The Long Haul

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I was at the Capitol last year on June 25th when Senator Wendy Davis filibustered SB 5 (companion bill to HB60), an omnibus abortion bill with regulations effectively designed to close down clinics providing the procedure. Under the guise of raising standards of care for women, the bill’s four provisions only serve to limit or completely do away with women’s access to a safe and legal abortion.

Days before, news stories of the special session called by Governor Rick Perry, and its public hearings attended by hundreds of women, buzzed in my periphery. [Quick fact: the Texas legislature only meets in January, every odd-numbered year, for 140 days. Anytime in between, only the governor can call the legislature into session]. At the time, I was only dimly aware of the work that house members, reproductive rights activists, and other civic minded people were doing to call attention to, and prevent the passage of, this bill. That night I was to be thrown into the thick of it.

The filibuster was exciting and inspiring news. Living in Austin has sometimes felt like willing oneself to inhabit a mirage of progressiveness, the illusion of oasis waxing and waning with one’s privilege. However, in this gesture of a filibuster, it seemed real water was in sight. I’m not from Texas but I’ve lived in this state long enough to gain an appreciation that is equal parts incredulity and respect. There’s real steel beneath the macho bluster and self-aggrandizement of Texas-as-advertised. Its liberals, as much as its conservatives, are forged from that same steel.

After work, I went home to change, bussed over to the Capitol, and took my place in a line that circled the central rotunda for three floors. I thought, if this senator had volunteered to stand for as long as thirty-six hours to kill this anti-woman bill, the very least I could do was show up. Public testimony was no longer being heard, so really the only ‘good’ showing up would do was exactly that: the physical fact of our bodies occupying that space. We embodied our support for those who protected our reproductive rights and access to healthcare, and we embodied our dissent of those who sought to destroy it.

Joined by a friend later that evening, we waited our turn to enter the chambers. Several folks in line kept track of what was happening inside through live-feeds and twitter updates on their phones and iPads. At some point during the evening, there was a gasp and some loud stir ahead, and the line broke as those of us close enough to a set of doors rushed towards them. I recall asking what happened, and someone mentioned a second point of order had been called; a colleague was helping Senator Davis with a back brace. Apparently, she was only allowed three of these point of order violations before being forced to yield the floor and the bill be put to a vote.

I wish I could remember in greater detail exactly how things went down after this point. Fatigue and frayed nerves cloud my recollection. I remember someone—I found out later it was Brittany Yelverton, a Planned Parenthood organizer—stepping outside the doors every half hour or so to update us on what was going on inside, and requesting that we be quiet and use ‘jazz hands’ if we felt the urge to erupt into applause or make any kind of noise. And we obeyed best we could, anxious and afraid our actions would threaten the filibuster. After the third point of order was called, I remembered wondering out loud—is that it? Is it over? Have we lost? I was confused about how and why the stipulations on abortion procedures that Senator Davis raised were not ‘germane’ to the discussion. Someone in the crowd gave me a crash course on Texas parliamentary procedure, and I realized that germaneness and rules were being invoked only as they served to push the bill through. Their methods seemed both contemptuous and absurd, and I felt on the verge of tears, exhausted and frustrated with a process that seemed rigged from the start. I remember finding some small solace in the fact Senator Kirk Watson was using these same arcane rules to argue the final point of order in a Hail Mary effort to run the last hour and half or so on the clock.

At about a quarter till midnight, as the ‘filibuster of the filibuster’ was still going strong, someone in the crowd raised their iPad displaying a clock counting down. There was noise and what sounded like yelling from inside, and Yelverton came out to let us know that they were going to put the bill to a vote. I remember crying out ‘No’ very loudly, in disbelief and desperation. The emotions of the crowd seemed at a breaking point, and as the minutes ticked, we broke out into a chant of ‘shame’, and then ‘let her speak’, which finally became some combination of roar and wail. When my throat grew hoarse and raw, I started pounding my feet on the ground and against the wall, and then kept on yelling. I didn’t feel empowered or exhilarated, I felt offended, outraged, and out of options. I felt my body was reacting the only way it could when faced with something that was attempting to silence and control it.

Me and my friend had work the next morning, and we both left the Capitol sometime around 1am, tired and dejected, thinking they managed to push the bill through. Before going to bed that night, posting to Facebook I found out that the vote hadn’t gone through. Screen captures of an altered time stamp revealed that the bill was voted on after the midnight deadline. The filibuster, and the noise we made, had effectively stopped its passage. It was a gratifying but ultimately fleeting victory.

A second session was called, and on July 18th 2013, HB2—what SB 5 and HB 60 became—passed into law. Between June 2013 and June 2014, Texas (with a population of 26,448,193, about half of which is female) saw its clinics providing abortions go from 44 to 20. After September 2014’s deadline for the fourth provision of the bill, only 7 will remain. On July 1st, SCOTUS ruled that a corporation—acting as a person holding a sincerely held belief—had the right to deny female employees contraceptive healthcare. I attended the anniversary celebration of the filibuster last month, which brought together reproductive rights organizations, musicians, spoken word artists, and government representatives, including lieutenant governor candidate, Leticia Van De Putte.  It was a bittersweet affair. Those in attendance reminisced on what we are able to accomplish then, but also nailed home the realities and greater challenges we face ahead.

However bleak it looks right now, what the events of last summer woke me to was that justice will always be a long range goal. Even without the excitement and fan fare of rallies and a filibuster, and long after they’ve cut the live feed, there are government representatives, activists, organizers, and volunteers working to protect reproductive rights and provide reproductive healthcare to those who need it. I’m hopeful, but more valuable than hope right now is vigilance. To remain watchful, aware, and to stay involved, is what this particular fight will require.

Below are links to a few of the groups and projects born from the events of last summer. The people’s filibuster was just the first call to battle. I aim to stay vigilant, and I’m in this for the long haul.

Fight Back Texas offers an oral history of last summer’s events. It brings together government representatives, activists, organizers, and journalists, and weaves their firsthand accounts and stories into a single, comprehensive narrative.

STAND is a project by The Bridge Collective which addresses the problem of clinic closures by supporting folks traveling from out of town with overnight lodging and local transportation to and from clinics.

Fund Texas Women is a non-profit organization based in Austin, Texas that helps women access abortion by providing practical support as well as information.

Rise Up/Levanta Texas is a broad based coalition defending the right of all people in Texas to equal & safe healthcare and reproductive options. The coalition seeks to expand and re-frame the conversation around reproductive rights by directly addressing the fact that HB2 disproportionately effects “the poor, the black and the brown, the undocumented, and queer people”, and its focus is on those marginalized and invisibilized communites.

[Video compilation assembled by organizers of the event ‘We Will Not Yield’, an anniversary event celebrating June 25th’s filibuster.]

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