WASHINGTON – The White House has seen many faces. While presidents come and go,and millions of tourists from all over the world pass by,one face has remained the same since 1981.
Shouting through missing teeth and with dark eyes that have seen a lot,anti-nuclear weapons protester,Concepcion Picciotto,65,has maintained an around-the-clock peace vigil for 29 years.
Two signs,about 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide,rest on either side of the small woman.
“Live by the Bomb,Die by the Bomb” and “Ban All Nuclear Weapons or Have a Nice Doomsday” are painted in black lettering on yellow wood.
The other sides of the signs are decorated with newspaper clippings and photographs. Some are articles about her,and others reflect important issues she feels people need to be aware of.
With her helmet,which she said is for “chemical warfare,” strapped to her head,she waits for passersby to strike up a conversation as she tosses the squirrels peanuts and pieces of bread.
Asked why she's there,Picciotto merely said,”It's a complicated story” and recommends that anyone who wants to know more about her personal life to check out her Web site.
She immigrated from Spain to New York when she 18 years old and married an Italian businessman at age 21. The marriage ended in divorce,and Picciotto lost custody of their toddler daughter,Olga,a story she will not talk about.
Personal questions are not important,she said. She wants to talk about her cause – the cause that has kept her watching the White House for 29 years.
Picciotto said personal struggles led her to the White House,where she sought help after losing the custody fight. Picciotto believes she was denied proper legal help and was the victim of conspiracy.
“The more I went to get help,I ended up in more trouble,” she said. “Instead,I've been more persecuted.”
It was at the White House gates that Picciotto met William Thomas,who became her friend and colleague until his death in 2009. Together they started the anti-nuclear weapon vigil that still stands its ground in Lafayette Park.
A Washington Post article said his death was because of pulmonary disease,but Picciotto said she believes the police killed her friend when they aggravated his asthma.
“We would challenge the government in court with the Constitution. That's how he was killed,” she said. “Police are criminals in uniform. They don't respect the Constitution. They don't respect nothing.”
Picciotto's job has become more difficult as laws about camping and protesting in front of the White House became stricter.
The National Park Service does not allow people to walk away from their protest signs,placards or any other materials brought to areas such as Lafayette Park,said Bill Line,National Park Service spokesman.
He said the rule prevents permit-holding protesters from leaving their materials in the park for the park service to clean up,ultimately costing the American taxpayer money.
“The National Park Service takes the First Amendment very seriously and reveres it as much as any other American does,” Line said. “It's a reasonable request for people to take their materials with them when they are finished.”
What Picciotto is doing is not camping,he said,because she leaves late at night and returns in the morning.
However,with the regulation about not leaving materials in the park,sometimes leaving her post to take care of everyday necessities like sleeping,eating and using the restroom becomes more difficult,especially now that Thomas is gone.
Volunteers often help her out,she said,just long enough for her to get a shower,check her e-mail and read the Internet to stay up-to-date on world affairs at the apartment-office Thomas left behind.
The apartment is close to the White House,and Picciotto rides her bike back and forth every day.
Although she is considered the president's closest neighbor,don't expect her to ask to borrow a cup of sugar from the Obamas anytime soon.
In 29 years of sitting in front of the White House,Picciotto has never met a president.
Even though she has not met them,she keeps up with their work and is able to rattle off which wars each president since Jimmy Carter has engaged in. She laughs as she includes President Bill Clinton's scandal with Monica Lewinski.
Picciotto is also writing a book about her life running the vigil. It was a plan she and Thomas had before he died,Picciotto said. Now she's even more determined to carry on their work despite loneliness,what she calls police brutality and the difficulties of maintaining iron-clad bladder control.
“It's hard to keep it up. But I do it. After all these years,I never stop,” Picciotto said. “My helmet,my teeth,my twisted toe,but I'm still here. Because I won't give up. No matter what they do.”