Protesting for peace

In the early-morning light flooding the sidewalks of Lafayette Park, Concepcion Picciotto rises stiffly from her rustic encampment of protest. Peering intensely back at tourists who gawk at her from all angles of Pennsylvania Avenue, Picciotto, flyers in hand, braces for another day of heated controversy.

For nearly 25 years, Picciotto has enacted the same routine within the shadow of the White House, willingly subjecting herself to both scathing public criticism and the harsh Washington weather in support of peace and nuclear disarmament.

Having been labeled everything from a prophet to a public pest, she has resigned herself to the name-calling, basking instead in the notoriety attained from her short appearance in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and the belief that many Americans find comfort in her unfaltering presence in the park.

Picciotto’s six-foot-tall signs, which evolve in accordance with world affairs, tower over her small frame, ensuring that the message preached in her soft, heavily accented voice is clear to all who pass.

“Stay the course and this will happen to you,” warns one sign bearing pictures of bloodied corpses. “Give peace a chance.” The small, wrinkled woman stands defiantly under them, ready to preach about the need for better education in America (“Americans are ignorant people. They’re lazy. They’ve never suffered.”), or the dangers of nuclear war.

Shortly after the vigil’s conception in 1981, massive versions of the current signs dominated the north gate of the White House, covering approximately three-fourths of the sidewalk along Pennsylvania Avenue. Laws enacted to prevent such behavior have since limited Picciotto to her current allotment, a process that has forced her across the street from her original location and subjected her to what she describes as a never-ending barrage of harassment, citations and legal trials.

“The government makes many rules which are in violation of the Constitution by limiting the size and number of my signs. I have been arrested a number of times, I have been beaten by marines, accosted by police. It’s very difficult,” she says in a low whisper.

The dark wig that Picciotto covers with a scarf appears at first to be excessively full, almost doubling the size of her head. But when telling of the beatings that she has faced over the years from both police and those who do not agree with her views, Picciotto gives a hard knock on the scarf, which produces a hollow thud. “I wear a helmet,” she says.

With only a few teeth left in her mouth, Picciotto unabashedly describes what she assumes to be a Secret Service conspiracy against her. In the dark of night, agents have splintered her teeth with laser guns and attempted to choke her with a yellow gas, Picciotto says.

“They can see me from somewhere inside that house,” she says, pointing to the presidential mansion. “And they’re very accurate.”

When asked what drove her to begin the 24-hour vigil in Washington, Picciotto repeats one word, “injustice,” and insists that those who wish to know more visit her Web site, http://prop1.org/conchita. The site, donated by “friends,” includes an 11-page, first-person account of Picciotto’s life, from her marriage to an Italian man whom she accuses of polygamy to the bitter fight to gain partial custody of their adopted daughter.

The Spanish immigrant, who was married in October 1966, first lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., after arriving in the United States. Finding that she was unable to conceive a child, she and her husband flew to Argentina to adopt their daughter, Olga, in July of 1973.

Picciotto’s site describes her battle to bring the baby into the United States and accuses her former husband of plotting conspiracies against herself and the child. It goes on to recount her experiences at several mental hospitals and her struggle to see Olga again after being left by her family and denied visitation rights.

In an attempt to direct President Carter’s attention toward her custody case, Picciotto distributed an open letter to the president in front of the White House in 1979. She began a vigil there in 1981 and has remained ever since.

Though the focus has shifted in theme, Picciotto remains as intensely passionate as the day she arrived.

Today, she leaves the park regularly to use the bathroom in McDonald’s or to shower in the nearby apartment of her “colleague” William Thomas, who has been her companion in protest since 1981. In these momentary lapses in her protest, she worries about leaving others to guard the vigil in her stead. By law, signs left unattended can be removed immediately by park police, a scenario that has occurred many times to a frustrated Picciotto, who immediately starts again from scratch.

“There’s nothing harder. It’s the elements, it’s the regulations. My freedom was taken away when I started this. I’m not free and that’s very sad,” she says.

Through five presidential administrations, no resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. has acknowledged their neighbor across the street.

“They torture me. They know that I’m here so they send over police. But I don’t despair – whatever they do, I can’t despair,” she says.

Particularly appalled with the aggressive actions of the Bush administration, which Picciotto describes as “the worst of them all,” she continues to inform visitors of the danger posed by nuclear weapons and the overpowering need to seek reform. As for her vigil conducted beneath the open sky through the most perilous of conditions, Picciotto says there is no foreseeable end in sight.

“We have to continue,” she says. “There’s nowhere to go in the world because everywhere you go there’s spies and there’s killing.”

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