Peace activitst Concepcion Picciotto, foreground, in Lafayette Square in 2013. She died on Jan. 25. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

They carried her slowly down the aisle to a solemn beat set by Buddhist drummers. First, the large portrait, her steely gaze resolute, her mouth hidden behind a scarf encrusted with snow and ice. Her ashes followed, in a tall box embellished with the image of an autumn tree, cradled in the arms of her former neighbor.

Both the portrait and the ashes were placed at the front of the bright sanctuary of Luther Place Memorial Church in Logan Circle, where more than 150 people gathered Saturday morning to remember Concepcion Picciotto, the 80-year-old matriarch of the historic nuclear-disarmament vigil outside the White House. After 35 years of tending the ramshackle encampment and its hand-lettered signs on Pennsylvania Avenue — a landmark broadly considered to be the longest-running act of political protest in American history — Picciotto died Jan. 25 in the apartment provided to her by N Street Village, a nonprofit that supports homeless women in Washington.

Locals and tourists alike knew her as a fixture outside the White House fence, a small woman in a helmet and a headscarf, with browned skin and hunched shoulders, often perched in a blue folding chair when she wasn’t greeting visitors. She preached both peace and paranoia in a frenetic falsetto, a voice like an agitated bird’s that grew louder as her hearing faded with age.

WASHINGTON, D.C.: Picciotto hands out literature to tourists in Lafayette square in April 2013. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Picciotto maintains her protest through a blizzard in February 2010. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)
First Amendment monument

On the last morning of her life, Picciotto was determined to return to her usual place on the cold slab of sidewalk along Lafayette Square. Her roommates told her about the historic blizzard that had made the city streets impassable and pleaded with her to stay home; in recent years, Picciotto’s health had declined steeply. As they spoke, she began to feel sick and suddenly lost consciousness, said Schroeder Stribling, executive director of N Street Village. Picciotto died as EMTs attended to her.

Five weeks later, on a bright February morning, a diverse group of activists, officials and supporters came together to honor her at Luther Place church. Some wore suits and ties; others wore tattered sweatshirts, faded bandannas and buttons (“Stop Pipeline Now” and “War Is Not the Answer”). They sang songs — “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “I Shall Not Walk Alone” and “We Shall Overcome” — and clapped their hands. They spoke broadly of what Picciotto did, and what that meant, and they bemoaned the fact that no president had ever come to speak with her, despite her repeated pleas.

“She insisted we remember our incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki brothers and sisters,” said the Rev. Karen Brau, who led the service. “She raged against nuclear weapons.”

“She was a living monument to the First Amendment of our Constitution,” said attorney Mark Goldstone, who had advocated for Picciotto for years.

“I don’t know how anyone will be repeating what she did,” said Feriha Kaya, an Occupy-movement activist who had helped Picciotto maintain the vigil.

There were no eulogies from family members, because none attended. Picciotto had one daughter, from whom she was estranged. There were no personal anecdotes, no profound revelations about who she was, because no one truly knew her; Picciotto shared only fragments of her personal history and her innermost thoughts with a trusted few. Aside from her daughter, the only person Picciotto had said she loved was peace activist William Thomas, the vigil’s founder, who died in 2009.

But there were many who cared deeply for her, including Philipos Melaku-Bello, who has now become the vigil’s primary caretaker. When it was his turn to speak at the memorial on Saturday, he told the crowd how passersby often stopped to share their condoloences and tell him what the protest meant to them. And the vigil would remain, Melaku-Bello promised: he would continue Picciotto’s work.

Cheering, the mourners rose to their feet.

A complicated caretaker

The vigil has continued, as Melaku-Bello promised. But within days of Picciotto’s death, it had begun to change.

The original hand-lettered billboards remain — “Live by the Bomb, Die by the Bomb” and “Ban All Nuclear Weapons or Have a Nice Doomsday” — framing the white plastic shelter that protects the vigil-keepers from torrential downpours and bitter blizzards.

When he founded the vigil more than three decades ago, Thomas intended it to champion peace, love and nuclear disarmament. But in recent years, Picciotto had proved to be a complicated caretaker of that mission. Her words could be deeply loving or bitingly hateful. She raged against war in general and Israel in particular; plenty of Jewish visitors saw the vigil and its provocative spokesperson as symbols of anti-Semitism rather than pacifism. Plenty of others heard her stories of convoluted conspiracies — she said she wore her helmet to protect herself from government experiments and radio waves — and dismissed her as crazy.

Picciotto always adamantly denied that she suffered from mental illness; it was the rest of the world that was mad, she often said, a sentiment some of her supporters echo. Those closest to her generally acknowledge that she suffered from severe paranoia, but many argue that it doesn’t matter. If she inspired good in others, if she became such a potent symbol for peace, isn’t that enough?

“Think of what she did,” said Ellen Thomas, William’s widow, who spent 25 years protesting beside Picciotto. “It’s amazing. You see so many people on the street that are so sad, so pathetic, but Concepcion was not pathetic. She was infuriating, but she was not pathetic.”

Picciotto grew increasingly angry and argumentative as she aged; even fellow activists sometimes found her difficult to deal with.

“Many of them were upset, and some backed away from her,” Melaku-Bello said. The vigil had come to reflect her own viewpoints — “Disarm Isra-Hell” was among the milder messages — beside Thomas’s words.

Her signs are gone now, replaced by new ones: “War is not the answer,” “Imagine peace,” “Don’t nuke the planet.” In Picciotto’s absence, the landmark is quietly returning to its gentler and simpler roots — love instead of hate, peace instead of nuclear weapons.

“It’s once again the William Thomas peace memorial,” Melaku-Bello said. He means no disrespect, he explained: He loved Picciotto, but he takes a more universal view.

“Every human rights violation should be given the same amount of value,” he said. “All civilians of the planet deserve advocates.” He paused. “All of them.”

Picciotto has her own memorial sign now, too: “Concepcion RIP. Love, Philipos,” it says. Flaws and all, Picciotto made a profound impression on Melaku-Bello. With the help of a small stable of volunteers, he plans to maintain the vigil for as long as he is able.

“You have one life to live,” he said.

Her life’s work

After the eulogies, after a final gospel hymn — “May the vigil I have kept speak for me,” the choir sang — after Picciotto’s ashes were scattered in the memorial garden outside the church, the crowd of mourners and activists started walking.

They hoisted their tall pink signs, adorned with peace doves and photographs of Picciotto, as they made their way through Thomas Circle toward the White House. A final remaining handful of her ashes went with them, to be surreptitiously scattered in the grass near the vigil, where her curated legacy lives on — her compassion preserved, her anger purged, her life’s work continued by those who care enough to remember and forget.