WASHINGTON — For more than 30 years, Concepcion Picciotto has held vigil outside the White House, protesting nuclear weapons and calling for peace.
But Thursday morning, it appeared that her decades-long protest was finally over. U.S. Park Police removed her encampment — a tarp-covered umbrella and enormous hand-painted signs with messages like "Ban all nuclear weapons or have a nice doomsday" — before restoring it in the afternoon.
Picciotto, a tiny and weather-worn 77-year-old, has maintained a steady presence in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, since 1981 — "in the snow, in the cold, in the heat," she said.
She came to the United States from Spain in 1960 and worked for a while in the Spanish consulate in New York. In 1979, she made her way to Washington seeking help with a custody battle and eventually joined with fellow protester William Thomas to form the White House vigil. Thomas died in 2009.
In recent years, activists from the Occupy movement have assisted Picciotto in maintaining her protest. The encampment was taken down by police early Thursday after the man who was standing watch abandoned it, according to the National Park Service.
“While a 24-hour vigil site generally does not require a permit, it must be continuously attended,” the Park Service said in a statement. “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.”
The man was a combat veteran who stepped away because he was having an episode of post-traumatic stress, said Feriha Kaya, who helps coordinate the volunteer shifts through a group called the Peace House DC.
Picciotto said she was frustrated and upset to hear that the encampment had been removed. “I feel the world is coming down,” she said. With discussions of military action in Syria, she added, “now more than ever we need to communicate to people the danger of the nuclear bomb.”
She immediately sprang into action, calling on fellow activists for help. Her requests quickly reached the office of Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Washington, D.C., delegate to the House of Representatives, who has known Picciotto since 1993 and has introduced nuclear disarmament bills to Congress for years. Following a call from Norton’s staff, the Park Police agreed to return the encampment.
In a statement, Norton said Picciotto was “well known for her willingness to engage in principled activism at considerable personal costs. She and her friends and allies have abided by the rules, and this single mishap by a fellow activist should not torpedo her longstanding vigil.”
By noon, Picciotto was back in Lafayette Square, awaiting her belongings. There had been close calls with losing the encampment in the past. Picciotto said she used to get in regular scuffles with the police. About a decade ago, she left her post for 45 minutes and they had brought in a truck to remove the vigil by the time she got back.
But she wouldn’t even consider that police might not return the encampment. “They have to,” Picciotto said. “I will be there.” She pointed to the spot on the ground where three fellow activists sat waiting.
At 2:30 p.m., supporters finally arrived with broken umbrella and intact signs in tow, hauled from storage by the Park Police. With a crew of helpers and a crowd watching, Picciotto began reassembling the pieces, stopping occasionally to take pictures with well-wishers and smile her mostly toothless smile.
“I am satisfied,” she said. “I want to keep communicating to people that there should be no more war.”