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?
Eisenberg: No! Not when there's work to be done. I'm a workaholic. I'm leaving here, but I plan to stay involved with death penalty issues, and with the so-called marriage amendment.
NT: You're not especially narrow-minded. How did you find Arizona?
Eisenberg: I headed east from California.
NT: That's not fair.
Eisenberg: Frankly, I sort of think of Arizona as a Third World country. Look, last summer we couldn't drink the water -- a true indication of a Third World country. The levels of intolerance here are almost unbearable. But I think the people of Arizona are more intelligent and tolerant and thoughtful and democratic than the Legislature is. It's a happenstance of demographics that the Legislature is dominated by East Valley folks. This past year was just awful. I never deluded myself that I was moving a civil liberties agenda forward in the Legislature. This year has been an exercise in futility.
NT: You mean all the campaigning against immigrants?
Eisenberg: The only word I can think of to describe that campaign is "mean." Just plain mean. Well, I could also think of "stupid." And the attacks on the courts! I think it's largely political; the rallying cries for the upcoming election will be judicial activism and the invasion of immigrants.
NT: I want to talk some more about your court case. The cops busted you for resisting arrest. They were afraid you were going to hurt the president.
Eisenberg: I was filming police beating up a kid.
NT: Which is probably why you got hauled off to jail?
Eisenberg: That was my thought.
NT: You're five feet tall! Did they think you were going to kick Bush in the shin?
Eisenberg: That came up at the trial. We had a videotape of the officer whacking me with his horse. He testified that I hit the horse. Then when my attorney challenged him, he said, "Well, she shouldered the horse." Later he said I braced myself on the horse. Finally, my attorney said to the officer, "How many versions of this do you have?" And he said, "These are not versions, they're adjustments."
NT: High fives all around for Mr. Cop. But how do you shove someone with a horse?
Eisenberg: He came around behind me and hit me with the horse.
NT: And you'd just had foot surgery!
Eisenberg: It was my second outing after my surgery without a cane, and I'm very grateful I didn't have my cane with me. I can't imagine that he wouldn't have said I hit him with my cane.
NT: They handcuffed you, then lifted you over a barricade, which pissed you off because you didn't want people looking up your skirt, according to your lawyer.
Eisenberg: My lawyer was very concerned about Arizonans' attitudes about the ACLU, and about me being a New York Jew. You know, there was one point where one juror wrote a note to another juror --
NT: That's not allowed!
Eisenberg: No, they can't do that, but there was a look on her face that we all thought meant she'd written the word "Jew." One of the jurors in my trial said, "I don't have anything negative to say about Jews. Unless you think 'pushy' is negative." I'm familiar with the phenomenon of backhanded insults. [The trial] was a travesty of justice. And it's not why I'm leaving the ACLU.
NT: It seems like it took an awfully long time for your case to go to court.
Eisenberg: There are a lot of problems with the court -- and that's not a political attack on them. It's something more profound than that. I don't even call it the criminal justice system; it's the criminal vengeance system. And this country is awful on so many levels including the costs to us. The courts are just too crowded with criminal and civil matters.
NT: Let's talk about nicer things. I understand you were once a Martha Graham dancer.
Eisenberg: How did you know that? Where do you get your information?
NT: I'm a journalist, Eleanor Eisenberg.
NT: What will you do now? I can't imagine you sitting in a Barcalounger, sipping tea.
Eisenberg: I don't like tea, but I do have an awful lot of novel reading to catch up on. I still dance -- international folk dance. And I'm going to travel. My life has always been committed to social justice and to public-interest law. So I'm not going to give that up. I don't know if it sounds arrogant or not, but I was sort of born with the justice gene.
NT: If you're worried about sounding arrogant, don't answer this next question: What's your legacy?
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Eisenberg: A stronger, more integrated ACLU. I hope I've helped spark a revival of true activism -- because we certainly need it. I hope I've given other people the courage to stand up and be counted; that although there are consequences, you have to do it anyway. I hope I've made it safer for people to speak out, and easier for people to enjoy the flip side of the First Amendment, which is to get information. Because we don't get news or truth from the media anymore.
NT: We're doing our best, Eleanor.
Eisenberg: Well, some of you are, and some of you ain't. Either way, I can't help but think that it's not gonna be too long before there's real justice and fairness in the world. I have to believe that.