Leslie Cagan learned to challenge authority when she was just 5 or 6 years old, as she and her mother joined other fed-up residents of their South Bronx, N.Y., neighborhood in blocking traffic at a dangerous intersection to demand a stoplight.
More than five decades later, Cagan, 57, is still challenging authority. This week, the veteran left-wing organizer is once again facing off with New York City officials. As national coordinator of United for Peace & Justice, the nation’s leading anti-war coalition, Cagan has been locked in an acrimonious public dispute for months with Mayor Michael Bloomberg over her group’s request to host a rally in Central Park during the Republican National Convention. With UPJ expecting 250,000 participants, city officials — citing concerns about safety and damage to the grass — insisted this spring that Central Park was an inappropriate venue for the August 29 gathering, titled “The World Says No to the Bush Agenda!” After months of trading charges, UPJ reluctantly agreed in July to march past the convention site at Madison Square Garden and then rally at an alternate site on Manhattan’s West Side Highway. But UPJ backed out of the deal just three weeks before the rally, accusing the city of refusing to provide necessary logistical assistance for the new site.
With the city already on edge about possible convention chaos, UPJ was, at press time, still awaiting a ruling from a state judge on whether the group would be allowed to use Central Park. Organizers say that if they are denied use of the park, they will simply march along the previously approved route Sunday and not hold a rally at all, leaving open the question of where the anticipated quarter-million marchers will go afterward.
Between a radio appearance and a lunch of Hebrew National hot dogs with her domestic partner, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, founding director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, Cagan took time last weekend to talk to the Forward in UPJ’s midtown Manhattan offices.
“Public protest, whether it’s our big march and rally on Sunday, or other rallies or marches or even civil disobedience that’s planned during the week, all of that has a long, honorable history in this country as part of social change movements,” she said. “And there’s no reason for the city or the mainstream media to be putting this notion of fear out there, this idea this is all going to be chaotic and crazy.”
When it comes to protest, Cagan never has been one to sit on history’s sidelines. She proudly identifies “as a woman and as a lesbian”— both of which she sees as “not just biological or sexual terms, but political terms also”— as well as a socialist, and has played a prominent role in a wide array of left-wing causes since her days as a leader of the student movement against the Vietnam War. She has been active on gay and women’s rights issues, as well as in the anti-nuclear movement. In fact, she has even mobilized massive political gatherings in Central Park before: In 1982, she organized a protest against nuclear weapons that drew more than half a million demonstrators to the park.
Cagan credits her family with having given her “an activist culture and climate” growing up. Her grandmother was a seamstress and a founding member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, she said, and her parents “for a short time were close to the Communist Party.”
“I wouldn’t call myself a red-diaper baby — I’m more like a pink-diaper baby,” she said.
Cagan said her Jewish identity is not “the main motor force of my activism, but I certainly don’t shy away from it either.” Last year, at a Washington rally commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, Cagan, speaking as a representative of UPJ, pointedly introduced herself as “part of a community of Jews who have never broken with the civil-rights movement, and who today work against racial profiling and police brutality and discrimination in housing and education and on the job.”
Her speech blasted American Middle East policy, including funding that “goes to help maintain the deadly Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.” UPJ, whose more than 800-member organizations include many pro-Palestinian groups as well as a handful of left-wing Jewish groups, has called for the United States to “end its military, economic and diplomatic support for Israel’s illegal military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.”
“Our position’s very clear,” Cagan told the Forward. “We oppose military occupation. We oppose the U.S. occupation in Iraq; we oppose the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories.”
Cagan and UPJ call for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. “Our presence there has not stabilized anything; our presence there has destabilized it,” she said.
But while she is fierce in her condemnation of the American military presence in Iraq, she is noncommittal on the topic of the Iraqi insurgents. “I haven’t been to Iraq, and I’m not an Iraq scholar,” she said. “What I do think is legitimate is that people who are being occupied would find a way to work against that occupation. If you call that an insurgency, then so be it.”
She added, referring to the insurgents, that UPJ “doesn’t have a position on that and personally, I’m neither condemning them nor applauding them.”
Several conservative publications have attacked UPJ, zeroing in on Cagan’s history of activism on Cuba. (She was the director of the Cuba Information Project for seven years, and refers to Fidel Castro as “a very smart man who has worked very hard to help organize his country in a way that he thinks is valuable and positive.”) Last week, a New York Sun editorial blasted UPJ for including a Communist Party representative on its steering committee.
Cagan makes no apologies for the fact that her coalition includes people who are quite far to the left on the political spectrum.
“This is a broad coalition,” she said. “There are communists in the coalition, there are socialists, there are Marxists, there are radicals, revolutionaries, there are liberals, there are Democrats, there are anarchists, there are people who don’t have political labels. It is a very broad coalition, and we welcome that. We hope that this country has moved beyond the awful anti-communism of its past.”
She said she hopes that Sunday’s demonstration, wherever it is held, will attract a diverse group of people who will return to their communities “energized and recommitted.” Her faith in the power of protest is deep rooted, and can be traced back to that Bronx intersection she stood in as a child.
“It wasn’t until many, many years later as an adult activist when I realized not only was that one of my earliest demonstrations, but in fact it was civil disobedience: We were blocking traffic,” Cagan said. “And eventually the light got put in. So I got the message that not only is it good to intervene, in the best sense of that word, but actually by doing things you can make a difference.”