Al Jazeera World

The Oracles of Pennsylvania Avenue

A two-part series looking at three individuals and their 25-year, 24/7 peace vigil in front of the White House.

From the Kasbah in Tunis to Tahrir Square in Cairo, from inside Madrid’s Puerta del Sol to outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, from Wall Street in New York to main street just about anywhere … we are living in a new age of protest. But dissent is not always about the masses. Sometimes, it is a singular and solitary struggle.

This two-part series follows the 25-year peace vigil of three very persistent individuals in front of the White House and reveals how the bizarre act of one man, labelled the ‘first domestic terrorist’ in the US, brought them together.

Neighbours to five sitting US presidents, these tenacious protesters – Thomas, Ellen and Connie – endured police brutality, vicious weather, Supreme Court battles, and their own internal struggles in order to maintain one of the longest-standing protests against nuclear weapons and US foreign policy ever staged in America.

They were called crazy by many and their vigil was labelled an aesthetic blight on the stately beauty of the nation’s most important residence. But, they also gained an international following, sending them both support and, often, large delegations of visitors.

And, far from merely sitting still for 25 years, the vigilers travelled to speak before the World Court at The Hague and to confer with peace groups in Japan.

The Oracles of Pennsylvania Avenue tells the story of these three insanely persistent individuals and of their unique political and cultural resonance.

The film also asks just what goes into making a person who will set aside societal expectations of ‘sucess’ and living the ‘good life’, in favour of a 25-year, 24/7 street vigil to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Part two
Filmmaker’s view: Timothy Wilkerson

As a child of the 1970s and 1980s, I just kind of assumed the world might end in one big nuclear conflagration. This was especially true when Ronald Reagan did his whole Hollywood cowboy routine with ‘Peace Keeper’ missiles instead of six-shooters.

Most young people in both the East and West were raised on nuclear war anxiety almost as our baby formula. When the Berlin Wall fell, we were slowly weaned off the milk of fear of Russians and nuclear war, to be fed a new, more ‘solid’ food of fear of depraved Muslims.

In the meantime, the press was having a love-fest with a guy with a liver-shaped birthmark on his forehead and the endearing name of ‘Gorby’. Our instructors in school were equally as effusive about the end of the ‘Cold War’ and what it could mean for prospects of world peace. Many of them had grown up in the 1950s – an era of even greater paranoia about ‘pinkos’, ‘commies’ and nuclear holocausts.


After Gorby and the fall of the wall, I, like most Russians and Americans, was blissfully ignorant for the next decade-and-a-half to the fact that nuclear war remained a looming threat. Most citizens on both sides did not know that Boris Yeltsin had come within seconds of blowing us all up in 1995 when the Russians mistook a Norwegian scientific rocket for a nuclear attack. And most of us did not know that despite the successes of a series of treaties that dramatically reduced the number of weapons held by each side, the US was developing new nuclear weapons. Neither could most of us have forecast that the old standoff between the two world superpowers would proliferate into a host of countries developing their own nuclear weapons in an effort to keep up with their regional nemeses.

When all of our friends from the University of Texas at Austin graduated, a few of them moved to the DC area, so my wife and I began to travel there to visit them. Like most visitors to the nation’s capital, we also did some of the touristy stuff – we went to the Smithsonian, to all the national monuments, and to the White House.

It was on one of these trips to DC that I noticed an odd group of people sitting in Lafayette Park, just opposite the White House. They had two big semi-permanent signs that decried the threats of nuclear war and Depleted Uranium weapons, and a small ‘shelter’ between the two signs made out of plastic sheeting.

They and their small vigil seemed like a throwback to the height of the Cold War era. Unsurprisingly, most people laughed and passed them off as lunatics, much as the Trojans did to Laocoon when he tried to warn them that there were soldiers inside the ‘gift’ the Greeks had left for them outside Troy.

Initially, I also could not connect to their message of imminent peril, since I was being told by the media and culture at large that the Greeks were no longer at the gates. It was not until I began talking to the vigilers – Thomas, Connie and Ellen – and doing my own research, that I realised that the threat of nuclear war was still a very real and present danger. I also discovered that nuclear waste (Depleted Uranium) from both the weapons industry and the nuclear power industry was being placed into armour-piercing weapons, and that the use of such weapons by the US military was suspected of having dramatically increased the number of horrific birth defects among Iraqi children.

Aside from their anti-nuclear message, I was also fascinated by the bizarre back-stories of the vigilers themselves. Firstly, their tenacity was amazing. They had held their anti-nuclear vigil in Lafayette Park for over 25 years when I first met them (the vigil is currently more than 30 years old). And as the closest neighbours to five sitting US presidents, they had to endure police brutality, vicious winter weather, and a string of federal court battles in an effort to stay in the park.

But secondly, I found that each of them had their own soap opera-style drama in their own lives – from Thomas’ string of imprisonments in virtually every country he visited, to Connie’s search for her kidnapped daughter and the way Ellen was drawn to Thomas by her memories of him as a stranger from a reoccurring dream. But the commonality of all their stories is how they had been modern nomads for the first half of their lives, only to sit obstinately in one spot in DC for the last 30 years.


Shooting their story was a challenge. My initial effort to make the film in a more ‘direct cinema’ or ‘cinema verite’ approach failed. I wanted the camera to just record the goings on at the park like a fly on the wall. But I soon discovered that, although the vigilers had all sorts of interesting stories about things that happened to them in the park (from drunken US marines beating up Connie and putting her in hospital, to Bill Clinton stopping by to talk to them one night), nothing of much interest actually happened when I was in the park filming them.

Consequently the film ended up focusing on the history of the vigil and their individual lives. Some of this history the vigilers had documented themselves on video, some I did dramatic reconstructions of, and other elements I was forced to buy archival footage of.

The overwhelming cost of the volumes of archival media for the film is what kept the project from completion for a couple of years. Eventually, Al Jazeera Documentary Channel commissioned the post-production aspect of the film, and thankfully with these funds I was able to finish the film. Then Al Jazeera English picked up the film as well.

My co-producer Rahab El Ewaly was an invaluable support throughout the project – not only helping with interviews, but also watching the film at various stages of completion and giving feedback. Like the Maysles Brothers, we were essentially a two-person crew with some exceptions (Rahab running audio and myself on camera). Such is the workflow of a  ‘no-budget’ film.


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