Whatever Happened To... ... the protesters at Lafayette Square park?

Protester Concepcion Picciotto holds a poster depicting William Thomas.
Protester Concepcion Picciotto holds a poster depicting William Thomas. (Benjamin C Tankersley - )
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By Kris Coronado
Sunday, January 30, 2011

After gazing at the White House, a group of well-dressed tourists turns around and takes in an entirely different scene across the street. There, centered on the sidewalk along Lafayette Square park, is a jumbled menagerie of wooden and cardboard signs. One shows photos of Hiroshima bombing victims. The caption reads: "Stay the course and this will happen to YOU."

When the onlookers approach for a better view, they catch the attention of Concepcion Picciotto -- the woman to whom this anti-nuclear vigil belongs.

She is rearranging her signs. The previous day, U.S. Park Police briefly relocated her to the northwest corner of the park when they closed it to the public for undisclosed reasons.

"It's so hard," Picciotto explains. "For two hours, they made us move everything and wait."

A 40-something tourist smiles condescendingly. "That's a good idea, though, because you wouldn't want one thing to be in a spot for too long," she says.

Picciotto is not amused. "Well, I have this here for you because you do nothing," she retorts. "You people go around like robots with cameras. If you people were more concerned, we wouldn't have to be here."

The group scoffs and mockingly makes robot movements before walking away laughing.

This is no joke for Picciotto. She has been staging her protest against nuclear weaponry every day since 1981. On this windy winter morning, her petite frame is bundled in a thick corduroy jacket. She wears a scarf over a wig, and many of her front teeth are missing.

When featured in The Washington Post in June 2006, Picciotto left the talking to William Thomas, the man who began the vigil on June 3, 1981. Picciotto had met Thomas a few months earlier and decided to join him.

The pair had regulations to follow -- they couldn't stray three feet from their property or sit in anything resembling bedding. Thomas was arrested multiple times.

Yet all of these challenges seemed negligible in comparison to the one Picciotto faced on Jan. 23, 2009 -- the day Thomas succumbed to pulmonary disease at age 61. With her compatriot gone, how could she maintain the vigil on her own?

That's when Start Loving (yes, he goes by that name only) stepped in.

"I was just unwilling to see it jeopardized," says Loving, a fellow activist.

Loving's presence in the mornings and evenings means Picciotto can grab a shower or relieve herself.

For now, Picciotto will maintain her vigil for a nuclear-free world. There's no apparent end, she insists. To this day, no president has crossed the street to meet her. It's a fact she finds frustrating. "I'm very discouraged," she says.

READ THE ORIGINAL STORY: A Long Wait for Peace (The Washington Post, June 3, 2006)

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