"It's foolish to pay rent."
Concepcion Picciotto's speech is punctuated by forceful statements that belie her girlish, lurching sing-songy voice. On this cool spring day in April, Concepcion is on the sidewalk in front of Lafayette Square, a park directly across the street from the White House. She's lived on this same patch of sidewalk for the last 14 years, day and night, rain or shine, reminding the thousands of visitors who file past the White House each week about the dangers and horrors of nuclear war, the corruption that infects every aspect of the United States government, and the necessity for people to try and effect changes before it is "too late."
Concepcion is not alone. She is joined in her daily (and nightly) vigil by her friend William Thomas, whom she met over a decade ago after he was thrown out of Britain for destroying his passport and declaring himself stateless. (Thomas, Concepcion says, is in court on this Wednesday after being arrested for calling the police "fucking fascists.")
And she has her signs--a series of hand-painted meticulously lettered sheets of poster board: "Live by the Bomb, Die by the Bomb" and "Civilized People Do Not Nuke Fellow Humans." These signs have been destroyed and remade countless times over the years, but Concepcion says she does not mind putting them back together after storm or beatings, so long as she can continue to try and communicate her message to the American public.
"The American people must rescue the country back from the crooks that are running it," Concepcion says. "But they need to hurry up, because there's not very much time left. People can do this by boycotting the taxes, because if they don't pay any taxes and then the crooks won't have any money to run the government."
As she speaks, Concepcion delicately paints rocks with a simple white dove accompanied by the words `peace' and `love.' "People are awakening to the dangers that we have in our world. There's a peace movement in Japan now, because it's impossible to live in a situation like this. Those nuclear reactors--where will they put all the waste?. With all this our children won't have any future, the earth, the air, the marine life on the ocean, the forest all will be destroyed. This is a madness, a sickness."
Concepcion recently turned 49. Born in western Spain, she was raised by her grandmother after being orphaned at an early age. (When asked what the circumstances were surrounding her separation form her parents, Concepcion quickly answered that "it is not important.") After immigrating to the United States at 18, Concepcion worked at the Spanish Consulate for three years before marrying an Italian businessman.
"This was a mistake for me, "Concepcion says Twenty months after the birth of their daughter in 1973, Concepcion and her husband separated. "We are not divorced. We never got a divorce.
"But he has taken my daughter and I have not seen either one of them for 20 years. This is a very deep wound." Concepcion does not like to talk about her daughter or her husband, and in fact tries to shift the attention back towards her the political issues that consume her life whenever the conversation is lingering on herself. When pressed about her daughter, Concepcion deftly shifts to a more general discussion of the problems of raising a family in America. "The U.S. destroys families--the agreed of money, power, hate, thieves and gangsters make it so hard to have a family."
Concepcion is a short woman-just over five feet tall--and her face, although sparkling with a seemingly endless enthusiasm, shows the effects of 14 years on the street. Her teeth are rotting and crooked, her face is filled with deep crevices and she has to steady herself in order to sit down or stand up. Her head is covered by a thick brown wig and a scarf all year round.
Concepcion lives on an assortment of rolls, bread and coffee, rarely sleeps more than three hours a night, and needs to continue pacing back and forth in front of her signs throughout Washington's bitter-cold winters to avoid dying of hypothermia. Despite all of this, Concepcion's main worry is harassment.
In the time that she has been living in front of the White House, Concepcion has been punched in the face, had her ribs broken and her signs destroyed. "Sure I'm scared, but I try not to think about it because if I think about it I won't be here. I've been beaten many times, and maced by the police, and the Marines and the Navy form the Pentagon would come in and periodically beat me with hammers and knives, and Reagan and Bush supporters used to beat me up as well. It's gotten a little better," Concepcion says, "but Clinton is just the same."
Indeed, Concepcion is convinced that the United States must be "turned upside down and fumigated" so that the people of the country "can start all over."
"The crooks control everything, and this one [Clinton] is no different. The country is in decay. There's not affordable housing, people can't buy clothes--these are basic human rights. The U.S. claims that China violated human rights but they violate them here by depriving people of the right to live with dignity. People don't have houses, jobs, health care. People have a right to live with dignity."
Concepcion's speech quickens, and then she pauses to apply some more paint to a rock before resuming. "Even people on the street have it easy," Concepcion says. "They get junk food from the garbage cans and are satisfied just because they are brainwashed. I feel discouraged that American people don't want to face reality and have never suffered, get everything easy and that's it.
"The U.S. has never suffered war, their wars have always been somewhere else. They think it's like a chess game, moving the pieces from one side to another. This can't go on, this must end."
Concepcion is heartened by the seriousness with which people are responding to her messages. "These days reactions are more positive. People feel that something needs to be done, but still, they need some sort of push, because they still have to learn how to face reality. So although people are much more aware that they can't live in a world with mass destruction weapons, they still need to be more active and overthrow the government.
"We have to take science and technology but to use it for the good of human kind; we should use our brains not to develop bombs but to do research for good."
A group of tourists walk by and stop to read Concepcion's signs. They are speaking another language, and Concepcion asks them what it is. "I speak French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and English. But these tourists are Dutch, and Concepcion shrugs as she says, "You see, I could teach school. I used to teach school.
"I live with no money, it's a matter of principle that keeps me here. I money, it's a matter of principle that keeps me here. I could be working, I could be teaching like I used to, but there's no way I'd ever go back to the system," she says.
"God knows I wish not to stay here but if I have to I have to. That's me, I just can't stand injustice and oppression. I need to dedicate my life to peace and justice."