Connie Picciotto has kept vigil near the White House for 32 years. Why, and at what cost?

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Connie Picciotto, who has maintained a protest vigil in front of the White House since the early 1980s, seen from inside her shelter (a sheet of plastic draped over a patio umbrella and secured with binder clips) in March. (By Bill O’Leary)

The little old woman with the wig glued to her helmet is talking to three men in suits about war.

It’s sweltering in the August sunshine, and everything about these men — their designer sunglasses, unsheathed BlackBerrys, stiff postures — conveys a desire to escape the conversation. The woman keeps talking.

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Connie stands near one of her signs. (Bill O’Leary)

“This is very important,” she is saying, her voice an emphatic falsetto. “We’ve got to stop Iran.”

She turns abruptly and shuffles back to her encampment, an old patio umbrella draped in a white plastic sheet secured with binder clips. It is flanked by two large boards with messages in capital letters: BAN ALL NUCLEAR WEAPONS OR HAVE A NICE DOOMSDAY and LIVE BY THE BOMB, DIE BY THE BOMB.

This rudimentary shelter has been positioned outside the White House for more than three decades. It is a monument itself now, widely considered the longest-running act of political protest in the United States, and this woman, Concepcion Picciotto — Connie, as she’s known to many — is its longest-running caretaker.

“I’ve seen her here for many years,” one of the men says quietly.

Connie returns and presses a booklet into his hand. “The Untold Story,” the title reads.

“This is important,” she says again.

“All right, thank you, ma’am,” the man says. He slips the pamphlet into his suit pocket. Within minutes, he deposits it in a trash can at the perimeter of Lafayette Square.

Connie is little, not quite 5 feet tall. She has the face of a woman who has lived on the street; her skin browned and scarred; her mouth a hard line, revealing only a few teeth when she speaks or smiles. When she first joined the vigil at the park, President Ronald Reagan had just taken his oath of office. Connie remained outside the White House gates throughout his presidency and the presidencies of those who followed: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama.

She was here day after day, season after season — through the Iran-contra scandal and the Monica Lewinsky scandal and too many other scandals to list. She was here when the Persian Gulf War began and ended. Connie was here when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, here when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started and went on and on.

Tour guides point out the vigil to visitors. Educators use it in lessons about social activism. It has appeared in Michael Moore’s controversial 2004 film “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a slew of local newspaper stories, a documentary titled “The Oracles of Pennsylvania Avenue.”

But despite its legendary past, the vigil faces an uncertain future. Connie is 77. Her health has suffered since she was hit by a cab weeks ago, and the activist-run house that has been her shelter when she’s not in the park is endangered. Still, she remains focused on her priority: being heard. In these final months of the 2012 campaign cycle, she hopes that Obama might be the first president to meet her and learn her story.

Meanwhile, a young, dark-haired man stops in front of the tent, aiming a digital camera at one of the signs. Connie leans forward and calls hello. She’ll tolerate those who want to take pictures, but at a price. They need to listen to what she has to say.

“This is atomic bombs?” the man asks her in a heavily accented voice. “How long is here?”

“Thirty years,” Connie says.

“Wow, long time,” he says. Connie asks where he is from.

“Chile,” he says. “South America.”

Connie smiles and answers in Spanish. She gives him several handouts, then settles back into her blue canvas chair. She watches waves of tourists parade past.

Her fingers gingerly trace her sore shoulder, still not quite healed from the accident. “It is swelling again,” she says. “The heat. No good.”

She tilts her head back, her expression resolute beneath her layers of headgear.

“But, sacrifice,” she says firmly, answering her own complaint. “We have to stop the world from being destroyed.”

She fixes a steely gaze on the White House and recites her common refrain.

“I have to be here. This is my life.”

***

As a culture, we say we respect passion and admire dedication. But the line between activist and zealot sometimes blurs. When we think someone has crossed it, we get uncomfortable, suspicious. We distance ourselves from the person whose actions we can’t quite understand.

Yet doesn’t true activism demand some degree of eccentricity, even extremism? Can a person be a saint and crazy? Is Connie both? Neither? And, if it matters, whose judgment is the one that counts?

Connie’s desire for peace is rooted in a wish to protect the world’s children — a longing that grew from her attempt to protect one child. What she says she wants is clear. How she came to want it is complicated.

***

The historic vigil began officially on June 3, 1981, when Connie joined William Thomas, a protester who had positioned himself outside the White House gates with a hand-lettered sign: “Wanted — Wisdom and Honesty.”

Connie, a former embassy secretary in New York who was working as a part-time nanny for a local family, had come to Washington to plead for the government’s help with a family crisis. Thomas (he was known to everyone by his last name) was a self-described philosopher, a wanderer who had dropped out of high school, pilgrimaged overseas and held odd jobs in New York and New Jersey before winding up in Washington.

“I saw that he was sincere to do what he was doing,” Connie says.

She sat down beside him. Within hours, they were arrested for illegally camping in Lafayette Square. When they were released, Thomas told her, “Since we are both seeking peace and justice, we should become a team.” So they did.

Connie had read about nuclear issues and had been horrified by photographs of the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. She adopted Thomas’s message as her own: They were pro-peace, anti-nuclear proliferation and anti-government deception. They dedicated their lives to their cause, which mostly meant that they would sit across the street from one of the most powerful buildings in the free world and talk to the visitors who came by, hand out literature and display their signs. They would do this night and day, in freezing cold and scorching heat, through rains that soaked their clothes and winds that scattered their pamphlets across the pavement. They had only their flimsy umbrella-shelter for protection; actual tents had been banned in the park.

They trod the fine line between passivity and activism and spanned a transition period in the evolution of protest. The vigil came long after the marches and sit-ins that mobilized a generation in the 1960s. It came long before Occupy camps appeared around the globe, drawing criticism from some who questioned the movement’s organization and authenticity.

Connie and Thomas believed that changing even a handful of minds through their signs, their words was enough. Their endurance alone would be a powerful testament, an ever-pre­sent symbol of the need for change.

The timeline was indefinite, since world peace is an endless quest. Unlike more focused causes — abortion, same-sex marriage — it’s too vast for individual laws to measure progress. The demand for peace is as much about human will as it is about government actions.

For years, Connie and Thomas lived mostly in the streets. They survived on donations of money, clothes and food. They slept in the park, stealthily. Connie remembers that there was a Hardee’s nearby and a doughnut shop, and the employees would give the activists leftover food. The pair bathed at friends’ homes.

“We weren’t living — we survived,” Connie says.

In 1984, an administrative assistant at the National Wildlife Federation discovered the protesters while conducting research for a play about homeless people. Ellen Benjamin says she recognized Thomas immediately; she had seen him in her dreams.

“Thomas has told me not to tell people this, but I can’t help telling it because it is the truth: I recognized his face, his voice, his words,” Ellen says. “I’d been having dreams at night about him since I was a child. And this flabbergasted me.”

At the time, Ellen had a comfortable, middle-class existence: a nice apartment, a good job.

“Within three weeks, I had quit my job and joined the vigil, and three weeks after that, he and I were married,” she says. She became Ellen Thomas.

Connie was profoundly distressed by the whirlwind romance. She was — and remains — convinced that Ellen had joined the cause purely to exploit Thomas. “She is a vulture,” Connie says of Ellen, spitting the word.

Despite the unrelenting tension, Thomas and the two women who were devoted to him demonstrated together in the park every day. And nearly every day, Ellen says, Connie would tell anyone who listened that Ellen was a liar, a manipulator, a spy. Connie preached conflicting messages of personal anger and global peace.

“It was an odd marriage, because Connie was always right there in the middle of it hating my guts,” Ellen says. “But we kept at it for 25 years, and I’m a patient person, and I just accepted that as how it was.”

Time ticked on. The activists persevered, through confrontations with police and hostile tourists, through arrests and courtroom hearings and stays in jail. Thomas and Ellen were once sentenced to 90 days for violating National Park Service rules. Connie kept the protest going while her partners were behind bars.

Causes ignited and subsided around them: the wars in the Middle East, human rights abuses in China, genocide in Africa, conflict in Israel. The vigil-keepers supported all demonstrations for peace but remained focused on their anti-nuclear initiatives. Thomas and Ellen called their grass-roots movement the Proposition One Campaign, with the ambitious goal of global disarmament. But Connie distanced herself from messages and petitions directly associated with Proposition One, because Ellen was the driving force behind it.

In 1993, the campaign had its most significant success when the activists circulated a petition calling for nuclear disarmament, resulting in a ballot initiative passed by District voters. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s congressional delegate, took notice.

“Far more important than getting my attention, they got the attention of D.C. voters at a time when nuclear proliferation was a more high-profile issue,” Norton says in an interview in her Capitol Hill office. “It showed that there were others with them.”

Norton worked with the activists to craft a nuclear disarmament and conversion act that would “speak in legislative terms that were more realistic,” Norton says. Versions have been introduced to 10 sessions of Congress, and Norton plans to do so again this year. The legislation has never gone to the floor for a vote, and the world has moved no closer to nuclear disarmament, Norton says. But these facts are not reflective of the vigil’s larger impact.

“They want to keep the issue of nuclear proliferation and its potential terrible consequences before the public,” Norton says. “And they have chosen a prime spot to do it. That’s brilliant. … We won’t ever know what the success is, because it doesn’t have a specific end of the kind we are used to.”

To understand the value of what they do, Norton says, you must understand the history of American activism.

“Everybody who protests in this country understands how incremental change is, and if you’re not going to stick to it, it’s not going to happen,” she says. If a topic isn’t at the forefront of the public consciousness, “maybe you can’t keep a movement going, but you can keep an issue alive.”

Ellen and Connie both say the vigil’s influence is immeasurable: Hundreds of thousands of people walk past the White House every year, and many stop to offer praise.

“People always tell me, ‘We need more people like you,’ ” Connie says. “I tell them: ‘But it starts with you. You are responsible for what’s going on.’ If people were more concerned, I wouldn’t have to be there.”

***

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Connie in her basement apartment at Peace House. (Bill O’Leary)

When Thomas’s mother died in 1999, Thomas first wanted to give his $90,000 inheritance away, even burn the money to make a statement about materialism. But Ellen persuaded him to buy a rundown house on 12th Street NW. It took them years to fix it up, Ellen says, but they finally had a proper home. They called it Peace House.

It became a sanctuary for wandering activists. Some stayed for days, others for weeks or months. Thomas, Ellen and Connie remained a constant trio, but they were often surrounded by others who helped out around Peace House and covered shifts at the vigil. The house was a constantly evolving community whose members scraped by with modest grants and donations.

In 2008, after Thomas’s father died, Ellen and Thomas decided to buy a second home in North Carolina. Thomas, a 61-year-old drinker and smoker who suffered from diabetes and congestive heart failure, had been ordered by a judge to stay away from the park for a year following a confrontation with police. Ellen urged him to head south temporarily to recover and begin work on a book about their cause. She went first.

Soon after, in January 2009, Thomas was standing in the Peace House kitchen with Connie and a friend, Acie Gearheart, when he suddenly clutched his chest and tumbled to the floor.

“He collapsed,” Connie remembers. She lifts a trembling hand and drops it to her lap: He fell that hard, that fast.

Acie attempted CPR while they waited for help to arrive.

“I told the ambulance, ‘Please, please, save him,’ ” Connie says. But Thomas was gone.

Connie and Ellen were both determined to carry on in Thomas’s memory. Ellen continued her activism from her new home and started writing the book, meeting with Norton annually to discuss their legislative efforts.

Connie believed that Thomas had never really planned to go to North Carolina, that he never would have left. She made signs to honor her lost comrade and returned to the park the day after he died.

***

Four years later, Connie’s presence at the vigil has necessarily diminished. In late 2011, she was joined at Peace House by dozens of protesters from the Occupy movement; they took turns at the vigil to relieve Connie after the accident left her unable to continue prolonged shifts.

It’s not clear how long the arrangement will last. Ellen, who still owns Peace House, says she can’t afford to keep paying for the place; she would like the activists to stay and continue their work, but they haven’t been able to cover all the expenses. She intends to ask the residents, including Connie, to vacate this spring if they can’t produce a down payment.

Connie says that William Thomas established Peace House as a nonprofit, though there are no records available to support this, and insists that it needs to be maintained as a memorial to him.

“This house cannot be sold,” she says. “Thomas’s blood is in this house.” She insists that the Occupiers need to stay.

If — when — Connie can’t keep attending the vigil, would the young activists become the future of the movement? Would they carry on her legacy?

“I hope,” she says.

On a cold November afternoon, a mohawked Peace House resident named Michael arrives at the vigil shortly before 2 p.m. to relieve Connie. As she gathers her things into a reusable grocery bag, Michael issues the standard assessment to the reporter hovering nearby.

“She’s a hero,” he says and nods resolutely. He repeats the word: “Hero.”

It’s a word Connie hears often, from passersby or fellow activists who are emphatic in their praise. What is less clear is whether Connie’s supporters applaud the substance or the symbolism of her work. By what measure do they evaluate heroism? Impact? Intent? Connie offers only vague instructions to the tourists who stop to talk. Get involved, pay attention, take responsibility, she tells them. She follows the news only to some degree — she reads al-Jazeera online and a few political blogs — but her outrage is focused broadly on those who target innocent lives, especially children.

When she reads certain stories (lately, they’re often about Gaza or Syria), “it hurts me to see people screaming for justice,” she says. “I want to help them. But I’m a victim, too.”

She shuffles home. Cabs whip around corners too fast, bicyclists blur past as she limps along, her small body hunched in her blue coat. Despite her size and halting gait, there is some measure of defiance to every movement; she walks outside the lines of sidewalks and crosswalks, cutting across the grass in Lafayette Square and the middle of a busy intersection at 15th and K. She ignores the second glances of people who stand beside her, waiting for the light to change.

It takes her about 25 minutes to get back to 12th Street, to her garden filled with rehabilitated plants outside her pink-walled basement apartment. It’s a modest living space, with a galley kitchen, a mattress on the floor, a table covered in papers and her laptop computer, a radio that chatters the news quietly all the time. There is a cat, an orange tabby named Bobby, who shares the space.

Bobby is among the few loved ones immortalized in photographs on a shelf near the bed. There is an old image of a uniform-clad uncle from Spain, the only evidence of a family Connie won’t discuss. There is a picture of Thomas on his bicycle near the vigil.

And then, beside the portrait of Thomas, a photograph of a baby girl with pudgy cheeks and dark hair. A sweet-faced child holding a teddy bear in her lap.

***

On the summer day in 1981 when Connie first sat down beside Thomas in the park, she wasn’t thinking about nuclear bombs. She had not come to Washington with global ambitions. She just wanted her daughter back.

The picture of Olga as a toddler is the most recent image Connie has of her now-adult daughter. It’s the same picture in the pamphlet Connie hands out to strangers, which offers a summary of her personal history. There are other photos in the pamphlet, too: Connie beside her then-husband at a dinner party, and a grainy wedding portrait that shows her as a young bride in a floor-length ivory gown. Her dark hair is swept back under a white veil. She beams at the groom.

These pictures are what remain of her life before the vigil — along with piles and folders of documents, records that Connie says chronicle her persecution at the hands of her ex-husband, lawyers, doctors and the U.S. government.

What matters of her life happened here, in America, she says, and she won’t speak of what came before she arrived from Spain in 1960. She first lived in New York City, she says, and worked for the Economic and Commercial Office of the Spanish Embassy. She became an American citizen and met a dark-haired Italian man at a friend’s wedding. The two were married Oct. 29, 1969.

They wanted to have a family. “I like children very much, but we couldn’t have them,” she says.

When Connie and her husband had no luck finding a child to adopt in New York, a friend of her husband’s suggested they try Argentina. In 1973, the couple traveled to Buenos Aires, where they were met by the friend’s family. At the time, Argentina was teetering on the precipice of a brutal military junta.

“They introduced us to doctors, and they promised to find us a baby, but we had to pay them,” she says. “They brought us babies to look at, in a car. All of them were newborns.”

Olga was two hours old when a midwife brought her to Connie and her husband. There was no word of her biological parents, Connie says. She never knew who they were or what had happened to them.

This is where Connie’s story gives way to overlapping conspiracy theories. Connie believes that the adoption was illegal and that her husband and their adoption lawyer knew this. She believes that her husband also had an intimate relationship with an older woman who conspired to ruin the marriage. She is convinced that her husband began poisoning her; every morning she woke up feeling weak and sick.

“I didn’t understand that it was a baby-selling ring,” she says. “I was so naive … and then they wanted to make me disappear.”

Her husband and the lawyer separated her from Olga and tried to have her committed to a hospital, she says.

“He claimed I was sick in my head,” she says of her husband.

Connie says she was admitted against her will to Coney Island Hospital in late 1973 and later transferred to Pilgrim Psychiatric Center on Long Island. With the help of a nun from a New York convent, Connie says, she was eventually released and fled to Spain.

There, she received a thorough examination. As she recounts this part of the story, Connie pulls out two papers; copies of the same document, written in Spanish and English. It appears to be a medical record, indicating that she has been found to be of sound mind and general good health — with the exception of a broken eardrum, an injury she says she received when her husband struck her.

Connie says she was afraid to return to the United States, but she was also desperate to get her daughter back. She traveled instead to Canada, where she says she stayed with friends from her embassy days while working with lawyers in New York to determine her legal avenues.

“Everybody was persecuting me,” she says. “They always said that I was crazy and tried to put me away.”

When months passed and she had no luck with lawyers in New York, she decided to go instead to Washington in 1979 to seek help from the government.

Spokespersons at Coney Island Hospital and Pilgrim Psychiatric Center said they could not confirm or discuss patient records. The adoption lawyer could not be located. The convent did exist, but for 15 years the address has belonged to an immigrant services organization. The Economic and Commercial Office of the Spanish Embassy confirmed that Connie had worked there as a receptionist from 1967 to 1969 but could not provide details. Connie’s ex-husband could not be reached for comment.

Questions about the particular details of Connie’s history often frustrate her. “It’s all in my book,” she says, irritated, with a wave of her hand. For years she worked on a detailed memoir on her old laptop, which, she says, was stolen by a man who was staying at Peace House. Connie has a pending complaint against the alleged thief, but he has yet to respond to a court order to return her property.

What is certain is what she believes, and what she believes has shaped the past three decades of her life.

“That’s how my odyssey began, seeking legal help,” she says firmly. “I was trying to get custody of my baby.”

After months in Washington, she says, she became convinced that she was being persecuted by the government. That’s why she wears her helmet; the government, she says gravely, is aiming electromagnetic waves at her head.

Why?

“That is a very complicated story,” she says, then offers a simple answer: “They want to stop me.”

She experienced weakness, pains, mysterious burns, she says, which she believes were the result of illegal government tests. And she’d made no progress toward reclaiming her lost daughter.

The day Connie first sat beside Thomas in the park, she was frightened and defeated. She felt she had been left with no choice but to join his cause.

“Since I couldn’t do anything to help my child, the only thing to do was to help the other children of the world,” she says. “I had to keep them from being destroyed.”

***

The 2012 election season ends; President Obama secures a second term, and construction begins outside the White House in preparation for inaugural festivities. That means Connie has to move from her usual spot, and the vigil stands instead beside the park’s central statue of Andrew Jackson. She knows this routine well by now. “Every four years,” she says.

Every four years, she has held out hope that a president might speak to her. She and Thomas always wanted to share their message with a leader who could make a real impact, she says.

“We weren’t there just hoping for that,” she says. “But we thought maybe they would come, or send someone, across the street.”

After Obama is reelected, she writes him a letter.

She won’t discuss what it says. She wants to give him time to consider the evidence she laid out and conduct a thorough investigation of her case.

“And not only to investigate, but to talk to me,” she says. “All these years, not one president has come. I’m waiting for a reply.”

***

There are others, though, who devote a great deal of attention to the determined activist.

In late November, Feriha Kaya and Mira Dabit, who call themselves the co-organizers of Peace House, are struggling to meet a Dec. 1 deadline to raise $300,000 toward the house’s purchase price. There are pledges from potential donors, but not one penny in hand.

“We tried our best, and we’re still doing our best,” Feriha says. “There are people and resources who have promised us money.”

The two women make sure that the residents of Peace House pull their weight. About a dozen people live there full time, though at the height of the Occupy movement, that number was closer to 40.

“People don’t just come and sleep and hang out,” Feriha says. “We are very disciplined. This is a community house. People wake up at 7:30 and get started on chores.”

Feriha and Mira, along with a few other residents, are responsible for paying Ellen a monthly rent of $1,100 as well as covering utilities. The house also raises money through donations and events, Feriha says.

The two young women sit in the warm sunshine on the aqua-painted front steps of Peace House. Feriha, 24, a soft-spoken student who moved into the house in March 2011, speaks fondly of its community of artists and activists. Mira, 27, a Palestinian with a nose ring and a disarming smile, says she grew up surrounded by conflict in Israel and spent time volunteering with peace activists in Northern Ireland before coming to the United States.

Losing Peace House, they say, is simply not an option. They need the house to continue their efforts, and Connie needs a place to live to continue her work. To Feriha and Mira, who had established a closer relationship to Connie than other residents of the house, Connie was on par with the most iconic of activists.

“Like Gandhi or Mother Teresa,” Feriha says. “She is a legend in her own way. … What has she accomplished, people ask. If she’s spoken to just a few people who understand her message, she’s done more than most. She gives the message of peace. She talks about what war is creating.”

Connie can make a hard impression, Feriha says, but there is another side. “Consider the garden: Connie rescues abandoned plants and tends to them, and they flourish here. She values all life.”

Feriha says she is fascinated by the way people react to Connie, how many tourists and passersby seem more intimidated and unnerved by a flimsy white tent than by the symbolic power of the White House, where men with assault rifles stalk the perimeter of the roof.

“Some people won’t dare come close,” she says. “People automatically assume there must be something wrong with this person, which speaks to our fear and our lack of understanding.”

At this, Mira nods emphatically. “Exactly,” she says, lighting a cigarette.

“Here is a woman who hurts nobody, who is a legend, who has the longest-running peace vigil,” Feriha says. “People can’t understand why she does this, so they have to qualify it: ‘She’s homeless, right? She’s crazy, right?’ ”

Mira exhales a puff of smoke. “She’s got more commitment than any president who has lived across the street from her,” she says. “They change every four years. She never changes. She says: ‘This is me; this is forever. This is until I pass.’ ”

She shakes her head, her eyebrows raised, an expression of admiration. “She never gives up, man.”

Feriha says she has faith that the house will persevere in the end, somehow, despite the reality of a looming deadline and no money with which to meet it.

“Maybe I’m too naive or visionary, but I’m convinced it will turn out fine,” she says.

***

Instead, December brings a sudden and heartbreaking blow.

When Mira first started feeling sick, she told Feriha she thought it was a urinary tract infection. Mira didn’t have health insurance, and she was stubborn about going to doctors, Feriha says.

Mira left Peace House to stay with another friend nearby, hoping she could rest better there; Peace House, Feriha says, can be “chaotic.” Mira went to a clinic, but the staff didn’t diagnose an infection or prescribe antibiotics. Her condition worsened. On the night of Dec. 15, she collapsed suddenly and died in the ambulance on the way to Washington Hospital Center. Doctors said the cause was a blood clot resulting from the untreated infection, Feriha says.

The Peace House community is mourning. Residents gather to share stories of Mira, and one paints a memorial portrait to display in the large living room. Connie grieves, too; she weeps with Feriha when she learns the news. It is another loss — for the movement, and for her.

In the aftermath of Mira’s death, unpaid bills pile up at Peace House. Ellen Thomas says that though she doesn’t want to force the Occupiers and Connie to leave the house, she feels she is running out of time and options.

Connie continues to vehemently deny Ellen’s claim to the house. Still, Ellen says she is determined to rise above Connie’s hostility.

“I have huge respect for Connie. I have unconditional love for Connie.” Ellen says with a laugh. “But I don’t really like her very much.”

Like most of the people who have known Connie the most intimately, Ellen is reluctant to address the question of Connie’s mental health.

“I think there are issues that haven’t been addressed,” she says.

And like most of the people who have known Connie the most intimately, Ellen is quick to hail the value of her legacy.

“She’s little and a bulldog, and she’s probably no less difficult to live with than a number of Catholic saints probably were. I think she’s blessed by God. I think she’s taken care of. She’s not able to do so many of the things that you and I can do — but she can do what so many other people can’t do, just by sticking to it and by not giving up.”

***

Despite her seemingly endless capacity for perseverance, Connie says she has long surrendered any hope of reconnecting with her daughter. At first, Connie says she hasn’t tried to contact Olga since she was a little girl; Connie worried that if Olga knew the details of the conspiracy, Olga, too, might become a target.

But Ellen and Acie Gearheart, Thomas’s friend who covered shifts at the vigil many years ago, tell a different story. Acie says he twice drove Connie and Thomas north to find Olga, first in New York, then in New Jersey. Ellen remembers those trips, too; Thomas told her about them when he came back.

Acie’s memory isn’t great, he acknowledges. He has lived hard, and he’s older now. But he remembers driving up the first time about the late ’80s. The second trip was more recent, about 10 years ago. On the first trip, Olga was a young girl, he says, about middle school age. Connie knew the girl was still living in the house Connie had shared with her ex-husband.

When the three arrived at the house, they didn’t knock on the door or try to talk to Olga or her father, Acie’s says. Instead, they took hundreds of fliers they had printed — the fliers displayed photos of Olga and her adopted parents, alongside the words “The Untold Story” — and plastered them all over the surrounding neighborhood. For a woman who identified her life’s purpose through messages printed on signs and posters, announcing such a personal appeal on every street corner might have seemed perfectly natural.

“We pasted literally thousands of them in that area, all night long put up these stickers all over the place so the kid couldn’t walk anyplace in that area without seeing it,” Acie says.

The idea was that Olga would inevitably see the picture and the claim of a lost mother, and she’d know Connie was trying to find her. But it’s not clear that Connie thought about what effect such a startling act might have on Olga, who would step outside her door into a sea of pictures of her own face.

They drove back to Washington at dawn, Acie says, never knowing what came of their efforts.

Connie won’t directly answer a question about her attempts to contact Olga. She shakes her head and says, “That’s all right.” Then, after a moment of quiet, “I was afraid to get close to the house.”

Years after the first trip, when Olga was older and married and living in New Jersey, Acie drove Thomas and Connie to Olga’s home. This time, Connie carried a box of items she wanted Olga to have. Acie and Ellen weren’t positive of everything in the box, but they knew there was a bracelet that belonged to Olga as a toddler.

Connie knocked on the door of the house, Acie says. A man who Acie believes was Olga’s husband answered the door and spoke to Connie.

“It didn’t look like he was going to take the box,” Acie says. “Thomas and I stepped out of the vehicle, and then he took the box.”

In all these years, Connie has never heard from Olga.

Through her husband, Olga Picciotto Preiser declined to comment for this story.

Connie is sitting at the little round table in her apartment. It is a cold January day, and she leans to adjust a space heater sitting on the floor, turning it toward her feet. She just shakes her head. For several minutes, the only sound is the soft drone of her radio.

“It’s so sad, what happened,” Connie says suddenly, loudly, her eyes wet. She might be talking about Olga. She might be talking about herself and the mother she never got to be.

***

 

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Connie hands out literature to tourists in Lafayette Square in April. (Bill O’Leary)

The last of the inaugural gates have finally come down, and the vigil has returned to its usual spot at the edge of the park.

On an early spring day, a group of Scouts is gathered around its leader in Lafayette Square. He points out Connie’s vigil and tells them a brief version of its history. The protesters have a right to be here, he says, even if some object to what they say, even if their presence disrupts the elegance and grandeur of the setting. The Scout leader wants the boys to understand Connie’s relevance — but when the time comes to pose for a group photograph, they are directed to line up strategically so that only the desired landmarks are in the frame. Connie and her display disappear behind a wall of brown uniforms.

It is 10 months into Connie’s 32nd year of protest.It is almost three months into Obama’s second term as president. The white tent and the White House, a wide avenue and a world apart.

Connie knows the view from here by heart, probably better than anyone else does or ever will. She knows the spot along the wrought-iron gates where tourists always pose for pictures, and the slope of the flawless lawn beyond, the stately columns of the North Portico.

You can see the park from the other side of the street, too, through certain windows in certain rooms — the ones with old wood floors and gold-fabric curtains, where the most high-profile ceremonial events and announcements take place. Rooms where it seems particularly unlikely that the president might find a moment to pause and look through the panes of bullet-proof glass.

But imagine he did. Here is the gold-domed church on the far side of H Street, the stone silhouette of Andrew Jackson astride his rearing horse, the bustle of workday professionals cutting through the park with cellphones clamped to their ears. Closer, he would see flower beds filled with sprouting tulips along the red-brick walkways, meandering tourists clutching cameras. And in front of it all, a makeshift tent framed by tall wooden signs. He might discern the stooped shape of one small woman beside it, made faceless by distance but instantly recognizable — not for who she is, but what she does.

She is still there, and she is waiting.

Caitlin Gibson is a Washington Post staff writer.  Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this story.

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