Something is happening in Texas. While the Republican-dominated legislature tries to undemocratically ram through an unpopular omnibus anti-choice bill during a special session, abortion rights activists have taken their anger and organized it into an occupying force that has upended the narrative of anti-choice complacency in red states. For the last week, these activists have been protesting, organizing, and occupying, and they have revealed that passionate and committed feminist and progressive activists are everywhere, even in deeply red states.
The so-called "flyover" states are all too often ignored by the more traditionally liberal coasts. When Kansas passed a sweeping anti-abortion bill into law, it was largely ignored by the mainstream media. Coastal progressives shrugged their shoulders as if to say, “What do you expect from Kansas?” The assault on abortion rights has ravaged middle America; from Nebraska to Kansas to Arkansas to North Dakota, and now Ohio, Wisconsin, and Texas, the constitutional right to a safe and legal abortion is no longer being merely eroded, but is being erased. But as the protesters in Texas make all too clear, not without a fight.
The bill in question is Senate Bill 5, which would essentially end safe and legal abortion in the state of Texas. SB 5 is expressly designed to make safe and legal abortion impossible to access by forcing clinics to close. This bill requires doctors to have admitting privileges at hospitals, forces abortion providers to monitor non-surgical abortions, limits abortions to surgical centers, and criminalizes abortions performed after the 20th week, (similar to an Arkansas ban on abortions after 20 weeks that was recently struck down and ruled unconstitutional by a federal Appeals court). While Republican lawmakers attempt to use criminal abortion provider Kermit Gosnell to smear safe and legal abortion, they ignore the fact that by closing 37 of the 42 abortion clinics in the state of Texas, they are essentially sentencing women to dangerous illegal abortions and sending women straight to illegal abortion providers like Gosnell.
Clearly, this bill has frightening implications for women in Texas, but more revelatory is the fact that it is incredibly unpopular with Texas voters. According to ThinkProgress, 80% of Texans do not want their lawmakers considering this bill in a special session, and 63% of Texans think the state already has enough anti-abortion laws on the books. Texas Governor Rick Perry knows how unpopular this bill is, and hoping to steamroll past outrage from his constituents, he has used the special session, designed for legislative emergencies, to ram through this unpopular and unconstitutional bill which failed in the 83rd Texas legislature’s regular session. But Governor Perry underestimated the power of pro-choice activists in his own state.
Beginning on Thursday night and well into the early hours of Friday morning, hundreds of abortion rights supporters gathered in the capital to testify against SB 5, calling it a “people’s filibuster.” Activist and journalist Jessica Luther estimated that around 600 Texans showed up to filibuster the House version of the anti-choice bill. While every citizen was supposed to be allotted three minutes to testify, Luther noted that testimony was abruptly cut off around 1am, with Representative Cook claiming testimony became “repetitive.”
“People got really angry. There was a lot of shouting, the committee chair ended up leaving the room. Security was called in, and some of us thought we might be going to jail. 248 people left to testify that never got to,” Luther said.
On Sunday, pro-choice activists returned to occupy the Capitol building as the House voted on the bill. Luther approximated that around 1,000 people were present “on a Sunday to the Texas capitol to say ‘we’re not OK with what you’re doing.’” The bill was passed by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, though not without yet another offensive and completely unscientific rape gaffe from an anti-choice Republican. And so it seems, the presence of a thousand pro-choice supporters did not deter the Texas House from passing the bill and sending it onto the Senate
But the story does not end there. Texas Senate Republicans tried desperately to advance the legislation and force a vote on Monday so that Democrats would not be able to filibuster, and they came incredibly close. In a breathtaking chain of events, they ended up one vote shy. Anti-choice Democratic State Senator Eddie Lucio initially said he would join with Republicans and try to suspend the 24-hour rule while pro-choice Democratic Senator Leticia Van De Putte was at her father’s funeral, a decision that was met with a wave of criticism from pro-choice activists and Texas Senate Democrats. Ultimately, he pledged not to vote with Republicans until Senator Van De Putte returned to the chamber from her father’s funeral. Had he voted with the Republicans, he would have been the deciding vote to bring the legislation up for a formal vote. The bill would have surely passed. Safe and legal abortion rights in Texas would basically be eradicated. But he didn’t.
Continued and sustained pressure from pro-choice protesters helped ensure that Senator Lucio did not join with Senate Republicans to erase the possibility of a viable Democratic filibuster. If it weren’t for the scores of abortion rights supporters, this bill would have likely passed without anyone paying a bit of attention.
Texas State Democrats have had one card to play throughout this process, and that is to delay the bill until the special session runs out, and they deserve much of the credit. Democratic Senator Wendy Davis has vowed to filibuster, and if she can make it until midnight, this bill will die. This story is still being played out, so anything can happen at this point, but the fact that defeat is now a legitimate option points to the incredible work done by Texas State Democrats.
But none of this would have been possible without the commitment and passion of these protesters. When asked about what the last week has been like, Jessica Luther called it “one of the most amazing things I’ve ever participated in in my entire life.” Running on little to no sleep, skipping work, largely ignored by the mainstream media, and eating food donated by activists from across the country, these men and women exemplify what democracy is supposed to be about. They emblematize the power of organize protest. They are a model of what progressivism looks like in red states.
It is beyond time to abandon the condescending notion that progressivism is a coastal phenomenon. Remember this effort, remember these protesters, and remember: Don’t mess with Texas women.