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Climate March Insider Looks Back: An Interview With Leslie Cagan

Issue 201

John Tarleton Oct 28, 2014

The People’s Climate March was a sprawling enterprise with more than 1,000 endorsing organizations, dozens of working groups, three de facto steering committees and hundreds of staff and volunteers. At the center of this activity was PCM’s Logistics Coordinator Leslie Cagan, a familiar face on the Left who has orchestrated many of this country’s largest political demonstrations over the past three decades.

I caught up with Cagan a month after the march and asked the veteran organizer to reflect on what had happened, as well as to address lingering questions such as why this historic event had no official speakers and what was up with those subway ads proclaiming that climate change had united bankers and hipsters (and presumably everyone else).

John Tarleton: An enormous number of people turned out for the People’s Climate March. But besides creating impressive images of crowds of people in the streets, what did this protest achieve?

Leslie Cagan: We’re not going to know for another six months to a year whether this in fact marks a new moment in the climate justice movement. That said, there are moments in the course of any movement when being able to publicly show that you represent massive numbers of people is an important step forward. We did that. It’s not a beginning or an end but a part of a process.

There were tremendous numbers of young people — not just college age but high school kids too and younger even. That’s always a good sign for any movement. Also, there was much more racial and ethnic diversity than one usually sees related to the climate crisis or environmental issues. That wasn’t an accident. There was a conscious effort to recalibrate the character of this movement. The real question is how do we maintain that in a way that’s not just a numbers game but ensures that people of color and working people are in the leadership of this movement and setting the direction from here on out.

What was the initial reaction when you reached out to labor and community leaders who would not usually be seen at a climate change protest?

At an organizational level some groups signed on right away. Others said, “Well we need to talk about it. This is a new issue for us.” Many groups had never done anything on environmental justice or the climate crisis, but the memory of Hurricane Sandy was still fresh in many people’s memories as an example of the impact climate change can have. A lot of people became invested in this and pushed and struggled within their organizations and won the day in terms of getting at least an endorsement for the march.

Why did the march end up on 11th Avenue on the far west side of Manhattan instead of at the United Nations?

We didn’t want to go to the U.N. There’s not much happening on that part of First Avenue on a Sunday afternoon. There was also some sentiment that we shouldn’t lead people to believe that the U.N. was going to solve the problem.

We originally wanted to march from Columbus Circle through Times Square to Union Square. Times Square remained a contentious issue for weeks. Before a final decision was made by the NYPD, we organized a targeted campaign to put pressure on the mayor’s office to put pressure on the police department to give us Times Square.

Several unions and other organizations with close ties to de Blasio made calls to people in City Hall very close to the mayor. We know that these mayoral aides in turn made calls to One Police Plaza. That did not lead to a decision to give us Times Square. But I do think that’s part of what made the rest of the negotiations a lot easier in terms of arranging the gazillion details that are a part of staging an event of this size. The police insisted on 11th Avenue so people could get to their buses to leave town more easily and also because they wanted us out of the center of Manhattan. We conceded that point, because the most important thing for us all along was marching in the heart of the city. And for most of the day, most of the people did that.

Why was there no roster of speakers at the People’s Climate March?

One of the biggest factors was that this was a broad coalition with a wide range of perspectives, some at odds with one another. For instance, some unions do not oppose fracking or building the Keystone XL pipeline. They believe it’s an important job opportunity.

A decision was made to try and congregate all our forces into the march and to not aggravate our differences. One way to do that was to not have a rally. If there had been a rally, I could have imagined that someone would have said, “We need to have someone speaking against fracking.” It’s a struggle going on in many parts of the country. Here in New York, there’s a very big fight. And certainly some of the trade unions would have said, “No, we’re not going to be on the same stage with somebody who’s speaking against fracking.” There were also practical issues: where to do a rally, the potentially very high cost, etc.

So why not just part ways with unions that support fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline, both of which are devastating to the climate?

The question is what do you want your relationship to be to unions who support projects they see as good for jobs even if they’re bad for the environment? Do you want to close the door? Or, do you want to open the door and hopefully, sooner rather than later, win them over to a position that actually is more grounded in the environmental justice focus that we have?

Another messaging question: What was up with the subway ads like the one for the march about hipsters and bankers being in the same boat? I couldn’t look at it without cringing.

I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. It caused me to cringe too. This was an example of the way that our organizing was set up. Groups could do their own thing. So one particular organization, in this case it was, raised a lot of money online and bought the subway ads. They decided what the content would be. They did not say to the larger coalition, “We’re going to going to make a contribution to this overall effort by purchasing subway ads and what do you all think they should say?” Instead, they basically said, “We’re going to buy some subway ads and you’ll see them when you ride the subway.”

A lot of us, myself included, were not only surprised but put off by those ads. If bankers and hipsters is what people think we want the range of diversity to be in this movement … well, that doesn’t capture it for me.

What made the People’s Climate March both unique and similar to other mass protests that you have played a leading role in organizing?

What makes each mass protest unique has to do with their moment in history. Things like this come together when there is already some organizing going on and resources — people power mostly — are put to work in a very good way. But also it’s the right time and the right place and the right articulation of the issue that resonates with people. This was the right time because more people are becoming aware of the climate crisis and the urgent need for action. We can’t put it put off for another 15, 20, 30 years. We also can’t assume that the powers-that-be are going to act on their own without being pushed by people.

One thing that runs through all of these big demonstrations is the realization on the day after that no matter the size of a march, it doesn’t by itself make policy changes. It has to be part of a movement that is constantly building and deepening and strengthening itself both in terms of its numbers, its diversity, the types of communities that are involved and in terms of its creativity and the tactics that it uses. You know you have a movement when you can’t keep track of everything that’s going on.

I think we’ll be able to look back and say the People’s Climate March inspired new people to join the movement and re-energized people already in it. And if all it did was to take this movement to another level of organizing and building its own power, then it was more than worthwhile to do.


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