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Interviewing Cagan


[Leslie Cagan is national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of more than 1,300 local and national groups that have "joined together to oppose our government's policy of permanent warfare and empire- building." (http://www.unitedforpeace.org/) Leslie was interviewed for portside on September 9, 2005, by Ethan Young. -- ps moderator]

PORTSIDE: Since the federal funding shift from disaster response to the war was largely responsible for the failure to save the hurricane victims, how would you see the anti-war movement addressing the Gulf Coast crisis, and do you think it will affect which communities will turn out September 24th?

LESLIE CAGAN: The whole situation in the Gulf Coast raises a complex set of questions. United for Peace and Justice believes that the incredible resources–over two hundred billion dollars already–that have been poured into the war in Iraq meant that money wasn’t going into very necessary things, like making New Orleans more secure. And yet it is too simplistic to just say that the war and the money that’s gone into the war was the reason that there was a failure to provide the victims of the hurricane with the relief that they’ve needed. While the drain of resources into the war is an important issue, it is also true that centuries of racism in this country, the fact that there were so many poor people in New Orleans that didn’t have a way out, the lack of attention to real disaster management planning … all of these were issues that fed what happened on the Gulf Coast.

United for Peace and Justice is trying to articulate the connections between the war and the crisis in the aftermath of Katrina, without reducing it all to a simplistic statement like, “If the war wasn’t happening then everything would have been fine in New Orleans.” We don’t think that is true.

One of the things that we’ve been talking about–some of the language we’ve been using–is that this country is now at one of those defining moments. It’s not an everyday occurrence, where the country–the nation–is at a crossroads. We have an opportunity here to really think through what the priorities of this country are. Are the priorities going to be what they’ve been for decades now: an empire-building agenda that pours our resources–not just money, but people power, scientific and creative energies and people — into military operations such as the war in Iraq? Or are our priorities going to be really meeting the needs of our own people, and other people around the world? And the combination–the juxtaposition–of the war in Iraq and the Gulf Coast crisis happening at exactly the same time sheds light on what kind of choices this nation faces.

As an anti-war movement we are saying that the choice should be clear: not only do we have to end the war in Iraq, but we have to change foreign policies that continue to lead us into these kinds of wars and military interventions and occupations.

I think it’s not totally clear yet how this will affect the turnout for the Sept. 24th march on Washington. I believe a lot more people are going to come out because of the Gulf Coast crisis, partially because they do understand how essential this priorities question is and how our resources get used. There was a lot of momentum building for the 24th demonstration even before Hurricane Katrina hit and there were already signs that this was going to be a big demonstration, which I think is now going to be larger. We’re hoping that constituencies, communities, that have not in the past come out to anti-war demonstrations are going to come precisely because they do see a connection. But I really can’t guarantee any of that. That’s what we’re working on — reaching out to people that might have been questioning the war before, and even been opposed to the war, but haven’t been actively engaged, and now encourging them to come out to this anti-war mobilization.

Q. Well, vets and military families have brought new energy to the movement, but they’re culturally far apart from the students and boomers who usually make it to big peace marches. Do you foresee problems in bringing military families together with traditional peaceniks?

LESLIE CAGAN: It’s interesting that in the last three years, since this anti-war movement came together, military families and veterans have been part of it and their voices have been heard right from the very beginning. In fact, I remember a few days before the February 15th (2003) demonstration, the massive global day of protest, two people came into our office and said, “We’re Nancy Lessin and Charlie Richardson and we just started, with another family, Military Families Speak Out.” And now, two and half years later, there are more than 2500 families in Military Families Speak Out, many more people but over 2500 families. I know with the national media attention that Cindy Sheehan got at Camp Casey in Texas many more people have been joining Military Families. The main point, though, is that veterans and military families have been a part of this movement from the beginning, and, in fact, a movement is a movement because there are people from different cultural traditions, from different age groups, from different constituencies, from different lifestyles if you will. In fact, that’s when you have a movement: it’s not just one grouping or one category of people. And sometimes that’s uneasy, sometimes that’s difficult, as relationships are difficult. But mostly I think that people understand that whatever ways people are different, our common commitment to ending the war in Iraq and challenging US foreign policy more broadly, ties us together much more strongly than what keeps us apart. Yes, sometimes there are differences in language that people want to use, or images that people want to use–graphics for leaflets and things like that–but I think those issues are pretty minor compared to what holds this movement together.

PORTSIDE: Some anti-war groups and individuals think that UFPJ holds back on the demand for immediate withdrawal or on expressing support for the insurgency. Some have called for the inclusion of Palestine as part of the focus alongside Iraq, and we can see that that’s not happening. Is UFPJ trading principle for mainstream acceptability?

LESLIE CAGAN: Let me deconstruct this question. There’s a lot going on in this question, so let me try to deconstruct it a little.

First of all, if there’s anybody or any grouping of people that thinks UFPJ has backed off of what has been our essential demand — which has been: end the war in Iraq, bring the troops home now — then I don’t know what planet they’ve been on. There is not a piece of literature, there is not a press release, there is not a communication that we put out that doesn’t say that. If anybody thinks we’ve backed off, I’d like to see what leads them to this conclusion. I’d like to see where they’re getting that from. The answer to this question is: No. We have not changed our demand. The demand before the war started was: Don’t go to war. But the minute the war started, our demand was: End the war in Iraq and bring the troops home now. We have consistently held that position and not wavered from it, and have no plans to waver from it. That’s our position, and I hope I have cleared up any confusion.

On the question of expressing support for the insurgency, UFPJ as a coalition does not have a position on the resistance or the insurgency–people refer to what’s happening in different ways. There are members of our coalition–member groups–that support the resistance. There are other groups that condemn the insurgency. But as a coalition we don’t have a position. I think there are two general positions within the coalition that relate to this that are important to mention. One is that there’s a generally held agreement that we support the rights of people to protect and defend their nations. We believe that one of the pillars of US foreign policy should be respect for the sovereignty of independent nations. And we also support the right of people to defend themselves. When people are being attacked militarily or otherwise, they have a right to figure out how they are going to defend themselves. So that’s a broad principle. The other broad principle is that we reject and condemn terrorism in any form, whether it comes from individuals, paramilitary groups or governments. We condemn the terrorism that’s part of US military policies. By terrorism we mean acts of violence against individuals, against civilians. That’s not a tactic that we support or condone.

But those are broad, general positions of the coalition. We don’t at United for Peace and Justice have a position supporting or condemning, either way, the insurgency or the resistance in Iraq.

In terms of the call to include the demand to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine and to support the rights of Palestinian people as a central focus of September 24th, we have articulated our position that we believe this demonstration, and the focus of our work as United for Peace and Justice, needs to be on ending the war in Iraq. Yes, we do see the connection between the occupation of Iraq and the occupation of the Palestinian territories. We call for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and more particular we call for an end to the US government support for the Israeli government’s occupation. But having that as a principled position is different than a tactical position about how you focus a demonstration. For a variety of reasons, we came to the conclusion that it was time to organize a national massive march on Washington that focuses on Iraq.  Through the course of doing that work, and through the course of the demonstration, the connections will be made. There will be a contingent specifically around issues of supporting the rights of Palestinian people; there will be speakers that address the issue; there will be a booth at the Peace and Justice Festival that we are organizing. So it’s not, as some would claim, that we’re ignoring the issue. The challenge we see is how do we help people who are coming out and becoming involved for the first time–many for the first time–because they are moved by their opposition to the war in Iraq, how do we work with these people to help them see connections, not only to Palestine, but to a host of other issues. And within our movement there’s a lot of different tactical … people have different tactical approaches. So, it’s not like we don’t think the issue is important or that we as a coalition don’t have a role to play in addressing this issue. It’s a question of how we organize a mass demonstration and how we use that as an opportunity to make connections and, hopefully, through that work, help people see what these connections are. So finally, then, is this coalition trading principle for mainstream acceptability? No. We have not compromised on, or backed away from, any of our positions. Our principles are still very much intact, and, we believe that in fact at this point–certainly on the war in Iraq–that that is the mainstream position, that it is the Bush Administration that’s out on the fringe on this one. Over the last several months public opinion polls show increasing numbers of people in this country against the war, questioning the war, disagreeing with the war–whatever language people are using–but there’s more and more opposition to the war.

We believe this is the majority sentiment in the country, and that you can win over massive numbers of people without compromising principle. So, again, I think tactical decisions are different from principle decisions.

PORTSIDE: The majority of elected Democrats seem to support the war. Which is more important: targeting the war or targeting the Administration conducting the war?

LESLIE CAGAN: I don’t think it’s an either-or question. First of all, on the question of the elected Democrats, who seem to support the war. Many of them not only seem to, they actually do. It’s not just an image problem; their positions are horrendous. In fact, we really are quite critical of the leadership of the Democratic Party and most elected officials on the federal level from whatever party they happen to be in, because certainly those in Congress have partnered with the Bush Administration on this war. If Congress hadn’t been feeding the money into this war it couldn’t have happened. Part of the reason that we decided to do this massive demonstration at the end of September in Washington was so we could send a message directly to Congress and when we say Congress we mean not only the Republicans, but also the Democrats and hold them accountable and demand that they take some responsibility for doing whatever they can to stop this war and bring the troops home. So we think that it’s not actually a question of deciding which is more important–targeting the war or the Administration–the war is bad, there are policy makers that have put that war into place and keep that war machinery going, and some of them are in the Bush Administration, some of them are in Congress, some are in the State Department, some are in the Pentagon–you know they’re in lots of different places. We call on all of them, we make a demand on all of them, to end this war and bring the troops home now.

PORTSIDE: Some in the anti-war movement are calling for a planned, multi-staged pullout as a more mainstream alternative to “Out Now.” There’s also some nervousness about the left wing of the peace movement against maximalist slogans–I think you know what I mean by that: civil disobedience. What’s your response?

LESLIE CAGAN: I think it’s interesting that some members of Congress are beginning to talk about staged withdrawals, setting time lines, looking to 2006, etc. We think this is a positive development — that there’s even that kind of discussion going on in Congress. You know, six months ago, a year ago, there wasn’t that level of discussion. That’s not our position. The position of United for Peace and Justice is: End the war and bring the troops home now. We encourage all groups and organizations and activists in the anti-war movement to have the same position. And we think that some members of Congress, and others who shape policy are beginning to talk about things like phased withdrawal, stages of a pullout, etc., because there has been the call from the anti-war movement saying “End the war now.” We are holding firm on that. Other people are going to raise other approaches as to how the war can end. Our approach has not changed though. Again, this is a war that never should have happened. It’s a war based on lies. And how do you get out of the mess that you’ve created? You get out by getting out. It’s not too complicated. And, obviously, in 24 hours, every US troop wouldn’t be out of Iraq and every Hummer and all of the equipment and everything else wouldn’t be out of there, but you make that declaration. “We’re leaving. It’s over.” That’s what we think should happen. Other people, including some members of Congress, may take other positions. That’s good in that it helps open up more room for more debate, but we don’t support those positions. Our position is: End the war. Bring the troops home now.

And…the other part of the question: nervousness about the left wing. You know, what can we say? A movement is a movement because there are people active in it from many constituencies and different parts of the country, different age groups,etc. People have come from different political traditions, and different ideologies and different ways of thinking about the world. If we all shared one set of politics, we’d all be in an organization not in a coalition. UFPJ is a coalition, and we know we’re only one part of a bigger movement. So, yes, there’s going to be a left wing in the movement, and there’s going to be more centerist forces. We hope there’s even more people from the Republican Party speaking out against the war. But I don’t think people need to be nervous about the left wing in the peace movement. We should be happy that the movement is big enough so that it can accommodate many different voices and points of view and build on the ideas that we do share in common, that is, ending this war. In terms of civil disobedience, well, I’m actually surprised by– not surprised but I think it’s noticeable–how little objection there is to civil disobedience. It’s not that everybody wants to engage in cd actions, but I’ve not heard anybody say, for instance during the September actions in Washington on that Monday, the 26th, we’re organizing a non-violent civil disobedience action at the White House. Nobody has said to us, “You really shouldn’t be doing that. That’s a bad thing for the movement.” Not everybody’s going to participate in it, but I think people understand that it’s a part of our toolbox, one of the tools that every movement for change, for peace and justice uses it and we will continue to use it more and more.

PORTSIDE: The reason that these questions have a special pertinence right now is that, as you said in your answer to the first question, there’s likely to be a bigger outpouring, probably with lots of people who have never gone to a demonstration like this before, as a result of the last few weeks, and that raises the ultimate question, which is: What comes after September 24th?

LESLIE CAGAN: We are thinking about that now. It’s always important to be thinking about what’s coming down the road in the next few months, next year. And when you have such a large number of people gathering it’s important for people to come away with some ideas of what comes next, where they’re going, what they’re being encouraged to work on. A lot of the creative thinking in a movement like this comes from the grassroots, comes from people in their own communities out there every day organizing, talking to people, facing those challenges. They often come up with the most creative ideas. As a national coalition, we’ll be calling on people to go right back home and in the two weeks until October 8 to do local actions against the war. We think it’s very important to keep the momentum going and a movement, as I said, is not only made up of many types of people who use different tactics, it’s also made up not just of national demonstrations, but really the heart and soul of a movement like this is what people do in their own communities, their schools, their work places, religious institutions, in all the places that people gather at the local level. So we hope that the mobilization in Washington will strengthen the local work, and we’re calling on people to turn around and go right back home and do local actions. And the focus of those actions we hope will be on really identifying and articulating what we call the “local costs of the war.” The most extreme example of this, of course, is the situation in the Gulf Coast. But there are many other examples too. The fact that National Guardspeople have been pulled from states all around the country has tremendous local consequences. I think it was a few months ago the governor of Oregon was saying he was very concerned that as the summer was approaching and there were so many National Guard people not there, what would they do if they had really terrible forest fires this summer and not have enough National Guardspeople to help with that?
A lot of the first responders from communities all around the country are tied up in this war. That’s another example of local costs of the war, to say nothing of not having enough money for schools and hospitals and libraries and day care and everything else. So the focus of the October 8th demonstrations and activities, protests, will be on the local costs of the war.

The other thing is that we’re asking people to keep their eyes open for what is bound to happen sooner rather than later, and that is when the 2,000 US service person dies, we’re now inching very close to the 1,900 mark, and sometime within the next weeks or months, we’ll hit the 2,000 mark, and we think that should be another moment when people are very visible and vocal in their opposition to the war. The Congressional work will go on, the work on counter-recruitment efforts will go on. We are going to be calling on clergy people all around the country and people from every religious tradition to use the weekend of November 11–Veteran’s Day Weekend–to do religious services and sermons to talk about the war, to raise the question: Why is there another generation of veterans? When are we going to stop creating more veterans? Those are some of the things that we’re projecting into the fall. A lot of this is about going back home. Take your energy, take the spirit and the enthusiasm that we know we’ll see on the streets of Washington and take that back home into your communities, into your localities and mobilize people. Keep expanding this movement and keep the pressure on.

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portside (the left side in nautical parlance) is a news, discussion and debate service of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. It aims to provide varied material of interest to people on the left.

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