Kevin Zeese speaks at event in 2013
Kevin Zeese speaks at event in 2013: Credit Witness Against Torture/Flickr

Peace activist and human rights attorney Kevin Zeese died of a heart attack on the morning of September 6. As his life partner, Dr. Margaret Flowers, and their community grieve, they celebrate his life by carrying on the work that they began together.

Zeese was known for organizing around many human rights issues, centering opposition to U.S. imperialism abroad and mass incarceration at home. He brought national attention to America’s prison-industrial complex, first as the chief legal counsel, then as executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) from 1980-1986.

Zeese and Flowers helped catalyze the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, co-founded the outlet Popular Resistance, and led a month-long sit-in at the Venezualan Embassy in Washington, D.C., last year in opposition to the Trump administration’s support for a coup that would benefit Exxon Mobil. 

Last week, The Real News Network spoke with Dr. Flowers over the phone about her partner’s legacy.

“Within his lifetime he saw the fruits of his work,” Flowers said. “When Kevin was working for NORML, he was getting death threats. Back then, you weren’t allowed to talk about decriminalization. Now we see legalization in so many states, and people are starting to get out of prison for marijuana.”

Flowers told The Real News that Zeese spent the days before his death working around the clock. The pair were creating a webinar to discuss the ongoing hearing to extradite Julian Assange and its implications for the future of press freedom in the U.S.

Flowers returned to work on the event just days after her partner’s death, saying the issue is too pivotal to delay discussion.

“I’m not at 100% but I’m doing what I can,” she explained. “The Assange case could establish the loss of freedom of the press, and that could really be a turning point in the 21st century. “Julian is from Australia. He is  not a U.S. citizen, but the U.S. is able to go after him, to bring him here, to put him in prison for the rest of his life. What does that say about what happens to you if you go after an empire?” 

Just three days before his death, Zeese worked with the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) to coordinate direct action to stop the demolition of their historic burial ground. Dr. Coleman-Adebeyo, editor of the Black Agenda Report, recently paid tribute to Zeese: “After this shock and all of the pain, what I will remember is Kevin’s voice last Friday, his patience, and the calm demeanor he carried with him in the heat of our struggle to save Moses African Cemetery, in the heat of the road in Bethesda on a hot September day when he stood and reasoned with the police who had arrayed themselves again against our non-violent protests, as though we were the ones threatening violence, as though we were the ones hurling invective, curses, and threats. There, at the side of River Road, stood Kevin Zeese, nodding, listening, offering alternatives, presenting our case that resulted in no arrests.”

Many of Zeese’s friends and colleagues have shared their own stories, remembering him as a reassuring and inspiring presence when direct action became dangerous—something Flowers told the Real News, as well:. 

“So many people said to me that when they saw Kevin at an event, they knew they would be safe, they knew they were in the right place to be.”

Writer Max Blumenthal recorded a tribute video where he recounted working with Zeese to sneak food supplies past counterprotesters during their 2019 sit-in at the Venezulan Embassy.  During the month-long protest, they had to ration food as groups aligned with Donald Trump and Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared president Juan Guaidó physically blocked supplies from entering the embassy building. 

“I had a 50 pound bag of beans, which were essential,” Blumenthal said. “I threw it to him, and watched him look in astonishment as it landed at his feet, then he laughed mischievously, knowing that we had defeated Guiadó’s gang and that the embassy would last another day.”

Flowers says that her partner was driven by a keen awareness of how fleeting a lifetime can be, and that he placed his hope for a more just world in youth activists.

“He was always pushing people to be the ones that are out there speaking. I’ve been getting all of these emails from younger people who say that he made them feel like their voices mattered,” Flowers said. “We talked about how we couldn’t fix everything in our lifetime, but we do what we can in our lifetime. We talked about that next wave of power that was going to come behind us, in the next generation.”

A virtual memorial service will be held for Kevin Zeese on September 19. 

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