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Interview With Leslie 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 it, 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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How many soup kitchens did UFP&J set up to help the hurrican survivors?

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