Give Her Liberty

Eleanor Eisenberg dances off into the sunset

Freethinkers and activists across the Valley have been wringing their hands ever since the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona announced earlier this month that its executive director, Eleanor Eisenberg, will retire. Eisenberg, who is 65 and has been with the local ACLU chapter for eight years, left her post last Friday. And while she swears her departure has nothing to do with last month's court ruling in favor of two law enforcement officers who arrested Eisenberg in September of 2003 for "obstruction and interference with authority" during a George W. Bush presidential visit, some say the ruling was the last straw for Eisenberg.

Whatever the reason for her exit, it's doubtful the agency will ever be the same. Local ACLU membership has more than doubled during Eisenberg's tenure. Under her guidance, the agency contributed to several significant constitutional law cases; helped put the kibosh on Phoenix's annual "Bible Week"; assisted in establishing free-speech rights for prisoners who want to communicate tales of incarceration via the Internet; and nixed the Arizona Department of Public Safety's practice of racial profiling in auto stops along Interstate 40.

Eisenberg isn't much willing to take credit for these achievements, although she'll cop to having contributed to our civil liberties here and there. She's even less willing to talk about her past as a student of dance maven Martha Graham, or to share opinions about the power that ultra-conservative "East Valley people" have over our fair city. And whatever you do, don't call her a pushy Jew.

New Times: Next month would have been your eight-year anniversary as executive director of the ACLU. Why are you leaving?

Eleanor Eisenberg: September 7 is my anniversary. I've been doing this kind of work for more than 50 years. I started in political activism when I was 11 years old.

NT: Eleven? Oh, come on. What were you stumping for?

Eisenberg: Well, I wasn't allowed to leave our apartment building in the Bronx, but I rang every doorbell in the building campaigning for Adlai Stevenson. I've been at it ever since.

NT: And apparently you've just had enough.

Eisenberg: I need to take care of myself. I've got some health issues, and my kids did an intervention: "This [job] is as bad for you as when you smoked." I really need to pay attention to my health issues.

NT: The timing must have something to do with your recently having lost your court case against the Phoenix police. That can't be coincidental.

Eisenberg: No. That had nothing at all to do with it. The aftermath of my court case just provided further disillusionment with the court system, the justice system, and juries, especially in Arizona. It was a huge injustice. But my decision [to leave] was made before then.

NT: So now you're blowing town.

Eisenberg: Next spring I'll move back to Santa Cruz, where Progressives rule and the '60s still live. Where the redwoods meet the sea.

NT: It's a very good place to be granola.

Eisenberg: It's a very good place to be a human being.

NT: You've sort of personified the ACLU for almost a decade. Who knows who we'll end up with?

Eisenberg: I'll take that as a compliment. Frankly, the board is moving slowly. My job hasn't been advertised yet, as far as I know.

NT: You took a stand against the death penalty and racial profiling. The new guy might turn out to be a lazy turd. Will we return to killing criminals and race discrimination along I-40?

Eisenberg: Well, it hasn't just been my finger in the dike that has kept the floods from coming. We have had some court decisions. Hopefully those will be respected, although these days even other branches of government don't respect court decisions. I trust that there will be someone here who will keep things going.

NT: But the conservatives are taking over. Don't go!

Eisenberg: I take issue with you saying that. I totally disagree. It's not conservatism. I have a personal crusade to have people not call themselves conservatives when they are actually extreme radical religious right-wingers. They're not conservatives, and we do not have a very conservative government. We have a very radical extremist government.

NT: Either way, I worry that, with your leaving, we'll go back to having Bible Week. That prisoners won't have the same Internet rights as the rest of us. That the Ten Commandments will return to Wesley Bolin Plaza -- in neon!

Eisenberg: I'm not a particularly modest person. I'm happy to take credit for what I've done. But none of it has been single-handed. I'm just the person in front of the cameras and in the press. One thing I'm most proud of is that many of the current ACLU coalitions are ones I've founded. I'll be leaving an active death penalty abolition coalition, for example.

NT: Maybe instead of leaving, you could do what our fine president has done: Stay on but ignore your duties. I hear he's having a lovely vacation.

Eisenberg:I don't think I could do anything like our president does. Nothing at all.

NT: Not even vacation for weeks at a time?

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