WASHINGTON, Mar 15 – She is President Barack Obama’s closest neighbor, but don’t expect her to be invited over for tea any time soon — not while carrying on the longest continuous act of political protest in the United States.
Each morning like she has for the past 28 years, Concepcion Picciotto pulls back the plastic flap of her makeshift shelter in Lafayette Park and stares across the street at the White House, but the protester-in-residence voices little hope that the new president will make a difference on issues that dominate her life: ending US interventionist wars and banning nuclear weapons.
"No, they’re all the same," Picciotto laments about the commanders-in-chief she has literally watched come and go since 1981, when she and fellow activist William "Doubting" Thomas began their 24-hour White House peace vigil.
"From the beginning I said Obama isn’t going to work, because he’s inside there," she hisses, pointing to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
"It’s a revolving door," she tells AFP in an interview on a recent frigid night.
Obama and the other presidents she has outlasted — Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush — "don’t support peace."
"It’s against what they do: invasions, occupations, wars."
Some Americans dismiss the Spanish-born Picciotto, who declines to give her age but is said to be 64, as a little old lady with a bone to pick.
For many tourists, she is a colorful character who recites greetings in several languages and paints peace messages on rocks — a harmless flake who has spent most of her adult years living under the sun and stars, enjoying the best view in Washington.
But others see her as someone far more vital: a rabid defender of free speech, a global peace activist who serves as the unheralded conscience of a nation grappling with its warrior/peacemaker past and present.
To activist Jamilla El-Shafei, Picciotto is nothing less than "a living symbol of resistance," defiantly anchored across the street and a world away from the most powerful leader on the planet.
"She is an amazing example of grassroots democracy and she understands that power is with the people," said El-Shafei, who has protested against the US-led war in Iraq alongside Picciotto.
Colman McCarthy, a former columnist in Washington who now heads the Center for Teaching Peace, says she "steadfastly defines the madness of American militarism."
"She is certifiably sane," McCarthy adds. "The rest of us, who think we can live with nuclear weapons, we are insane."
— The great grace of persistence —
More than just about anyone in the US capital except longstanding members of Congress, the diminutive woman with several missing teeth and a helmet of brown hair is a Washington fixture.
Her large signs — "Live By The Bomb, Die By The Bomb," "Ban All Nuclear Weapons Or Have A Nice Doomsday" — are throwbacks to the early 1980s, and the tail end of an era of large-scale government protest.
In the decades since, she has been cursed at, spat on and beaten up — and that’s just by the police, she claims.
"We have had a very hard time with the government," she whispers, batting her mittens together to keep warm.
She recalls the dozens of arrests, the constant 50-dollar citations for illegal "camping" in the park, and dozens of forays by Thomas to Capitol Hill and courtrooms to protect their constitutional right to protest by challenging the various new regulations imposed on them.
But just days after Obama’s January 20 inauguration, Picciotto’s world collapsed. Thomas, 61, died at their nearby office.
"It was horrible. Horrible," Picciotto recalls of the death of her longtime protest partner.
"They killed Thomas in a way," she says, referring to the harassment by US Park Police, the law enforcement arm responsible for Lafayette Park.
The Park Police acknowledges the longstanding face-off, but insists it has followed the rules to the letter, even as the changing regulations on protests made for some uncomfortable clashes.
"It’s like a marriage… but over the years, it’s been a good relationship," Park Police information officer David Schlosser says.
Picciotto scoffs at the suggestion that she and police have resolved their differences.
"Just last night a policeman stopped me when I went to the trash can because it was more than three feet (one meter) away from my signs!"
Yet Picciotto carries on, thanks to what McCarthy calls her "great grace of persistence."
The area in front of the White House bustles with protesters during the day, but when darkness falls, Picciotto is alone. She savors the silence, but the absence of other activists is glaring.
"No one else has the courage to challenge (the government) and go through what we’ve gone through," she says.
Days later, she appears in jovial mood. Ten South Koreans are gathered around her vigil, and she offers greetings in Korean while the tourists snap pictures with her.
A young woman in the group, perhaps mindful of the thousands of Koreans who died in the 1945 atomic blasts in Japan, bows slowly at the waist and wordlessly presses folded dollar bills into Picciotto’s palm.
When asked what she would tell Obama if she had the chance, Picciotto says she would urge him to ban nuclear weapons, stop funding Israel’s military, pull troops out of Iraq "and put the money here, for people here."
Claiming good health, Picciotto aims to be around for years to come, and wants to write a book about her experiences. But for now she appears content with bringing her issues to light for the million or more tourists and Washingtonians who see her vigil each year.
"She is standing up for her conviction, for peace … and she is a manifestation of the nation’s feelings about war," El-Shafei said.
"She is standing there for all of us."