WASHINGTON, Aug 16 (IPS) - Day and night for 20 years Concepcion Picciotto has occupied a small slab of pavement across from the White House, braving the wind, rain, police harassment and abuse from passers-by.
Connie, as her friends call her, has been keeping an unshaken, round-the-clock vigil for world peace and nuclear disarmament since 1981 when Ronald Reagan first entered the White House as president. In November another president will be voted in and Connie will still be on her personal crusade to free the world from nuclear threat.
"I will stay until whatever it takes to stop the bombing and the proliferation of nuclear weapons ... I am sacrificing a lot and enduring a lot," says Picciotto. "But it's worth it."
Her daily battle for survival and acceptance is in sharp contrast to the lives of her neighbours on Pennsylvania Avenue, the President and First Lady of the United States, Bill and Hilary Clinton. The first couple wield enormous power and influence from a secure and comfortable 200 year-old, 132-roomed, white-washed mansion.
For nearly two decades and through three different presidents, 55- year-old Picciotto has seen policies such as Ronald Reagan's Star Wars, the signing in 1996 of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and now Clinton's recently proposed 60-billion-dollar nuclear defence shield.
Three months after Picciotto set up her protest camp in January I 981, President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defence Initiative, dubbed the Star Wars program. Reagan's proposal was to build a missile defence system that would protect the United States from nuclear attack.
Clinton's National Missile Defence system, which also seeks to protect the United States from nuclear threat could be ready for deployment in 2005. It may be ready for construction when a new president, the 43rd in US history, takes office.
By 1995 the Clinton administration had amassed more than 3,000 Trident nuclear warheads the world's largest arsenal, pointed towards a long list of global targets.
According to Vancouver-based anti-nuclear activist FH Knelman in an article for the Peacemagazine, the United States does not want nuclear disarmament, "it wants nuclear supremacy".
Knelman notes that while in 1994 the US defence budget was 285 billion dollars, the Soviet Union was spending 77 billion dollars on its war machinery while the combined budgets of Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria totalled 9 billion dollars.
"Action must be taken in order to reduce and eliminate the danger posed to humanity by this nuclear madness," says Picciotto.
Picciotto founded the White House Peace Vigil when she arrived in 1981. She refers to herself as "a witness" for the people and strongly believes her vigil has had a global impact - approximately 6,000 visitors a day descend on the White House, many see her holding up her placards.
"People from all over the world say to me we saw you on TV, they have heard my message ... it makes me feel very satisfied that the people are reached and that they then think about the issue for themselves."
But her existence here is not easy. Her presence opposite the White House is a source of irritation and annoyance to the federal authorities. Since she arrived on the block in 1981, the National Parks Service has enacted an impressive array of rules and regulations that restrict her ability to protest.
Picciotto 's colourful protest signs cannot exceed 6 feet in height, the pavement directly in front of the White House is barred from demonstrations (which is why she was forced "across the street" in 1983).
She is also not allowed to lay down at night to sleep in her makeshift camp as that is considered illegal camping - an offence for which she has been arrested "about seven or eight times, though it is hard to keep track over the years"' she says.
It is these restrictions on her freedom that she describes as "torture" and which she wishes to see lifted. While the First Amendment of the US constitution guarantees her freedom of speech these regulations limit how far she can be heard.
Concepcion Picciotto is a tiny woman, no more than 5 feet tall, well presented, highly articulate in English, despite a noticeable Spanish accent which gives away a background far removed from her life as the "protestor-in-residence" at the home of the US President.
She was born in Vigo, Spain. She emigrated to the United States at the age of 18 and says she worked in New York at the Spanish consulate. Picciotto fell in love with an Italian businessman she married at 21.
However, a bitter separation and custody battle cost her a home, her daughter and her job. There began a legal fight that was to lead her to Washington DC where she sought help from her Congressman. Unsuccessful, she took the fight to the gates of the White House.
There she became acquainted with other demonstrators, notably her friend William Thomas (who had begun protesting the previous year) and who influenced her to protest against nuclear arms.
The guards at the White House gate refer to her as a "regular", tolerant of her passive unthreatening protest. When contacted, White House officials did not have a comment.
If she could have five minutes with her new neighbour, the new US president to be elected in November she would tell him that the United States must "lead the way in nuclear disarmament, get
the whole world to stop testing nuclear weapons, stop the bombing in Iraq and lift the embargo."
She says she will be here until the world is safe enough for her to stop her protest. With the US nuclear defence shield already undergoing tests and other nuclear powers threatening to escalate nuclear build-ups, she may be here for a very long time.