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35-year sermon of peace comes to end with White House protester’s death

Concepcion Picciotto outside of the White House on June 15, 2010. (Wikipedia/George Kauper)

Concepcion Picciotto outside of the White House on June 15, 2010. (Wikipedia/George Kauper)

Since August 1981, the closest night and day neighbor of the president of the United States was Concepcion Picciotto. Her 35-year residence in Lafayette Square across from the White House was a varicolored collection of tightly spaced chairs, blankets and a plastic covering. Fronting it all were large and small hand-lettered signs, ranging from “Ban All Nuclear Weapons or Have a Nice Doomsday” to “Live By the Bomb, Die By the Bomb.”

At her death at age 80 in a Washington assisted living center on Jan. 25, Picciotto, a Spanish-born pacifist, had staged the nation’s longest-running 24/7 protest against American militarism. The site became known as the Peace Park Anti-Nuclear Vigil. Blizzards, downpours, lightning bolts, heat waves and other inclemencies came and went, none of them a match for the willpower of Picciotti. Activist allies would join her, either to let her take shower breaks at nearby facilities or help her pass out literature to tourists passing by the encampment. Among the international groups that unfailingly showed up, as if paying homage to a shrine, were those from Japan — grateful that at least one American grieved the August 1945 horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As visible as the vigil was — critics denounced it as an eyesore and supporters hailed it a light shining in the nuclear darkness — Picciotto’s stand was politically grounded in what was called Proposition One, a proposed constitutional amendment legislatively requiring nuclear disarmament and the disbanding of weapons companies. The bill, meeting with near-total disinterest by the denizens on Capitol Hill, never came up for a floor vote. Even though the peace vigil could be seen from the West Wing of the White House as well as the second floor residence, none of the five presidents from 1981 to now — Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama — ever bothered to stop by to say hello, much less host her in the Oval Office. The establishment media largely dismissed her as an eccentric, never booking her for a spot on the Sunday morning talk shows. Nor did the editorial boards of the New York Times or Washington Post invite her in. Others were more appreciative. In 2011 Picciotto received the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage presented annually by the Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest.

More than once I brought my students to the vigil to meet this wonder woman. Connie, as I and many other admirers came to call her, was ever gracious and modest. She told stories of her many run-ins with the Secret Service and hassling park police. For my students, I thought it was educationally better for them to see a sermon on peace than hear one.