An Interview with Leslie Cagan

Leslie Cagan is the national coordinator of the anti-war coalition United For Peace and Justice, ( which has been one of the main organizers of anti-war rallies since before the Iraq war began. We spoke with her on August 30th, the day after the UFPJ-organized march which drew an estimated 500,000 people to protest the Republican National Convention and the Bush agenda.

In the interview she talks about the August 29th UFPJ march, civil disobedience and where the peace movement might be headed if John Kerry is elected this November.

BD: What are your thoughts on yesterday’s protest?

We’re all thrilled by it. It was an outpouring of people to say no to the Bush agenda. People came from every neighborhood in the city, people came from city’s and towns all around the country. Our estimate was at least 500,000 people marched past Madison Square Garden delivering their messages, obviously the Iraqi war and occupation was a major issue, but many other issues came out yesterday as we wanted them to. And through that all, the one clear and strong message, we believe, came through and this we say no to the Bush agenda.

BD: Were there any problems with the police once it got started?

Yesterday, I must say the police handled themselves very well. And I hope that’s true for the rest of the week from here on out. But my experience and the reports we got from different people was that the police actually behaved very well.

AK: What do you think about this march (Poor People’s Campaign for Economic Human Rights), considering them undertaking civil disobedience, as opposed to yesterday’s march, under your coalition, deciding not to do that and not protest the decision on central park?

Well we certainly did protest the decision around Central Park, we worked very hard on that issue. We decided not to do that yesterday. We support civil disobedience, there is a long and honored history in this country of civil disobedience, obviously Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement he led is obviously the strongest example that everybody knows. But many movements have used civil disobedience as a legitimate tactic and it’s still a legitimate tactic just as permitted marches or rallies are legitimate tactics. I think the issues with organizers are, what tactics are going to work for the message you are trying to deliver, are the people you are bringing ready to engage in that tactic. There are tactical considerations that go into deciding which vehicle you are going to use for your particular protest. But there is nothing inherently better or worse about any given tactic.

BD: As far as keeping the momentum going do you see the momentum after Kerry wins – he is not necessarily an anti-war president–do you see the same kind of momentum going after he is elected or do you see it dwindling?

I think probably right after the election, there could very well be either because Bush or Kerry wins, a little bit of falling off. If Bush wins people could feel demoralized, if Kerry wins some people will think our work is over. But I think very quickly people will regroup and realize certainly that if Bush wins our movement has to keep going. But also if Kerry wins I think people will realize that we have to keep pushing him, we would like to not have to organize a demonstration saying we say no to the Kerry agenda, but if we have to in a year or two or whatever down the road, if we need to organize that kind of demonstration we will. The point is we are a movement about the issues, and if the issues aren’t being resolved by one president or another one, we are going to be out there. This movement is alive, it’s strong, it’s dynamic, it’s creative and it’s not going away.

AK: Do you have a sense that after a year or two things might really change under Kerry, seems like you expect that they won’t

I clearly think there is a difference between Bush and Kerry on quite a number of issues, especially on quite a number of social issues here in this country. On the war, Kerry has not been good, so we have to push him. My feeling, personally, I am not speaking for the coalition now because we don’t have a position on this–we need to get rid of Bush, that’s the first thing we need to do, we just need to take him and his whole crowd of criminals – and the crimes are not only committed in Iraq, they are committed every day in this country when people go homeless, and people go hungry and people don’t have health care, those are crimes against humanity. So we need to get rid of that whole bunch, and then we need to put the pressure on the new bunch that comes in. Kerry is not automatically all of a sudden going to be an anti-war president; we have to push him to that.

AK: Do you think there is a little more danger that Kerry might have, in a kind of ironic twist, more cushion because of the support he has from the anti-war crowd and maybe in a weird turn of events–that could prolong the occupation?

I don’t have a crystal ball but I guess that could happen, but I just think that what yesterday showed again, is that how deep and widespread the anti-war sentiment is. And I don’t think that sentiment goes away overnight. People know that this war was based on a pack of lies. People know, better information isn’t going to beat that out of people’s heads. Our job of course as organizers is to help keep that momentum going. You know we call it a movement for a reason, it has its ebbs and flows, sometimes it was stronger sometimes it was weaker, we move in and out. So there may be a time when it looks like we are a little weaker. But I think we are not going away. The other thing is that when you get a big mobilization, you see the strength of the movement, but the work of this movement goes on every single day. People are having educational forums, people are having vigils, people are lobbying their elected officials, people are writing letters to the editor, people are organizing shipments of humanitarian aid to Iraq or whatever. People keep on doing all kinds of things every single day and it doesn’t always make it into the news. That’s what the heart and soul of the movement is and that’s not going to go away. We now have in UFPJ almost 900 groups, we have done virtually no outreach, no outreach encouraging people to join our coalition. People have found us and said, we’re a group in Atlanta, or we’re a group in Bangore, Maine or whatever, we want to be a part of a national movement, can we join the coalition. That’s phenomenal.

BD: Do you think a lot of the people that were at the march yesterday will go home now and be motivated to do more? Do you think they will keep on working beyond the march?

The energy, the spirit and commitment of yesterday–people are going to take that home with them. People are going to back into their neighborhoods, back to their workplaces, their schools, their religious centerswherever, and they are going to keep doing that organizing. And that’s what’s most important, one of the most important thingsone is of course on any demonstration you want to send a clear message, that happened. The second thing you want to do is re-energize and keep the movement going. And I think that has happened not only yesterday but through this week of activities.

Benjamin Dangl and Andrew Kennis reported on the RNC demonstrations for The New Standard News at Dangl edits, a website about activism and politics.