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Woman who protested at White House for 35 years dies

Between 1981 and 2016, Concepcion Picciotto spent more than 12,500 days outside the White House during five presidential administrations.
By Doug G. Ware   |   Updated Jan. 26, 2016 at 4:36 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- Concepcion Picciotto, who kept a peace vigil against nuclear weapons outside the White House for three-and-a-half decades -- believed to be the longest protest in U.S. history -- died this week at a homeless shelter in Washington, officials said.

Picciotto recently suffered a fall, but the cause of her death Monday was not immediately known. A Spanish immigrant, Concepcion, known as "Connie" to many, was believed to be about 80 years old.

She began her anti-nuclear proliferation vigil outside the presidential residence in August 1981, just six months into Ronald Reagan's administration. But the protest, known as the White House Peace Vigil, was actually started two months earlier by activist William Thomas.

After that time, she was a regular resident in Lafayette Park on Pennsylvania Avenue, across the street from the North Lawn of the White House. Various other activists joined and departed the vigil over the 35 year span -- but Picciotto was the only one who remained as a permanent fixture.

Between August 1981 and January 2016, with more than 12,500 consecutive days of protest under her belt, it's believed Picciotto's was the longest-running political protest in American history.

Her nuclear disarmament movement, called Proposition One, achieved some success in 1993 when a petition circulated by supporters resulted in a ballot initiative passed by Washington, D.C., voters. The initiative never reached the floor, but D.C. congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton aided the measure and introduced it in nearly a dozen sessions of Congress, The Washington Post reported.

In a 2013 profile by the newspaper, Picciotto said her entire reasoning behind the ongoing vigil was to save the world from nuclear holocaust.

Over the years, various signage has accompanied her makeshift residence near Lafayette Park. One said, "Live by the bomb, die by the bomb." Another said, "War is not the answer."

But the sign that stood at Picciotto's vigil for nearly the entire ordeal was one that read, "White House - 24 HRS a day Antinuclear Peace Vigil. Since 1981. Don't be a lemming. Save yourself. Renounce genocide."

Advocates and supporters colloquially referred to Picciotto's post outside the White House as "1601 Pennsylvania Ave."

Born in Spain around 1935, Picciotto emigrated to the United States at age 18. She later worked at the Spanish Embassy in New York City, where she met and married an Italian businessman. A subsequent divorce and custody battle cost her her marriage, her adopted daughter and her home.

She first visited the White House in 1979, believing that the executive branch of the government might be able to help her get her daughter back. Picciotto, though, never saw her toddler daughter again.

"I went to the Congress, and the Senate, every day and no one would listen to me," Picciotto said in a recounting of her past on the vigil's website.

After meeting Thomas at his White House Peace Vigil two years later, Picciotto said she decided to help the children of the world by doing what she could to speak out against nuclear proliferation -- since she could no longer help her own child.

She faced various challenges during her years camped-out near the White House. Supporters came and went, nuclear proponents often gave their two cents, and health difficulties -- physical and some say psychological -- took a toll on her.

In 2012, she was injured after being struck by a taxicab and relied on younger supporters to maintain the vigil as she recovered. She lived for a time at Peace House, a residence of Thomas and his activist girlfriend, Ellen Benjamin Thomas.

When Peace House was sold last year, Picciotto took up residence at the N Street Village, a nonprofit shelter for women in the D.C. area.

For virtually the entire protest, maintaining the vigil almost became a game of cat and mouse. According to rules by the National Park Service, vigils can not be left unattended, even for a moment. If they are, they can be removed by authorities. In 2013, the display was immediately but temporarily taken down by officers when the young activists stationed there left their post.

In the end, Picciotto's presence on Pennsylvania Avenue outlasted the entire administrations of four American presidents (Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush) and nearly a fifth (Obama).

"I have to be here," Picciotto said about spending nearly 35 years outside the White House. "This is my life."

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