It’s not hope or optimism that appears to drive them-most seem bitter or angry after their appeals made through the established channels of power left them unsatisfied. Above all, most choose the public protester’s life out of a perceived necessity.
Wojnowski said he is aware of groups such as SNAP, but he’s never felt compelled to get involved. “I’ve been avoiding people my whole life,” he said. “No one asked me to join. This is the one thing I can do.”