Ramona Ripston

Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is director of the JSM+ New Media Lab. He interviewed Ramona Ripston at his offices in Marina Del Rey

Accusing the Boy Scouts of religious discrimination, defending the parental rights of a transsexual, fighting an ordinance against panhandling--these and other often unpopular causes are the daily business of the American Civil Liberties Union. There is perhaps no more polarizing organization in America and, to many conservatives, the ACLU is seen as a radical front for left-wing ideology. But to its supporters, the ACLU is a mainstream, even conservative organization, dedicated to upholding the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, including this passage from the 14th amendment:

"No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

It is this amendment that the ACLU says has now come under attack with passage of California's Proposition 209, the initiative supporters say ends preferences, and that, according to the ACLU, guts a generation of effort to address racial and gender bias through affirmative action. The Southern California ACLU vigorously opposed 209, at the ballot box and in the courts, and lost on both counts. Now it's fighting desperately to contain the damage, opposing a variety of 209-inspired changes to statutes on everything from employment outreach programs to special-education classes.

Leading the charge is the woman who has run Southern California's ACLU chapter since 1972, Ramona Ann Ripston. Former LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates dubbed her "Ramona the Ripper," yet even he was impressed by her tenacious efforts to obtain liberty and justice. This native New Yorker, who is not a lawyer, has put her organization's clout to work for groups as disparate as the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan, often garnering the wrath of the public and powerful political forces. Yet she has endured, and today, at 60-something, is still going strong.

The daughter of a Catholic and a Jew, Ripston grew up in Queens and graduated with a political science degree from Hunter College. She was active in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s and began working with the ACLU in New Jersey before taking over as executive director of the Southern California chapter. Along the way, Ripston went through four divorces and had three children, one of whom, her youngest son, died in 1994. She's currently married to Stephen R. Reinhardt, a federal judge who sits on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ripston was a key player in the Rodney G. King police-beating case. She called the press conference that first presented the taped beating to journalists, and she's been a long-time critic of the Los Angeles Police Department. But these days, she's experimenting with a kinder, gentler approach. In a conversation last weekend, she talked about affirmative action, privacy rights, police reform and her efforts to find ways for the ACLU to protect rights without resorting to litigation.

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Question: Why do you think you were unsuccessful in having the Proposition 209 overturned in the courts?

Answer: The trial court accepted our arguments that affirmative action is an acceptable way of enforcing the 14th amendment. The appellate court--three of the most conservative judges from the 9th Circuit Court accepted the other side's argument that nobody can have preferences, and the Supreme Court refused to review the case.

Q: Given that we experimented for some 20 years with affirmative action, what's wrong with society deciding it may be time to stop this, and see what the effect will be?

A: Well, we've already seen the effects. At law schools, such as Berkeley, no blacks--even those who were well-qualified--were admitted. The same things have happened in Texas, where they had a similar court decision. But let me say that we never really gave this a chance. Our experiment with affirmative action only began in the 1970s, and that's not a very long time to correct a problem that is so entrenched in this society.

Q: What impact do you see Prop. 209 having on things like diversity in law enforcement agencies?

A: I can't over-stress the importance of diversity in police forces. It's critically important to have police officers who understand, and perhaps speak the language of, the people they serve. I think, quite simply, that we'll see a return to police forces that are predominantly white and predominantly male. We do have a lawsuit now against the LAPD on behalf of women who feel that the culture there makes it difficult for them to be hired and difficult to obtain promotions. In fact, the ACLU's biggest class of plaintiffs are female police officers, many of whom are women of color.

Q: Does the law prevent a government agency, when faced with two candidates of equal merit, from giving preference to one candidate over another because of race or gender?

A: That is a difficult question. There was recently the case in New Jersey of two school teachers, equally qualified, one black and the other white. The school board decided, because of budget constraints, they had to let one go. Both teachers were hired on the same day. They let the white teacher go, she sued, and the court ruled in her favor. But that was a case of firing, not hiring. The law seems to say that you may be able to take race into consideration when you hire someone, but not when you fire them. The governor of this state has identified 30 statutes in this state that he would like to see wiped out. They're the kind of statutes he told us when he was campaigning for 209 that he would never touch. For example, summer programs in math and science specifically for girls--the governor says he's going to try to eliminate that. So you'll see a number of these statutes repealed, and you'll see civil-rights groups filing suits saying this is not what 209 means.

You know, we have a number of preferences written into both California and federal statutes. We give preference to veterans. A recent case in Texas ruled that a music school could give preference to students who played certain instruments. Schools can give preference based on athletic ability, and on geography.

Q: Beyond 209, how would you characterize the state of race relations in Los Angeles--what do you worry about, and what gives you hope?

A: This is the most diverse city in the United States, and if we don't work out a way of getting along I think we'll end up with an apartheid system. We'll have people living behind gates with super alarm systems. I think the future of the entire country may hinge on how we in California work out racial relationships. If we can't do it here, we won't be able to do it anywhere.

Aside from the human-rights aspects, our education system is terrible. Poor children, who most frequently happen to be children of color, are not going to be able to compete. We have to find ways to put vast resources into education, so that children will have opportunities.

Q: Let's talk about the new head of the LAPD, Chief Bernard Parks. What's your assessment of his tenure so far, and what changes have you seen, positive or negative?

A: We continue to be concerned about police-community relations in Los Angeles. We've voiced concern over high-speed chases and use of excessive force. I have hopes that the ACLU will be able to work more closely with the LAPD under the leadership of Chief Parks. There have been significant improvements since the report of the Christopher Commission. But there is still much to be done. We'll continue to press the department when we think they're wrong and litigate when necessary. I hope that our communication will be better. The chief recently addressed the ACLU board and that was a first.

Q: You appear to be trying to evolve new ways to tackle problems, trying to work outside the courtroom if possible, and coming up with solutions that may not involve litigation. Is that a fair characterization, and if so, what are some alternatives?

A: That is a fair characterization. We've been litigating for a long time, and we're discovering that, by itself, it may not be the best way to solve problems. Now a lot of our victories have been undone, and somewhere along the way we've failed to communicate with people, and help them understand exactly what rights they are guaranteed under the Constitution. We need to explain to people what it is the ACLU is trying to do. Ours is a polarizing organization--it seems that you're either for or against us. It's hard to understand why, because we think all we're doing is supporting the Bill of Rights. So often what people know about the ACLU is that we are representing someone who did something unpopular, or even terrible. People often don't understand why it is we do what we do.

We're at the cutting edge of the quest for rights. And I don't think most people understand what those rights are. Polls show that many people, when shown the Bill of Rights, see it as some sort of radical document--which, of course, it is. Our job is to make them understand that America is the greatest country in the world because of that document. But it still has a long way to go toward making liberty and freedom for all a reality.

Q: One of your concerns involves one of the least popular group of Americans--prisoners. What are some of the issues there that you're working on now.

A: We're very concerned about young people being treated as adults in the criminal-justice system. If there is any hope of turning a life around, it's when the person is young.

I'm concerned that everyone talks about punishment and retribution, but no one talks about rehabilitation. I worry that we are spending more in California on prison construction than on education. We need to reorder our priorities, and start before people become criminals. We need to let children know that they have a stake in the society, that there will be an education available to them, and a job. We need to invest in programs that will nourish and sustain children, so they will grow up to have hope in America, and in their own future.

A huge percentage of people in prison are just languishing. There's nothing to help them overcome their problems. We put sex offenders in prison, keep them there for 20 years, and do nothing to treat their disorders. We need a full-scale revamping of priorities.

Q: Another area the ACLU is becoming involved in concerns changes brought about by the information revolution--particularly issues of free speech involving the Internet and online services. How are you formulating strategies to protect rights in a medium that is developing so rapidly?

A: I think the Internet is certainly the most democratic medium of all time. Government's attempt to censor the Internet is wrong, and we fought the Communications Decency Act and defeated it. We have cases now where filters are being put on the Internet in public libraries, and we think that is an intrusion. We think that parents have every right to determine what their children see on the Internet in their home, but the government should have no part in this.

There is one problem that is emerging, however, and that's the conflict between free speech and the right to privacy. Just recently we have learned of a sailor in the U.S. Navy who stated in his user profile the fact that he was gay. The Navy found out, and they are trying to discharge him. People can disclose private medical information, financial information--and while I think that it's a wonderful, democratic medium, we are going to have to figure out ways to protect privacy.

Q: Looking back on your career, what are the high points--where do you think you've succeeded in having an impact?

A: I think some of the issues surrounding the Rodney King case--including the Christopher Commission and the reforms that came out of that were successes. We have victories in the area of reproductive freedom and in privacy rights. We even had the death penalty overturned at one point in this state, and we've had success enforcing the Voting Rights Act.

Unfortunately, I think it's easier to remember the losses rather than the victories. I view our mission as a sort of holding action. Perhaps we won't forge any new rights, but just keep the rights we have in place. Because there will, some day, be a new spirit in America, and when that time does come, we don't want to have to go back and re-litigate just to secure our basic rights. Until then, it's enough to simply try to hold onto the freedoms we have.

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