Woman who kept vigil in front of White House for 30-plus years dies

WASHINGTON — She was a D.C. institution seen by millions, whether many people knew her name or not.

Concepcion Picciotto, who kept a vigil for nuclear peace across from the White House for almost 35 years, died on Monday, according to officials at the N Street Village, a shelter for homeless and low-income women, where she lived.

She was thought to be 80.

Picciotto told The Washington Post in 2013 that she did it “to stop the world from being destroyed.” Her signs included “LIVE BY THE BOMB, DIE BY THE BOMB” and “BAN ALL NUCLEAR WEAPONS OR HAVE A NICE DOOMSDAY.”

She began her vigil June 3, 1981, when she joined William Thomas, who had already been sitting in silent protest. The Post reports that she had been an embassy secretary and at the time was working as a nanny for an area family.

They survived on donated money and clothes, and food from nearby restaurants, The Post said, slept in Lafayette Square and showered at nearby houses.

They were joined in 1984 by Ellen Benjamin, who eventually married Thomas. Picciotto and Benjamin, later Ellen Thomas, didn’t get along, but they continued their vigil.

In 1993, they scored a victory when their petition calling for nuclear disarmament resulted in a ballot initiative passed by voters in the District.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton told The Post, “they got the attention of D.C. voters at a time when nuclear proliferation was a more high-profile issue. It showed that there were others with them.”

In a statement Tuesday, Holmes Norton said she was “deeply saddened” at Picciotto’s passing, and called the activist “the living symbol for staying with a principled cause … even when others grow tired.”

Last year, Holmes Norton introduced Picciotto’s bill to require the U.S. to negotiate an international agreement to disable and dismantle its nuclear weapons by 2020, and to redirect the money saved to needs including housing, health care, Social Security and the environment, the statement said.

Holmes Norton linked Picciotto’s activism to her own crusade for D.C. statehood, saying that “I think of extraordinary activists like Picciotto, who recognized that there is no progress without activism.”

She also pointed out that the Iran nuclear deal, and the reduction in nuclear weapons worldwide in the past 30 years, represented a partial fulfillment of Picciotto’s goals, and “shows why such activism is most worthy.”

Around 1999, The Post says, the Thomases moved into a house bought with William Thomas’ inheritance and turned it into a dwelling for itinerant activists called Peace House. He died in 2009.

Picciotto stayed.

She began to be spelled by activists, including from Occupy Wall Street, in 2001, The Post says she was hit by a cab in 2013. But the vigil continued. The Park Police seized the vigil’s effects in 2013; Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton intervened, and all the materials were returned.

Schroeder Stribling, the executive director of N Street Village, called Picciotto “a rather private person” who had only moved in last November, and as such didn’t get to know her well. Stribling recalls, however, that a major concern of hers before moving in was whether she’d be able to get to her vigil every day.

“She was diminutive; she was very petite; by the time we got to know her she was elderly and frail. But clearly she had the strength of many people many times her size,” Stribling said Tuesday.

Picciotto told The Post in 2013, “People always tell me, ‘We need more people like you.’ I tell them: ‘But it starts with you. You are responsible for what’s going on.’ If people were more concerned, I wouldn’t have to be there.”

DCist asked Picciotto in 2005 what she would do if “all the madness that you are protesting did stop in your lifetime.”

She said, “I don’t know.”

In a message on Facebook, The Peace House said in part: “Connie may not have been the easiest person to live or work with but the peace vigil was never about Connie and even throughout the biggest struggles we all knew that. That was the reason why we suffered through sub-zero temperatures, hurricanes and dealing with impolite people.

“… Connie’s health was not well for the past couple of years. Therefore, we hope she finds peace where she may be.”

The vigil continues. Organizers said on Facebook that they need volunteers for Tuesday and Wednesday night, 7 p.m. to midnight.

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