Public Interest Lawyer, Organizer: b. 1955
Born in 1955, Kevin Zeese grew up in New York City and came of age during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. “There was a vibrant social justice movement, pushing on lots of issues—the Vietnam War, civil rights, women’s rights, the environment—and all at the same time,” he says. As it turned out, Zeese got involved in all of these movements and many more.
In high school, he protested the Vietnam War and by college was marching with civil rights advocates to desegregate schools: “We took a bus to Boston [from Buffalo] to protest segregation,” he recounts, and wound up being “attacked by policemen on horses...That was a pretty interesting experience.” The 1971 Attica prison riot influenced his thinking about the need for broad-based reforms and effective strategies to realize them. “I was the kind of person who believed in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” says Zeese, about his decision to pursue a career in public interest law.
In law school at George Washington University, he and a team of fellow students challenged false advertising about the safety and effectiveness of over-the-counter contraceptives for women. “We created a group SEXCE (Students for the Examination of Contraceptive Effectiveness) and got legislation introduced in Congress, got the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) to correct their advertising, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to start a rulemaking process to correct their labeling. It was pretty amazing to see all of that come out of one law school course on Legal Activism.” Through this project, Zeese says he “learned guerilla law and legal judo”—how to leverage the law with minimum cost and maximum impact.
Over the years, he has worked to reform drug policy —he worked for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws from 1980 to 1986—and health care, for voter rights and environmental protection, and against war and torture. Zeese addresses such a wide variety of issues because “all of our issues are connected; and you can’t push forward on all issues all the time, but you can always find some area where you can push forward and make progress.”
Zeese explains the importance of understanding these connections: “Many of us come from working on single issues and have run into the same roadblock—a government that is not responsive to the people. The reality is the ‘rule of money’ rather than rule by the people ensures a government that puts profits before the necessities of the people and protection of the planet. By recognizing how our issues are connected we can build solidarity across issues, a critical step in building a mass movement that cannot be ignored. Then we need to engage more of the population. Research from the last 100 years of movements around the world shows that when 3.5% of the public becomes involved in a political movement, it has never lost. ”
Despite his legal training, Zeese’s activism is based less on the practice of law than on organizing and mobilizing people. A principal organizer of Occupy Washington DC in 2011, Zeese is often asked whether the movement was a failure, since its encampments have been disbanded.
“The Occupy Movement,” he says, “is about more than occupying public space. It's about transforming a system dominated by wealthy interests and giving power to people. The encampments served their purpose by putting the wealth divide and unfair economy in the political dialogue, after that the job is to build a mass movement to develop a national consensus about solving those issues.”
One hopeful truth about Occupy, he says, is that it has a “multitude of leaders. I say we’re a leader-full movement, not a leaderless movement.” In that spirit, Zeese sees one of his most important jobs as empowering people because “what we’re working on will not be resolved in my lifetime. Part of my job is to help others become their own powerful force that will continue the work after we’re gone…Economic democracy and system-wide political change are multi-decade challenges.”
Zeese acknowledges that there are always setbacks to social and economic justice work, but says that “you have to turn them into positives. I used to tell my two sons growing up that it’s easy to fall into a negative spiral; you have to be very conscious to get into a positive spiral whether you experience success or failure in life, you need to build on it in a positive way.” Zeese uses this philosophy in his advocacy saying, “We are always challenged by aggressive responses by the government —whether it is a police crackdown on occupy encampments, prosecution of someone using marijuana medicinally, or new laws passed to aid corporations. We need to turn these negatives into positives that build the movement by mobilizing people to take action.”
Zeese does much of this work with his life partner and fellow activist Dr. Margaret Flowers, with whom he hosts a radio show, Clearing the FOG, on We Act Radio. FOG stands for the “Forces Of Greed” and the show takes an in-depth look at the day’s issues. Together they direct two organizations, Popular Resistance, that promotes a mass movement for social and political change, and It’s Our Economy, which advocates “a more just, modern and restorative economy.”
Over the years he has found time to work for fair elections and to clean up the abuses of money in politics, on ending the 2003 Iraq war, and to formally petitioned the D.C. Office of Bar Counsel to disbar the lawyers who wrote the legal justifications for “advanced interrogation techniques”—tactics used by the Bush Administration that are now widely considered torture.
Zeese collaborates with Come Home America, which focuses on bringing people together from the right and left who oppose military interventions and with World Beyond War, which seeks to build a long-term global movement to end war. He is also a member of the Chelsea Manning Support Network, working to free the military whistleblower from prison.
Before making a run for the U.S. Senate in 2006 as a Green Party candidate —he was endorsed by the Libertarian Party of Maryland, Zeese was Ralph Nader’s press secretary during his 2004 presidential campaign and worked for Peter Camejo’s California gubernatorial run in 2003.
In his writing, as well as his advocacy, Zeese connects the dots, tirelessly building bridges toward a movement that he believes will succeed by linking social, economic, and environmental justice issues together.