WASHINGTON — Her voice cannot be heard more than a few feet, but Concepcion Picciotto, small, leather-skinned and sitting on a folding chair across from the White House, calls to the Japanese TV crew. The men look at her oddly and walk away.
A couple from Cuba draw close, pondering the wooden yellow signs Picciotto sits between, one covered in graphic black-and-white photos of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the words, "Stay the course and this will happen to you."
"Is that sign right?" one of the tourists asks, "This has been here since 1981?"
For 32 years, Picciotto has kept up the longest-running political demonstration in the country. If you have traveled to the White House, you probably have noticed her; certainly the signs and the tarp that is her shelter.
Picciotto, 77, has been celebrated as a hero, ignored as a flake. She has endured arrests and taunts. She said she was once punched in the face by a Marine who didn't like her message. A few years ago, she was buried in a blizzard. "I dug out with my feet," she said.
Five presidents have lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. during her stay; none has walked over to listen to her appeal for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
"Dear Mr. President Barack Obama," Picciotto wrote in an email a year ago, introducing herself as "your closest neighbor." She has voted for none of them, considering them warmongers.
"Everyone asks, 'How long have you been here?' " she said in an interview, talking softly with a Spanish accent. "That's not why I come here. I come here to pass a message. In the beginning, people were more interested. Today they are buffoons. The White House is like a Disney land. They have TV brains. They don't listen."
Her story is one of uncommon devotion, a testament to free speech. It is also complex and mysterious.
"It's a very, very sad story and it's a very interesting story. She's managed to create a really important slot in the world for herself where she can make a difference," said Ellen Thomas, who spent 18 years on the protest line, often in the shadow of Picciotto's glower, divided over a man they both adored.
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Picciotto was born in Spain and arrived in New York in 1960. She married and adopted a child from Argentina. A convoluted and painful story unraveled, resulting in her losing the child, Olga, and her husband; and embarking on a crusade against a lawyer who still makes her shake with anger. Picciotto came to Washington to press her congressman but got nowhere.
She took the case — she tells it at prop1.org/conchita — to the White House and in 1981 ran into William Thomas, a bearded wanderer who was launching an anti-nuclear protest. "We became a team," she said, describing how early on they were arrested for sitting in front of the White House, accused of camping.
A hopeless fight for Olga, with whom she has never been reunited, morphed into an endless one for all children. "We have to protect the planet and get all this evil out of power," she said. "I see people with their children and it's very painful. You have no idea. I cannot go to a family."
Their 24-hour vigil began directly in front of the White House gates. Picciotto and Thomas, and a small band of other activists, would stand by huge signs with mushroom clouds on them and talk to anyone who would listen, preaching peace and warning against government lies.
Struggles with police were common and over the years the protesters were pushed across the street, to the brick sidewalk at Lafayette Square, their signs reduced to no larger than 4 square feet. The vigil can remain as long as it is continuously staffed and anyone there remains awake. Picciotto mastered the art of dozing while sitting up, but now retires to a nearby basement apartment at night, where she stays rent-free.
In September, a volunteer on watch wandered away and police took down the structure; soon it was back up, Picciotto back in her chair, passing out literature.
She says she never gets bored: "I have no time for that. My mind is very busy, too." She feeds the pigeons and squirrels and paints Peace Rocks, which people donate money for. "Thank God I have no bad habits," she said of her sparse existence, declining to discuss other forms of income.
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Picciotto is 5 feet tall and weather-worn. A brown wig sticks out from under a colorful scarf. The wig covers a helmet. She won't discuss her age. "It's not important. I am alive and healthy, despite all the things they have done to me." She opens her nearly toothless mouth and motions to the White House. She says she's been attacked with electromagnetic waves for speaking out.
In the early years, Picciotto and Thomas would take turns manning the vigil, breaking off to rest, catch a shower or something to eat. Picciotto would bring back rye bread sandwiches with Swiss cheese, jalapenos and onions. In March 1984, a woman named Ellen Benjamin joined the cause and six weeks later married Thomas. Tension grew between her and Picciotto, even as they spent years on the protest line.
Ellen Thomas put down her signs in 2002. William Thomas died in January 2009.
Picciotto has kept on, carrying a poster-sized photograph of Thomas. But more prominent are signs protesting Israel, which does not officially acknowledge its well-known nuclear arsenal. "The state of Israel must go," reads one. "Disarm IsraHell," states another.
The signs have offended some passers-by, or at least sent a confusing signal.
"It's unfortunate that it takes the form of looking anti-Semitic," said James Lockhart of Washington, who paused before Picciotto on a gray afternoon. "But man, after a while you have to call a spade a spade. Her dedication is amazing. I was born in 1981."
Picciotto says she stands against Zionism, the movement to create a Jewish state, which she feels is driving conflict and Iran's nuclear ambitions. The United States is guilty, she says, of perpetuating the threat of nuclear war by supporting Israel.
"She likes the attention and she realizes if she focuses on the Israel question it gets more attention than the nuclear issue," said Jay Marx, former coordinator of the Washington Peace Center. "She might even thrive on that: the tension. I see her as a deeply flawed messenger for the movement. And yet she's almost the only person who's willing to give the last full measure of devotion."
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Two women walk by and Picciotto calls them over, talking about nuclear disarmament while she offers them an old newspaper story about her. One of them bends down and puts a dollar in a donation can. The other asks if she can get a picture with Picciotto on her iPhone.
While war continues and nuclear arms exist — and public attention fades — Picciotto says the cause has had some effect in "awakening the people." The tentative deal with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, she says, shows the power of negotiations.
She says she will remain as long as she can. "I cannot give up. Impossible."
But change is coming. Ellen Thomas is in the process of selling the home where Picciotto has kept a basement apartment. The home was purchased years ago by William Thomas with an inheritance and it became a base for activists.
Ellen Thomas, who now lives in North Carolina, allowed the demonstrators, many members of the Occupy movement, to remain as long as they paid the utilities but that has stopped. An eviction notice was filed in October.
Picciotto, under her tarp as rain fell, waved away concern, insisting the house was to remain as her friend intended. As she bristled with frustration over Ellen Thomas, a young man walked by.
"I appreciate you," he said, and disappeared in the rain.
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected]