Contra Costa Times Sunday, February 13, 2000



Abe Zwickel, 'grand patriarch of protest,' dies

  • In a life of activism, from Brooklyn to Concord, he said no act peacefully done in peace's name is useless 


    Abraham Zwickel Born: July 15, 1903, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Died: Jan. 31, 2000, in Pittsburg Survivors: His wife of 55 years, Jean Wiley Zwickel of Pittsburg; sons, David Reuben Zwickel of Augusta, Ga., and Daniel Beck Zwickel of Pittsburg; one granddaughter and one great-granddaughter. Services: were conducted. Memorial gifts: Mount Diablo Peace Center, 55 Eckley Lane, Walnut Creek, CA 94596

    By Joan Morris

    For more than 80 years, Abe Zwickel lived peacefully in an unpeaceful world.

     Abe had absolutely no tolerance for violence, war, hatred, injustice, pollution, waste. Whenever he saw these evils, he felt compelled to do something about them.

    Abe walked thousands of miles in protests and demonstrations. He spent time in jail because of his pacifist beliefs. He stood for hours in the blazing sun and the pouring rain in the name of people he never met.

     Through the blisters and sunburns, scrapes and bruises, he never once had a moment's regret, says his son, Daniel Zwickel.

     Abe was a frequent and sometimes startling sight at protests outside the Concord Naval Weapons Station and Lawrence Livermore Lab. Rhythmically beating his "peace drum," Abe, with his flowing white hair, frail frame and weathered smile, contrasted with the youthful faces that often surrounded him.

     "He was sort of the grand patriarch of protesters," says Janess Hanson, a longtime friend who admired Abe's dedication and fearlessness.

     Abe's pacifism was born in the glowering shadow of World War I, when Abe was a 14-year-old telegram messenger in New York. With growing horror, Abe began to realize that among the wires announcing impending visits, safe arrivals, and births and weddings, were condolences from the War Department.

     Abe's humble neighborhood was a long way from a French battlefield, but to teen-age Abe, the telegrams brought the inglorious realities of war to his doorstep. The deaths, and the pain they caused, made the introspective boy look even deeper inside, and strengthen his desire to find other ways to resolve conflict.

     Several years later, when Abe received his draft notice, he chose an alternative to military service, joining a Quaker fire camp and fighting forest fires around the country.

     But on the way to a California fire, Abe heard a speech by a Chinese pacifist. His words provided context for Abe's own jumbled feelings. He realized, Daniel says, that while he was willing to dedicate his life to his country, he could not in good conscience serve in the military. Peace, not violence, was the path he walked.

    Doing time

    Abe left the fire camp and turned himself in to authorities in Sacramento, where he was charged with draft evasion and convicted. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

     "My father devoted his entire life in service to his country," Daniel says. "People seem to only recognize those who serve militarily.

     "It may well be the job of soldiers to defend our country's shores, but it is the job of the pacifists to see that those conflicts never occur."

     After being jailed for his beliefs, Abe said in interviews, it became easier for him to stand up for causes. He protested the draft and beseeched world leaders to settle differences without war. He objected to celebrations honoring Columbus, pointing out the explorer's "discovery" of America resulted in the mass destruction and subjugation of American Indians.

     He marched 300 miles across Japan with Buddhist monks, protesting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He stood outside the naval weapons station to protest the war in Central America. He played his peace drum outside San Quentin as officials prepared to execute a prisoner. He called for reasonable people to behave as such and to treat neighbors with compassion and grace.

     Michael Kerr, who met Abe and his wife, Jean Zwickel, at a Concord weapons station protest, says he admired Abe's dedication. Abe was well into his 80s when they met, but Abe stood shoulder to shoulder with the youthful protesters.

     "We went a number of times at San Quentin," Michael says, "for execution vigils. Sometimes it would be real cold out and rainy. We'd be out there five or six hours and he'd be there the whole time, beating his drum, his whole body shaking, his white hair flowing."

    A fateful day

    The protests outside the Concord Naval Weapons Station had occurred intermittently since the Vietnam War. Wars in Central America brought renewed protest outside the station, where military weapons were stored for transfer to ships.

     In 1987, a group of protesters led by Brian Willson staged one demonstration that included a plan to block a munitions train with their bodies. Something went wrong. The train engineer was told the tracks had been cleared. He pushed the throttle and started across the road. Willson tried to get out of the way. He fell toward the oncoming train and was pulled beneath the iron wheels. One leg was severed by the train, the other was beyond saving and was amputated at a hospital.

     Outraged by what they believed was a deliberate act, the protesters began a continual vigil at the station, blocking the tracks, standing in front of trucks, defying commands to disperse. Abe, who had witnessed Willson's near-death, became one of the regulars at the tracks. He was arrested so often that police began referring to him, with some affection, as "Old Abe."

     The protest continued for several years, Michael says. Eventually, protesters found other causes and drifted away from the tracks. But Abe kept coming. Six or seven years after everyone left, Abe would still show up and stand in front of the gates. His protest was more symbolic than substantive, but Abe believed, friends say, that nothing peacefully done in the name of peace is wasted energy.

     Abe often seemed a lone man, railing against the darkness. But in truth, Abe was never alone. For 55 years, Jean was by his side, marching along with her husband, speaking out for the causes they both believed in.

    A journey of love

    They had met, as might be expected, at a protest. Abe was living in Baltimore and Jean was living in an interracial, pacifist Christian commune in New York called the Harlam Ashram. Abe and Jean met as they marched with a small group from New York to Washington, D.C., protesting the Jim Crow laws legitimizing segregation. Love blossomed on their journey.

     "We met on the lowest common denominator," Abe often said. "Our feet. We were walking for peace."

     Friends joked at their wedding that Abe, a Jew, and Jean, a Unitarian, were forming a new religion: Jewnitarian.

     Daniel says Abe and Jean's marriage went beyond a simple union. Their commitment to each other was enriched by their commitment to their causes.

     "Father was the one who always leaped to the front lines," Daniel says, "while Mother, quietly supportive, provided the necessary reality check and kept the rest of their life running in an orderly fashion."

     It wasn't easy, juggling civic concerns with job and family. Daniel says some of his earliest childhood memories are of demonstrations. He followed his parents' footsteps, becoming a vegetarian and a pacifist.

     The past year, age seemed to catch up with Abe, who grew increasingly frail and ill. He finally decided it was time for his grand exit. He stopped eating, then stopped drinking. But the spirit that had stood so firm and strong in the face of impossible odds, held him a bit longer.

     Abe died at home, with his family close by. He was 96.

    Joan Morris writes story obituaries. Call her at 925-977-8479, write her at P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596-8099, or e-mail her at

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