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WORLD WAR 3 REPORT Speaks With Leslie Cagan of United for Peace & Justice

by Bill Weinberg

Many activists in the New York area are confused as to who exactly is behind the March 20 demonstration which has been called to mark the first year since the bombs started falling on Iraq. Initially, word went out that United for Peace & Justice (UFPJ), the broad-based coalition behind last year's historic February 15 mobilization, had issued the call for March 20. Then International ANSWER--a group with which UFPJ has had a frequently contentious history--began issuing a call for a demonstration the same day. An entity called the March 20 National Coalition began distributing leaflets for the march with all ANSWER's contact info--and only their contact info. The list of endorsers leads with ANSWER, and UFPJ is nowhere in sight.

Many activists are bored by the endless internecine rivalries of the movement leadership, but there are real issues behind the intrigues. International ANSWER (for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) is formed around the core of the Ramsey Clark-led International Action Center (IAC), widely perceived as a front group for the sectarian Workers World Party (WWP). Workers World is so orthodox that it supported the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and--more recently--former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in his battle against war crimes charges at The Hague. In the movement to oppose the first attack on Iraq in 1991, WWP provoked a split by refusing to condemn Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. This resulted in two separate national marches on Washington, just days apart, in January of that year.

The specter of two separate marches on March 20 was averted--but the contradiction in the movement persists between UFPJ and ANSWER, which positions itself further to the left but is perceived by many to be the tool of a doctrinaire sect which has apologized for mass murder.

On March 4, WW3 REPORT spoke by phone with Leslie Cagan, co-chair and top organizer of UFPJ, at the group's office at 351 W 41st St.

WW3R: Can you clarify who is really organizing the March 20 demonstration?

LC: We originally called it back in October or something--I don't remember the exact date. In December we started to put together a broader coalition, and called a meeting which was attended by Labor Against the War, the Campus Anti-war Network, Not In Our Name, Bring Them Home Now, Racial Justice 9-11 and other groups. ANSWER didn't come. They asked us to change the date, but that wasn't convenient for other groups. They then didn't come to a second meeting, and failed to respond to our overtures to change meeting dates. In January, we see another coalition has formed including ANSWER, the March 20 National Coalition. Our coalition is the March 20 Mobilizing Committee.

So ANSWER started their own coalition. They just went ahead and formed their own thing. Not only did they put out their own call for March 20, they made it sound like we were divisive.

WW3R: How did they do that?

LC: They pushed Palestine on an equal footing with Iraq for March 20. They said they would only sit down with us if we agreed with their formulation. Now there's a buzz going around that we had divided the movement and called a second demo in New York. Some ANSWER groups are attacking the anti-war movement generally but UFPJ in particular for not taking Palestine and the Arab community seriously. Our position is that March 20 needs to be anchored in the fact that March 20 was the anniversary of the Iraq bombing. Putting the Iraq and Palestine issues on an equal footing was not the way to go. Based on that they say we're not respecting the Palestinian community and we're putting them at the back of the bus.

So now March 20 is being co-organized by UFPJ and ANSWER in separate coalitions. Its not a great situation but its better than having competing demonstrations on the same day. Hopefully what will come across to the public is tens of thousands people in the streets of New York opposed the ongoing occupation of Iraq and linking that to other issues of the day.

WW3R: Palestine is also under occupation, and our tax dollars are paying for it. Don't we have a responsibility to take this issue on?

LC: We agree the anti-war movement has not been as strong on the Palestine issue as it needs to be. But March 20 was picked because it was the anniversary of the start of the war against Iraq. The challenge is to keep people in motion, in a protest activism mode in an election year. We are using this date to call attention to the ongoing crisis in Iraq and make connections to other issues like Palestine. You don't do that through a rhetorical device--a slogan that could be confusing to people and makes it sound like Palestine and Iraq are the same thing. We don't think it is the same thing. It's at least a tactical difference.

WWR: What is the ANSWER slogan that you object to?

LC: "End Colonial Occupation from Iraq to Palestine and Everywhere." The US isn't occupying Palestine, although we are paying for it. And I don't think the US wants to stay in Iraq permanently--they just want to leave a compliant regime in place.

WW3R: Has anybody asked ANSWER why they have nothing to say about colonial occupation in Tibet, Xinkiang and Chechnya?

LC: I assume that's a rhetorical question.

WW3R: Will there be marches in other cities on March 20?

LC: There will be some 150 actions around the country March 20. In most places people are not engaged in the UFPJ-ANSWER conflict. In some places like San Francisco it is an issue, and I understand the lead has been taken by ANSWER there.

WW3R: Is there international coordination around March 20 as well?

LC: UFPJ had two people at the European Social Forum in Paris in November. Out of that came an agreement to do March 20 actions, and we had people at the World Social Forum in India in January pushing it as well. We don't have a very good handle on where yet, but there are demonstrations being planned around the world.

WW3R: People have accused UFPJ of being close to the Democratic Party and there is a rumor that you will be part of a larger coalition with organized labor around supporting the Democratic candidate in this year's election.

LC: That's not true. We're not doing any endorsements. We made a policy decision not to endorse any candidates. Both because some of our members could jeopardize their non-profit status and because we didn't want to open the whole internal debate around that.

WW3R: How do you think the split with ANSWER will play out in the future?

LC: I really don't know. There are people around the country who feel very, very strongly that we should not work with ANSWER. I think that's the majority position. But there is not unanimity within our own ranks on this question.

Leslie Cagan

See also WW3 REPORT #73

Reprinting permissible with attribution.