When Ramona Ripston became executive director of the American Civil Liberties of Southern California in 1972, the Los Angeles Police Department was behaving
as if it was above the law and Latinos had no chance of winning a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. These injustices—and many more—were challenged and overcome in court by Ripston and the excellent legal team she assembled, earning a distinguished place in L.A. history.
Ripston has announced her retirement effective next February. I have dealt with her for many years. I found her to be a disarming mixture of toughness and charm, fierce in battle and politically sophisticated. Those are the minimal requirements for a civil libertarian in Southern California. The head of the ACLU must fight for the poor and oppressed in an uncompromising manner and be charming enough to persuade the rich to support these efforts, capable of taking money from Brentwood to help Pico Union. Good luck to the ACLU board in finding a replacement!
Many of the cases filed under Ripston were rooted in Los Angeles’ long history of racism and police lawlessness.
One, in 1988, reversed long-standing racism in politics by forcing the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to redraw gerrymandered district lines which had systematically stymied the growth of Latino voting power. ACLU lawyers clearly demonstrated how the supervisors had moved the boundaries of a district westward from Latino East Los Angeles, extending them as far west as Beverly Hills to assure white preponderance. Other parts of the Latino population were divided with another district, splitting the Latino vote. As a result of the lawsuit, new boundaries for the 1st district were drawn, and Gloria Molina was elected supervisor.
Another ACLU case, in 1984, closed down the infamous Los Angeles Police Department’s public disorder intelligence division, which had a long history of spying on political liberals and ethnic minority community activists. The PDID dated back to the department’s “Red Squad,” which cracked down on liberal activists and labor unions through much of the 20th Century.
The Southern California ACLU also fought a lengthy lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District board forcing desegregation of long-segregated Los Angeles schools. That fight raged for years in the courtroom as well as in the schools and meetings of angry and anguished parents. The board finally submitted a desegregation plan which was eventually approved by the court in 1981. White flight and Los Angeles’ changing demographics weakened the impact. But important legacies of the desegregation fight remain, such as integrated magnet schools.
Finally, Ripston and the ACLU lawyers were most helpful to reporters. They loaded them down with documents instead of propaganda. The ACLU crew figured the facts of the case would prove them right. And they usually did.