Leslie Sue Cagan was born in 1947 to a Jewish couple in the Bronx, New York. Her grandmother, a seamstress, was a founding member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, which was known for its far-left politics. In 1979, Cagan, reflecting upon her youth, would write that she had been a “red diaper” baby whose parents at one time belonged to the Communist Party. Years thereafter, however, Cagan would say that she had been a “pink diaper” baby because her parents “were never in the party,” though “they were active and obviously influenced by the politics of the era.”
In 1964 Cagan enrolled at New York University (NYU), where she joined an activist group which she described as “sort of a Friends of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] chapter,” and “sort of an SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] chapter.” In 1966 she became involved in the antiwar movement and developed what she termed “an anti-imperialist consciousness.” Contending that “the nature of U.S. capitalism and imperialism” had “created [the Vietnam] war,” Cagan was filled with “outrage and disgust at what our government was doing to the Vietnamese people and their country.”
In the spring of 1968 Cagan traveled to Bulgaria to attend the Ninth World Festival of Youth and Students, an event organized by (mostly Soviet-oriented) Communist Parties around the world, and attended by all manner of leftists and revolutionaries. That same year, Cagan graduated from NYU with a degree in art history.
Next, Cagan started to explore a number of additional activist causes—specifically, the anti-nuclear, LGBT rights, and feminist movements. As a result of the latter, she began “to understand sexism” as well as the “power dynamic” that defined male-female relationships.
In the summer of 1969 Cagan attended several national conferences held by SDS and the United Front Against Fascism, the latter of which was a project of the Black Panthers. Indeed, Cagan proudly described herself as a “Panther support person.”
In the winter of 1969-70, Cagan spent more than two months with the First Venceremos Brigade, which covertly transported young Americans to Cuba to help harvest sugar cane and interact with Havana’s Communist leadership. Organized by Fidel Castro‘s Cuban intelligence agency, these Brigades trained their participants in guerrilla warfare techniques. In Cuba, Cagan saw what she described as “not an abstract idea of socialism or revolution,” but a society whose hallmark was a type of “humane interaction among people” that she “had never witnessed” in the United States. During her seven years as director of the Cuba Information Project, Cagan led numerous demonstrations demanding that America end its economic embargo of, and travel ban to, the island nation.
In the spring of 1970, Cagan, back in the U.S., became active in the effort to free Joan Bird, one of the “Panther 21” defendants who had been charged with attempted arson, attempted murder, and conspiracies to blow up police stations, school buildings, a railroad yard, and the Bronx Botanical Gardens.
Throughout the 1970s, Cagan established herself as an influential activist. She would proceed, over the decades that followed, to mobilize millions of demonstrators in rallies denouncing America’s foreign policies and its purportedly virulent racism, sexism, militarism, and homophobia.
On June 12, 1982, Cagan was a lead organizer of a massive anti-nuclear rally held in New York City’s Central Park, attended by hundreds of thousands of activists. In 1987 she co-chaired one of the largest-ever rallies for gay and lesbian rights.
Cagan was a featured speaker at the U.S. Peace Council‘s Tenth Anniversary National Conference in 1989, along with such notables as John Conyers, Manning Marable, Bernie Sanders, and Dessima Williams.
In the early 1990s, Cagan was the official coordinator of the U.S. Peace Council. In 1992 she was an original co-founder of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS), a splinter group rooted in the Communist Party USA (of which Cagan has been a longtime member). She went on to become co-chair of CCDS.
In 1998 Cagan endorsed a Brecht Forum celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto at Cooper Union’s Great Hall, New York. That same year, she condemned America’s “daily assaults and attacks on poor and working people, on women, people of color, lesbians/gays and other sexual minorities, the disabled and so many others.”
In 2000, Cagan served as a member of the Pacifica Foundation’s board of directors. In 2001 she was elected chair of the Foundation’s interim board of directors. And in 2002 she became co-chair of the newly formed anti-war coalition United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ), a post she would hold until 2008.
Cagan was a signatory of the 2002 Not In Our Name (NION) statement denouncing America’s war against terror and its “stark new measures of repression.”
Cagan strongly opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which she and UFPJ characterized as nothing more than a manifestation of “the Bush administration’s … desire to gain control of Iraq’s oil fields.”
In 2004 Cagan blasted America’s Middle East policy, particularly the U.S. funding that “goes to help maintain the deadly Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.” Cagan has referred to Israel as an “apartheid” state.
Around the same time, Cagan described the far-left political orientation of her UFPJ coalition:
“There are communists in the coalition, there are socialists, there are Marxists, there are radicals, revolutionaries, there are liberals, there are Democrats, there are anarchists, there are people who don’t have political labels. It is a very broad coalition, and we welcome that. We hope that this country has moved beyond the awful anti-communism of its past.”
In 2004 Cagan co-founded — along with Global Exchange founder Medea Benjamin — the organization Iraq Occupation Watch, whose mission was to encourage widespread desertion by “conscientious objectors” in the U.S. military.
In 2011 Cagan was the coordinator of The Audacity of Hope, an American boat (named after Barack Obama‘s 2006 memoir) that was scheduled to participate in a Free Gaza Movement flotilla in late June of that year. “We’re sending a message to our own government that we think it could play a much more positive role in not only ending the [Israeli] siege of Gaza, but also ending the whole occupation” of Palestinian land, Cagan said. The trip, however, was ultimately canceled.
Cagan is a member of the New York Committee to Free the Cuban Five, a group of individuals convicted in 2001 by a U.S. jury for their participation in a brutal Castro spy ring and now serving time in American prisons.
For additional information on Leslie Cagan, click here.