If you’ve been to the White House in the past 30 years you’ve seen her: scarf over her head, surrounded by anti-nuclear signs and a makeshift tent. The president’s closest neighbor, the media have called her.
She’s from Spain originally. She lived in New York and married an Italian American man, and together they flew to Argentina to adopt a baby girl named Olga. When Concepcion lost Olga in a custody dispute, she came to Washington to appeal for help. And it was here, in 1981 in Lafayette Square, that she met William Thomas Hallenback, the peace activist everyone called “Thomas.”
“Thomas was the real deal,” said Start Loving, who used to be known as James McGinley and came to Washington eight years ago to protest the genocide in Darfur. “There are very few activists worthy of the name, but he was the real deal.”
Concepcion and Thomas became a team. And if there were those who spit on them, or pushed over their signs, or arrested them, there were others who saw them as modern-day Stylites, so committed to their cause that they had forgone lives of ease to bear witness on our behalf. They were the First Amendment come to life.
“Thomas said since we’re both for peace and justice, we make a duo,” Concepcion told me last week.
In 1984, Ellen Benjamin came to the park and met Thomas. “I actually dreamed his face, his voice, his words and his location for years and years, many times before I met him,” Ellen told me. Within six weeks she had quit her job at the National Wildlife Federation, married Thomas and joined the vigil.
Concepcion did not approve of Ellen. “Originally she told everybody that I worked for the government or was a cop,” Ellen said.
Of Ellen, Concepcion said: “She hated me because I took care of Thomas. She didn’t care for Thomas other than the money.”
By the money, Concepcion means mainly a house on 12th Street NW that Thomas bought with an inheritance he received after his mother died. It became known as Peace House, a sort of crash pad for activists, a place to paint new signs and update the Web site www.prop1.org. Concepcion didn’t need much — she was in front of the White House nearly round-the-clock — but she did accept Thomas’s offer of space underneath the stairs. Each morning and evening — while a volunteer sits with her signs, which the Park Service would confiscate if left unattended — she visits Peace House to heat some soup, use the bathroom, take a shower.
On Jan. 23, 2009, Thomas died of pulmonary disease. Ellen, who moved to the mountains of North Carolina after his death, says she can no longer manage the taxes and upkeep on the 12th Street house:“I just can’t afford to keep the place going anymore.”
The house is for sale. Ellen says a buyer is interested. And that means the residents, including Concepcion, must leave. Concepcion agreed in landlord-tenant court to vacate by Nov. 15 but now says that her attorney was not aggressive enough in fighting eviction and that she has nowhere to go.
“I feel abused,” she said, “very much abused.”
Watching the events unfold is Start Loving, who last week sat about 20 feet in front of Concepcion, demonstrating against carbon in the environment. (“Unless scientists are wrong, we have nine years to get the job done,” he said.)
Three crosses are tattooed on his forehead, composed of letters that spell “Stop Starving, Start Loving, Stop Killing.” Across his cheeks and nose is “Wage Love or Die.” He lived at Peace House for a while and tended the signs for Thomas and Concepcion. He thinks the vigil would have ended long ago if not for the relentless drive of Concepcion, or Connie, as he calls her.
But she can be mean to people, Start Loving said. “She’s able to manipulate person after person until she drives them away with her nastiness,” he said. “Ellen is no saint, but she certainly is no ogre. She inherited the house from Thomas. Connie didn’t.”
Kathy Boylan, a Catholic peace activist who sometimes tends the vigil, is in the pro-Concepcion camp. “If Thomas was alive, this would never be happening,” Kathy said. “I’m appealing to the people of Washington, to the people who are making this decision, to allow her to stay where she is, where her materials are, where Thomas’s memory is.”
The 30-year vigil has taken its toll on Concepcion, who won’t give her age but appears to be in her 70s. She is small and bent, her skin darkened by the sun. She is missing many of her teeth. She has been through blizzards, hurricanes and heat waves.
On the phone from North Carolina, Ellen says: “I’m really concerned about her well-being. I’m concerned that if she doesn’t get some help, then she might die out there this winter.”
Concepcion does what she’s done for three decades: She waits for peace.