WASHINGTON — For more than 30 years, Concepcion Picciotto has spent almost every day perched just outside the White House gates, preaching peace and world disarmament from her makeshift shelter to anyone who would listen.
On Thursday morning, the shelter was gone, but Picciotto was not.
She scrunched up instead on a park bench, her back turned toward the White House.
“Frustrated. Upset,” Picciotto said, her multicolor babushka shielding her wispy white hair from the sun. “This is the time, more than ever, when we needed to communicate to people the danger of the nuclear bombs.”
For the first time since 1981, when Picciotto started her round-the-clock peace vigil, the tent-like shelter that anchors the operation was dismantled and removed. A volunteer had abandoned his post overnight. But by late afternoon Thursday, others had been mobilized, a local politician had intervened, and Picciotto’s vigil had resumed in Lafayette Park.
By many accounts the longest-running protest in the U.S., the vigil is made possible by a peculiar federal regulation governing the park that runs along the north side of the White House. No permits are required, but the vigil must be continuously attended.
For many years, it was Picciotto and her partner, William Thomas, who manned the vigil day and night. Her bed was an afghan-covered box. She complained of harassment by some passers-by and in time became well-known to the U.S. Park Police who patrol the grounds.
Now in her late 70s and with the leathery skin of someone who is no stranger to the sun, Picciotto no longer sleeps at the vigil. Thomas died a few years back, and Picciotto now sleeps in a nearby home he had purchased that’s known among local activists as Peace House. She says she arrives every day around 11 a.m. and leaves around 10 p.m.
It was about 1 a.m. Thursday when a knock on the door awoke Picciotto. She was told that a volunteer from the Occupy movement, slotted to man the vigil in her absence, had left. The National Park Service said police spoke to two individuals leaving the vigil and determined they were abandoning it.
“With no one attending the site, the officer collected the materials and placed them in a U.S. Park Police storage facility for safe keeping until they could be retrieved by the owner,” said Jeffrey Olson, a National Park Service spokesman.
Determined to get her vigil up and running again without delay, Picciotto enlisted her fellow local activists, who helped coordinate with police to return her belongings and even got Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s envoy to Congress, involved. A few hours later, activists had wheeled the structure and Picciotto’s signs back to their regular location just opposite the presidential mansion.
“She’s become something of a District legend,” Norton said in an interview. “She ought to be given the opportunity to end her own vigil and not have it end because of an unforeseen incident.”
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