WASHINGTON—Concepcion Piccioto's silver anniversary is coming up: Next year will be her 25th living in protest in front of the White House.
Thousands of tourists see her home when they come to see the president's. The contrast couldn't be starker—a 132-room mansion versus a beach umbrella with a dirty tarp draped over it. Propped-up sheets of plywood painted yellow flank her home. They're covered with photos showing the horrors of nuclear war.
Piccioto, 61, has lived under the umbrella, day and night, since Ronald Reagan took office. At first she camped on the sidewalk directly in front of the White House, but the Park Service made her move across the street to Lafayette Park. There she's learned to sleep standing up; if she were to lie down, she could be evicted as a vagrant.
"You have to have courage and a course," she told a passerby recently. Piccioto said her course is just as set as it was the day she began protesting.
She never thinks of leaving. "I cannot do it," she said in the accent of her native Spain. "I don't have any desires now, other than to see this (vigil) finished."
Piccioto survives on food donations from sympathizers, who drop off things such as watermelon and cookies. She buys bread from cash donations. Fellow homeless people watch her little encampment when she bikes to nearby bathrooms. Other than these brief excursions, she hasn't left her post since 1981. Piccioto said she's seen none of the monuments built in the last 25 years—Vietnam, Korea and World War II—less than two miles away.
She's endured days so hot and sticky that her clothes are often soaked with sweat. She's camped through blizzards that shut down the capital. Her skin is leathery and she's lost most of her teeth.
Piccioto engages any tourist who slows down in animated, earnest conversation, peppered with phrases such as "Stop the Bush terror," and "No blood for oil." She comes armed with fliers in five languages.
The reasons behind her mission are complex. She refers questions about her past life to her online history at http://www.prop1.org/conchita/conchita.htm. The 7,800-word document details a disintegrating marriage, bitter child custody fights and intermittent mental hospital stays. Her White House protests initially targeted the U.S. court system's alleged unfairness. Some months later, a local activist, William Thomas, talked her into an anti-nuclear protest instead.
Piccioto still flashes the same V-fingered peace sign that she flashed in photos dated 1988. She still wears the same helmet-sized wig to protect her from "beams" that the government might shoot at her.
Many passersby hear her out briefly, then go back to photographing the White House. Some want to take their pictures with her. Once, she said, a grave German man walked up to her, bowed slightly, and said in a thick accent, "Thank you, madam."
Others mock her and call her a nut. She blames ignorance when they get nasty.
Anyone pausing near her signs gets an earful. Bush is "a jerk. He has no brains. No, the president is sick." Pointing at the White House, she says, "The terrorist is here! The president uses manipulation by fear. He's a big crazy." She has had a negative opinion of every president since 1981.
"Do I have time to get bored? That's a funny question," she laughed. Spreading her message, feeding birds and painting "peace rocks" keeps her busier than she'd like, she said.
As for the future, "I cannot concentrate on the future. The future is now."
Piccioto feeds scores of the park's squirrels and pigeons bread from her hand, but her favorite white pigeon gets cookies. That's "Heiwa," Japanese for peace.
When asked how she wished her life were different, Piccioto answered by referring to Heiwa.
"She never has peace to eat. People always chasing her," Piccioto said. Then she hailed an approaching wave of tourists.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): PEACEVIGIL
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