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Threat of War -- Behind the News

Behind the protest: a lifelong organizer


The police said 100,000. The organizers said 900,000. The real number of protesters at New York’s antiwar rally Feb. 15 probably lies somewhere in between. With many protesters shuffled away from the action on First Avenue, counting was difficult. But it was clear that Leslie Cagan, coordinator of the rally, had succeeded in her goal “to put massive numbers of people on the streets of New York City.”

Despite allegations of police aggression and a few arrests, in general the demonstration was, as Cagan put it, “fabulous.”

“It sent a signal that there’s a very, very broad opposition. It sent a signal that people were not deterred. People are going to find a way to have their voices heard,” she said.

Cagan is a co-chairwoman of United for Peace and Justice, an umbrella organization formed in October to coordinate antiwar protests. From the eighth floor of an anonymous, down-at-the-heels high rise on West 42nd Street, she and her co-workers are trying to stop the war before it starts.

They spent months preparing for February’s protest, marshalling stars like singer/songwriter Patti Smith and Bishop Desmond Tutu and blanketing the city with flyers in a host of languages including Arabic and Chinese. Now they will turn their attention to lobbying and supporting other protests throughout the country.

“I’m not blindly optimistic, but I’m hopeful,” Cagan, 55, said. Wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and no makeup, she spoke from her “office,” a small cubicle in the corner of a sparsely appointed conference room. “I don’t think anyone has ever seen anything quite like this. There’s no war yet and there’s a massive antiwar movement.”

Hundreds of city organizations came together for the rally, including an array of religious groups. Cagan specifically praised the involvement of New York’s Forum of Concerned Religious Leaders, which staged its own demonstration in December at the United Nations.

“There’s a lot going on in a number of different faith-based organizations,” Cagan said, adding that antiwar activism has emerged from the Protestant, Catholic and Muslim communities, as well as from the “more progressive” sections of the Jewish community.

United for Peace and Justice counts on such broad-based support to make an impact.

Although President Bush declared that he would not be swayed by the worldwide protests, Cagan considers this acknowledgement a victory of sorts. “He wouldn’t be saying anything if he was really ignoring us,” she said.

“I would hope that we still live in something resembling a democracy,” she said. “I would hope that the people in power would try to take heed.”

Both of Cagan’s parents were activists, advocating for desegregation and attending “ban the bomb” demonstrations to protest atomic weapons testing in the 1950s. Little surprise, then, that when Cagan hit New York University in the ’60s she became an activist in her own right, serving on the student committee of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.

“I spent most of my last two years organizing and not going to class,” she said. She graduated with a degree in art history in 1968 and thought about graduate school “for about 20 minutes.” The thought did not hold much appeal.

“There it was, 1968 and the world was on fire,” she said. “I’d sort of been bitten by the political activist bug.”

Thirty-five years later the bug, and its inherent optimism, is still with her. Even as the Bush administration continues its “countdown to Iraq,” Cagan does not believe war is a foregone conclusion.

“I believe very little is inevitable,” she said. “It will be inevitable if we just sit back and wring our hands.” That is why the demonstrations are so important. “There’s nobody whose voice should be silent on this,” she said.

“Demos” -- protest demonstrations -- have become Cagan’s life’s work. She has organized for a variety of causes, from women’s rights to gay rights to nuclear disarmament. Along the way, she has become an expert on the logistics of protest -- how to mobilize and turn out large numbers of people, how to bring attention to a cause. In St. Louis in the early ’70s, she and a group of antiwar protesters boarded a decommissioned Navy minesweeper used as a museum. “Our plan was to sail it down the Mississippi,” she said. “We never got out of the dock, but we got tremendous press.”

Though she protested the war in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War, Cagan is not a pacifist. “It’s not an ideological position for me,” she said. “I believe that people have a right to self-defense. I hope that if I had been in the Spanish Civil War I would have had the courage to fight back.”

She does not believe the Bush administration has justified war in Iraq. “It’s all about controlling oil distribution, controlling resources,” she said. “And the constant need for the United States to assert itself as the global power. It’s about empire.”

Though the New York rally is past, work continues for United for Peace and Justice. Its representatives were scheduled to attend a New York City Council hearing on police conduct during the rally. They supported a “Virtual March on Washington” on Feb. 26, which encouraged people throughout the country to storm government faxes and phones with messages of protest, and a Student Strike Day on March 5, when students were encouraged to walk out of classes in protest.

“This movement is very real and we’re going to keep organizing and protesting,” Cagan said.

After a long day of trying to save the world, Cagan unwinds the same way most Americans do, in front of the TV. “I love ‘Law and Order,’ ” Cagan said. “And ‘ER’ and ‘Judging Amy.’ ” But television is more than just a way to let her hair down. Always the organizer, she wants to know what the masses are watching. “You have to be able to talk to people, know what messages they’re getting and how they’re getting them.”

If war does come, Cagan will keep fighting. “Just because a war starts doesn’t mean we were wrong. It just means we need to redouble our efforts.” After a lifetime of political protest, how does Cagan maintain such efforts, without burning out?

“Well that I don’t know,” she says. “It’s one of the great mysteries of life. I don’t even drink coffee.”

Laura Longhine is a free-lance writer and a graduate student at Columbia University School of Journalism, New York City.

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003