For years, Philipos Melaku-Bello has maintained a peace vigil outside the White House that advocates for the abolition of nuclear weapons and an end to forever wars
Almost every day for more then a decade, Philipos Melaku-Bello has manned a peace vigil across the street from the White House that has set the record as the longest single-location vigil on the North American continent.
One of the visitors, Jesse Ventura, the former Minnesota governor and professional wrestler, called Philipos “the bravest man in Washington.”
Philipos says that he spends sometimes as many as 100 hours a week at the vigil which is manned 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Those who stay on for the night shift might sleep a few hours in a tent, though Philipos said that some of his most lively conversations sometimes occur after the bars close around 2 AM.
The vigil site is filled with posters and signs advocating for social justice causes and educating passersby about human rights atrocities going on around the world.
Numerous politicians and celebrities have visited, including Michael Moore, Wavy Gravy, Rosie O’Donnell and Jane Fonda.
One night back in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton wandered over and discussed nuclear issues with Philipos. Subsequently his administration disarmed 10,287 nuclear weapons.
More recently, Malia Obama (the Obamas’ elder daughter) came by. She then attended a “water is life rally” in New York in support of the Lakota Sioux, where Philipos said she was arrested and put in a paddy wagon but then released.
Malia’s friend later came by to tell Philipos that Malia had been in part inspired by him and that he had made a difference.
A self-described professor of anarchistic and revolutionary studies’ at “Occupy University,” Philipos told CovertAction Magazine that one of his key goals in running the vigil was indeed to “inspire people to become involved in political activism.”
Philipos noted that he “loves everybody, even if they live halfway around the world, and does not want to bomb or nuke them.”
Asked about whether things have improved since he started attending the vigil in 1981, Philipos said that “other nations’ nuclear threats are ugly, and the U.S. is not beautiful either. However, 11,285 nuclear weapons have been voluntarily disarmed, so that is something positive.”
Philipos’s activism was inspired by his parents. While growing up in Compton, California, in the 1960s, Philipos’ said that his mother, who was from Brazil, took him and his brothers to women’s equality rallies—before the feminist movement had even gotten off the ground.
Philipos’s father, who was Ethiopian, was a member of the Black Panther Party and active in the anti-war and anti-nuclear movement, having been horrified by the dropping of the atomic bombs onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki and U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall and Solomon Islands.
Philipos said that he became politicized listening to dinner conversations in his household where his parents would give lectures about misguided government policies.
His father was a music technician who worked at the Whisky a Go Go nightclub in West Hollywood—where Jimmy Hendrix, The Doors and other famous bands played—which put him in touch with many activists.
Among them was his godfather, William Thomas Hallenback, Jr., a hippie who founded the White House peace vigil in 1978—before it became a permanent vigil in 1981. (for years, Hallenback, Jr., who died in 2009, ran the vigil with Concepción Piciotto, a Spanish woman whom Philipos took over from after she died in 2016).
Which Side is Right?
As a high schooler, Philipos said that he and his brothers organized protests against the Vietnam War and draft. He then became involved in protests against the nuclear power plant at San Onofre in San Diego County before following Hallenback to the White House vigil.
Philipos worked at the time for Amha Selassie, the exiled son of the late Ethiopian emperor, and became paralyzed after being struck by a landmine in Ramallah in the West Bank in 1987. The vigil includes a map detailing Israeli takeover of Palestinian lands which is often a source of heated discussion among passersby, with Philipos giving anyone willing to listen a rich history lesson on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In the early 1980s, Philipos said that he played in a band called the Anarchistic Youth Brigade, which sidelined as a political action group. Today, Philipos remains an anarchist at his core. After I interviewed him he made a point of writing a 1977 anarchist manifesto in my notebook entitled “Voice Without Action is Nothing.”
“Voice without action is nothing, can’t you see,
if America is supposed to be the land of the free,
the prison tortures, and capital punishment,
just two reasons we need less government.
Political action be ready to fight,
One against the other,
which side is right, hippie, punks, rockers must unite.”
State Department Renegade
Cliff Smith is an activist who has often joined with the White House peace vigil over the last eight years. From 1961 to 1971, Smith was a Foreign Service officer. He was forced out of the State Department for mounting a petition against the Vietnam War while stationed at the U.S. embassy in Iran.
Hailing from Fairbanks, Alaska, Smith joined the Foreign Service after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. He did tours in Mexico and Iran and wrote a summary of world events for Secretary of State Dean Rusk (1961-1969) and President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969).
Smith told CAM that a huge battle ensued around the time of the 1968 Tet Offensive when one of his colleagues in South Vietnam reported that North Vietnamese forces were greeted by huge crowds as liberators in South Vietnamese cities that had been occupied by U.S. troops.
Smith said that his superiors saw the report as North Vietnamese propaganda and asked him if he was a communist. Smith responded by saying that this was the honest reporting of a U.S. Foreign Service officer and that he wanted people to know the truth—whether it was flattering to U.S. policymakers or not.
After he mounted his petition against the war in Vietnam, Smith said that he was called before the Ambassador to Iran, Douglas MacArthur II (named for his uncle, General Douglas MacArthur), who accused him of trying to lead a mutiny.
Though other Foreign Service officers opposed the Vietnam War, Smith was among the few to try to protest against it publicly, which marked the end of his State Department career.
Active in civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests since the early 1960s, Smith said that, after leaving the Foreign Service, he became a radical hippie and Maoist. He was involved with “sex, drugs, and revolution”—the latter of which he still advocates for today as a regular at the White House peace vigil.
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About the Author
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine.
He is the author of four books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019) and The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018).
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