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New ACLU center to honor longtime chief

Ramona Ripston, 81, dismisses the idea of retirement, saying much work remains unfinished.

October 15, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

Growing up with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, Ramona Ripston learned early about intolerance. Her maternal grandparents sat shiva to mourn the marriage of her parents and snubbed their grandchildren for a decade.

As a young woman, Ripston witnessed her parents' fears as her father's colleagues from Brooklyn College in New York were summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Her early professional years were shaped by work registering black voters in the South, marching with civil rights activists and championing the causes of minorities and women.

Since arriving in California 36 years ago to direct the then-fledgling American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Ripston has been an institution in liberal circles -- and a target for some conservatives. She has fought for the rights of immigrants, for limits on government surveillance, for equal access to quality education and for equal protection under the law.

Today, Ripston's contributions will be recognized with the dedication of the ACLU's new Los Angeles headquarters, to be called the Ramona Ripston Center for Civil Liberties and Civil Rights.

Ripston will be honored at the ceremony by local luminaries and the top law enforcement officers for Los Angeles County, with whom she has often clashed on rights for prisoners and the homeless.

In an irony of fate, the new Ripston Center is directly across West 8th Street from the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing LAPD's 9,300 officers, which has often been the target of ACLU criticism.

League President Tim Sands said he discovered the coincidence of real estate about a year ago when he ran into Ripston at a restaurant and learned of the ACLU's pending move.

"I said, 'Why don't we just build a bridge and meet about halfway on the issues?' " joked Sands, who will be among those at today's ceremonies.

"We come from a different menu," he said of Ripston. "Bottom line, she's never put on a blue suit and I've never sat in her seat, either."

There are issues the two sides will never agree on, he said, but added that there is common ground on others, such as the ACLU's support of the league's opposition to financial disclosure by LAPD officers, which the rights group considers an infringement of their privacy.

At 81, Ripston brushes off the idea of retirement and a quieter life with her husband of 19 years, U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt, regarded as one of the most liberal voices of the federal judiciary. There's still so much to do, she says.

"Some rights for some people have expanded, but many of our civil liberties have contracted, certainly after 9/11, so that for some people it is far worse than it was," she said.

"We all think of California as a Blue State but it's not a Blue State in its entirety," she said, citing immigrant, labor and personal liberties issues roiling such places as Bakersfield, Riverside and the Inland Empire.

Ripston has left her mark on Southern California, fighting for school desegregation in the early years after she arrived from New York to guide a staff of six. Under her direction, the ACLU led the fight against jail overcrowding and lack of services, winning a 1979 judgment and monitoring role to amend constitutional deficiencies in Los Angeles County jails. Now employing a staff of 60 in Southern California, the ACLU here has defended activists against what they considered unwarranted police surveillance and more recently acted as advocates on behalf of Muslims subjected to warrantless wiretapping enabled by legislation in the war on terror. She has championed the rights of the homeless.

And if she's made enemies along the way, she says, that is the price of taking on unpopular causes.

"If we aren't under attack every day, then we're not doing our job," she said, noting that the ACLU has to be equally vigorous in defending free speech at both extremes of the political spectrum.

Recently, she said, the ACLU has drawn fire for its challenge to police sweeps of the homeless. "People get angry with us. They don't see that so many of the homeless people are mentally ill, addicted to substances or veterans. That is the shame of this country that we don't provide services to the veterans who give the best years of their lives to this country," Ripston said.

Ripston knows there will be many more battles. She worries about the U.S. Supreme Court, noting that appointments to be made by John McCain or Barack Obama will profoundly affect the American justice system.

But armed with funding from donations and foundations, she said, the ACLU will continue to fight. "We certainly have our work cut out for us," she said, "but we are better prepared now than we ever have been in our history."

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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