Leslie Cagan’s Half-Century of Activism
When Brooklyn for Peace named community organizer Leslie Cagan one of three Pathfinder for Peace award winners in late 2017, it was both in recognition of, and in gratitude for, Cagan’s more than 50 years of social justice activism. Whether pushing for action on climate change, peace, LGBTQ equality, feminism, reproductive choice, or fighting racism, Cagan’s voice, presence, and expertise have long been visible.
Cagan has worn a lot of hats over the years. Among them, she was the interim board chair at the Pacifica radio network in the late 1990s; was National Coordinator of United for Peace and Justice from 2002-2009; and either coordinated or played a leadership role in some of the largest demonstrations in American history—for nuclear disarmament in 1982; for LGBTQ rights in 1987; against the war in Iraq in 2003; and for climate action in 2014.
She is presently involved with the Peoples Climate Movement (PCM)—NYC, as well as PCM nationally, and is part of an effort challenging the corporate saturation and over-policing of the Heritage of Pride parade held annually in NYC to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall rebellion.
Cagan recently spoke to Eleanor J. Bader about her history, ongoing work, and the personal challenges of caring for life partner Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, who has advanced Parkinson’s Disease.
Eleanor J. Bader: Let’s start with your personal history. When did you become involved in progressive political activism?
Leslie Cagan: I grew up in the Bronx, in a Jewish, leftist community. My parents were hardcore activists. I have an older brother and a younger sister and family outings growing up would often involve going to a demonstration. My grandmother was active in the textile workers union so I guess you can say that politics has always been in my blood. Their example was important and impacted all of us. Both of my siblings are activists.
EJB: How involved were you in the 1960’s antiwar movement?
LC: I went to the State University of New York in Fredonia for my first year of college. I thought I wanted to leave New York City but it was too isolated for me upstate. The free speech movement in Berkeley was just then hitting the news—it was 1964 and 1965. I realized that I wanted to be in a metropolitan area where activism was happening so I transferred to New York University (NYU).
I immediately got involved in antiwar protests when I got to NYU and became chairman—that was the word we used—of the NYU Committee Against the War. Through this group, I connected with national student organizations that opposed to US involvement in Vietnam. We did a lot of antiwar work at NYU and I coordinated the effort to bring NYU students to Washington, DC, for the October 21, 1967 March on the Pentagon. It was a major effort and we sent 21 buses down to DC from NYU alone.
Once I graduated in 1968, I realized that I knew people who were working full-time in the antiwar movement. All of them were men, but I thought to myself, ‘If they can do it, so can I.’ Nonetheless, my first paid organizing job was not in the antiwar movement. It was working for a group called the Health Policy Advisory Center—Health/PAC—which existed from 1968 until 1994.
Before I started at Health/PAC, I’d traveled to Europe to attend the World Youth Festival in Sofia, Bulgaria. It was held in July 1968 and it was mind blowing. First of all, there were 20,000 young people from all over the world: South Africans fighting apartheid; Greeks living under military dictatorship; people from North and South Vietnam; Chileans. It felt like the entire world was on fire. At a dinner for the U.S. and Vietnamese delegations, an American man stood up and burned his draft card. It was a powerful statement that overcame the language challenges in the room. Quite a few of us from the U.S. then donated blood to be shipped to Vietnam.
After the Festival, six or seven of us took a train to Prague. I left three days before Soviet troops rolled in—a coincidence–to crack down on what they saw as the Czech’s ‘reformist’ tendencies.
When I returned to New York I started the job at Health/PAC as a paid organizer.
EJB: At one point you worked with the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. What was that like?
LC: In those days we spent a lot of time stuffing envelopes and mimeographing leaflets. Dave Dellinger (1915-2004) was on the Mobilization staff and I got to know him. He was extremely principled and was willing to absorb a lot of the lessons coming from newer movements and younger people. This was an important lesson for me. I also learned about coalition work from watching him. He never lectured, but by paying attention I learned important skills that have served my lifetime of organizing.
EJB: I read on Wikipedia that you were an art history major at NYU. Did you originally think you’d work in the art world?
LC: In those days, by the end of your second year of college you had to declare a major. I was clueless, but in the spring of my sophomore year, my advisor told me I had to take a class in either art or music appreciation. I took art and really liked it. For me, it was not only an interesting lens on history, but it had an unexpected benefit. In every class, the professor would dim the lights so we could see some slides. I spent a large part of these classes asleep, which I needed given the long hours I was putting into anti-war organizing! I did fine, but let’s just say I was never an academic.
After I finished my degree I probably spent about 20 minutes thinking about going to graduate school. I knew if I went this route, I’d have to learn French and German. The thought of that killed the idea since I am not very good at languages, plus my heart was in organizing.
EJB: With the exception of your time in Fredonia, have you always lived in New York City?
LC: No. I lived in a13-person (eight adults and five kids) collective house in St. Louis, Missouri, and worked as an organizer from 1970 to 1972. I then moved to Somerville/Cambridge Massachusetts, where I stayed until 1982. In 1982. I returned to New York to help organize a nuclear disarmament demonstration. New York City has always been my center of gravity and I’ve been here ever since.
In Boston, I worked with the women’s movement on abortion and other feminist issues and participated in the still-nascent queer movement. In hindsight, I think I moved to the Boston area to come out. My first job there was working at Our Bodies, Ourselves, filling orders for the initial, mimeographed edition of the book.
EJB: How have you experienced sexism and homophobia in the movements you’ve participated in?
LC: These issues impacted me directly at least twice. In 1982 I was hired to help build a massive anti-nuclear demonstration that was scheduled for June 12th.I was the first person hired and helped build out the staff. As the effort grew, tensions within the coalition became more evident and there was a decision to have a three-person team serve as coordinators. I was part of that team and my job was to do outreach and coordinate logistics. Some people didn’t think it would be good for an out lesbian to have such a visible leadership role and it turned into a big hoo-hah. I remained in this role because enough people recognized that I was bringing essential skills and experience to the project, and in the end, I was the de facto coordinator of the whole operation.
The biggest gender problem I’ve encountered occurred in 1988 when I was working on David Dinkins’ campaign for New York City mayor. I was brought in to run the field operation in both the primary and general election and at a certain point I realized that the guy who was the numbers cruncher—whose work overlapped with mine—had much greater access to the campaign manager than I did. I made it an issue and in the general election I was technically his equal, but the gender discrimination was still there. I was coordinating 23 constituency groups—Jews for Dinkins; Women for Dinkins; Labor for Dinkins, etc.—and was responsible for making sure that a dozen field offices were running strong operations. I also coordinated the volunteers and interacted with other key parts of the campaign. But I was not usually in the room when decisions were made. I refused to let it undermine my work, but I was aware of it.
EJB: Are you doing anti-Trump work now?
LC: Of course, but my focus has narrowed some. In 2014, I was the co-coordinator of the People’s Climate March which brought 400,000 people into the streets of New York City. As a run-up to the March, a NYC host committee formed since people from all over were coming into town. This group has stayed together and has evolved into the Peoples Climate Movement-NYC. We’ve held forums and discussions and helped nurture the climate movement in the City. We’re done a number of demonstrations and have anchored efforts like the Superstorm Sandy five-year anniversary rally and march in 2017. We’re also part of other citywide, state, and national climate groupings.
We’re pushing for a greater sense of urgency on these matters. We believe solutions have to be bold, with less pandering to the fossil fuel and real estate industry. For example, here in the City, 60 to 70 percent of the carbon footprint comes from energy inefficient large buildings. This is why we’re part of a coalition pushing for mandatory retrofitting. We also understand that climate work has to address racial and economic realities, with impacted communities in the forefront of decision making.
I’m also involved in a fight with New York City’s Heritage of Pride, the entity that organizes the annual LGBTQ Pride events. After Trump was elected, a bunch of people organized a resistance contingent. The contingent that marched in Pride 2017 was big, militant, and well received but, for some reason, the Heritage of Pride people have announced that the contingent can’t march in Pride 2018. They’ve also said that no contingent can be larger than 200 people, that people will have to wear wristbands to make sure the numbers are limited, and they have changed the march route for no clear reason. It’s ridiculous, and it’s all in the context of the ever-expanding corporate nature of the parade. This is in addition to the over-the-top police presence in-and- around the event. People are upset and some groups have been meeting to discuss this, especially since 2019 will be the 50th anniversary of Stonewall.
EJB: In addition to your political work, you’re also caring for your partner. How is she doing?
LC: Melanie and I will be together 21 years in June. Fourteen years ago, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. For the first six or seven years she had a tremor but the doctors gave her meds that controlled it and she was basically okay. Then, six or seven years in, other symptoms started to appear. I’ve since learned that there are a gazillion symptoms that are connected to Parkinson’s and different people have different manifestations.
Over the past few years, Melanie has declined quite dramatically. It’s extremely sad and simply weird to watch someone you love drift away. Being able to stay engaged in political work has been a lifeline.
I never imagined I’d be someone’s caregiver, but these are the cards we’ve been dealt and we’ve made major adjustments. Life for me is far less spontaneous than it used to be. After Trump’s election, the old me would have been out in the streets five, six, eight times a week. Now I need to plan, make sure an aide will be with Melanie. I can’t go to every meeting or activity. But I have great support—both professional and friends–and I’m grateful to them.
EJB: This sounds terribly painful. Given the political climate, how have you retained any semblance of optimism?
LC: First, the past year of Trump’s presidency has been even worse than I anticipated. Every single day we’re bombarded with his racism, misogyny, greed, and hatefulness, as well as the avalanche of terrible policies he has enacted. The overwhelming yuckiness of it does take a toll. At the same time the fightback has been energizing and some things he’s wanted to do have been slowed down.
Organizing is hard work. The hours are long and the pay is low, but I feel very blessed that I’ve been able to do the work I’ve done and am still doing. I’ve helped make history and been witness to history. I’ve met and built relationships with some of the smartest, most creative, and caring people. I’ve been part of the richness of human experience through activism. Yes, we’ve missed the mark on occasion, and today’s upsurge in anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry in this country and globally are awful, but still, we persist.
[Eleanor J. Bader teaches English at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York. She is a 2015 winner of a Project Censored award for "outstanding investigative journalism" and a 2006 Independent Press Association award. The coauthor of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism, she presently contributes to Lilith, Rewire, Theasy.com and other progressive feminist blogs and print publications.]