The gentle strength of nonviolent witness

By Judy Coode, coordinator of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative

On January 6, many watched in horror as thousands of people stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. in a furious, chaotic, and deeply misguided attempt to nullify the November 2020 election of Joe Biden as president of the United States. The insurrectionists broke windows and furniture, swarmed offices, menaced members of Congress and their staff, stole property and inflicted a sense of terror on those who work in and near the U.S. Capitol. In the aftermath, five people were dead, at least 140 injured, and unknown more were traumatized.

The January 6 attack was violent: in attitude, language, action, and result. Rather than stabilizing our democracy it has painfully accelerated social divisions.

The United States has a history and culture of nonviolent demonstrations, most of which are peaceful. As the nation’s seat of power, Washington, D.C. is accustomed to protestors, both individuals and groups. Anti-war demonstrations have been as large as 500,000 people; the 2017 Women’s March brough out 470,000; and the annual anti-abortion marches also bring out tens of thousands. A few protests include isolated arrests for minor offences (although several times in recent years, D.C. police have tried to corral and arrest large groups of demonstrators. These incidents have been challenged in court and authorities have been forced to drop the charges.)

Twenty five years ago, in 1996, Washington experienced a different type of protest: Sr. Dianna Ortiz, OSU, wanted to know who in the U.S. government was involved in the kidnapping and torture she had endured in Guatemala in November 1989. She took extraordinary steps to find the answers.

On March 31, 1996, Palm Sunday, Dianna began a vigil across the street from the White House (then occupied by Bill Clinton) in Lafayette Park. Wrapped in a sleeping bag for warmth, with a straw hat for sun protection, Dianna projected a silent message of dissent to the reigning world order. Without speaking, she demanded to be seen and heard. Without violence of word or action, she insisted on changing the tide away from secrecy and corruptive power toward transparency, honesty, and justice.

Eventually, Dianna would spend 23 hours a day for five weeks in Lafayette Park, distributing a written statement explaining her action to passersby who expressed curiosity. She would leave the park each morning around 7 am to go home for a shower. She’d return to her spot as soon as she was able. She was often joined throughout the day by one, two, or several people who would sit with her and speak to tourists and others who asked about her vigil. Then-National Security Adviser Anthony Lake dropped by several times to see her. First Lady Hillary Clinton invited her to the White House for a meeting. (She had met with President Clinton in 1994 asking for information on her abductors.)

Friends of Dianna took turns staying overnight with her in the park — it wasn’t an especially dangerous place, under the nose of White House security, but it did have a regular community of unhoused persons who claimed space there during the evenings. And plenty of rats emerged after dark gnawing through trash leftovers from the day. Dianna’s vigil spot was “next door” to Concepcion Picciotta, a woman who had lived in Lafayette Park since 1981. Concepcion, who had made a permanent peace camp in front of the White House to raise awareness of and to protest nuclear weapons, gave Dianna advice about how to survive in the park, especially at night.

Dianna Ortiz, Lafayette Park, 1996 / photo by Rick Reinhard

Over the weeks, until the vigil ended in early May when the CIA declassified many of the documents Dianna had requested about torture in Guatemala, members of the Washington faith and human rights advocacy community spent time with her. Her quiet dignity was a beacon–or perhaps a magnet. For those of us fortunate enough to sit with her, to join the daily noon prayer services, to spend the night, those weeks in the park felt full of grace and a powerful clarity. It was a holy time and source of deeper conversion for many.

In mid-May 1996, a series of simple, nonviolent civil disobedience actions took place. Over the course of a week, every day about 25-30 people blocked the White House sidewalk in order to elevate Dianna’s request for information about her case, to draw attention to the gross human rights violations taking place in Guatemala, for which the United States had given covert permission. They were arrested and charged with “demonstrating without a permit.” Many of those who exercised their right to peacefully protest for Dianna’s sake were members of Catholic women’s religious orders; many had never been arrested before.

Ultimately, although 20,000 pages of documents were released, Dianna was denied the information she hoped to uncover: She never learned the real name of the North American man known as “Alejandro” who was present during her torture, a man she was sure was an agent of the U.S. government. Despite that frustration, the community that encircled Dianna received a tremendous blessing from that time of vigil and prayer. Dianna’s gentle, persistent nonviolent witness was strategic; it was spiritual; it was active; it was deeply powerful. At the time, Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory wrote, “In a campaign year, nobody will challenge [CIA director John Deutch] but somebody like Sister Dianna.” The political world may have betrayed us but our hearts and souls were touched and strengthened.

All that was 25 years ago this month. At the beginning of 2021, Dianna (who was still living in Washington, D.C.) was diagnosed with a reemergence of cancer. With unexpected swiftness, she died. While our paths often crossed, the pandemic had kept us apart, so I had not seen her for several months. I never had the chance to ask her thoughts about the January 6 insurrection. I never asked her what truth she thought it revealed, whether it converted people to a deeper peace or to a thirst for justice grounded in compassion and prayer. What a contrast the raid on the Capitol was the powerful prophetic witness and action of Dianna Ortiz back in 1996.

Dianna Ortiz and Bishop Tom Gumbleton, Lafayette Park, 1996 / photo by Rick Reinhard
Dianna Ortiz, Lafayette Park, 1996 / photo by Rick Reinhard
Dianna Ortiz, Lafayette Park, 1996 / photo by Rick Reinhard

[Edited to add: Read Dianna’s memoir, The Blindfold’s Eye, published by Orbis Books.]

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