5 Arrested for Workplace Equality

Five were arrested at the Texas Capitol on May Day morning last week as GetEqual TX staged a sit-in at four Texas State Senators offices. Activists hope to pressure legislators to schedule SB237, the “Fair Employment Act,” for a vote. If passed, it would make it illegal for employers in the state to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Activists for any group that wants to lobby the legislature are under added pressure because the state’s bicameral house of government meets for only 140 days out of every two years, and only a few weeks of the 2013 session remain. These sit-ins come after an escalating series of direct actions.

Tiffani Bishop, the Central Texas Lead for GetEqual TX told me:

We’ve literally exhausted all other options. We’ve marched, lobbied, petitioned, visited their offices personally, and called their offices every single day for the last 2 months. At this point, nonviolent civil disobedience is our only option.

While nationally, media attention and lobbyist efforts seem focused on the issue of marriage, in a majority of states the ability to find and keep employment for LGBTQ workers is threatened on a daily basis. According to statistics provided by GetEqual TX:

- An estimated 431,000 members of the Texas workforce identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
- 26% of transgender Texans report being fired solely based on their gender identity.
- 12% of lesbian and gay Texans report being fired because of their sexual orientation.
- 37% of gay and lesbian Texans report being harassed at work due to their sexual orientation .

The day began early as over a dozen activists gathered in a parking garage near the Texas Capitol at 8am and were immediately spotted by a bicycle-mounted Texas State Trooper. By noon, the five activists had been arrested and the rest dispersed.

SB237 remains unscheduled, with Senator Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury publicly opposed to the bill; other members of the Committee on Economic Development refused to comment for this story. GetEqual TX members met Monday and plan to continue direct actions.

Delving deeper into what happened between that morning gathering and the protesters release that night on personal recognizance bonds shows how the best plans of activists go awry during chaotic protests, and yet also the impact of direct action.

Inside the Capitol

A line-up of GetEqual TX activists near the Texas Capitol before protests began.

A line-up of GetEqual TX activists near the Texas Capitol before protests began.

Original plans had been for ten activists to risk arrest inside the State Capitol. But one of the most effective nonlethal weapons police can use against activists is intimidation, whether subtle or overt.

It’s difficult to tell whether information leaks and some questionable choices in “security culture” — the term activists use for how to communicate and plan sensitive information about their direct actions — or just extreme alertness on the part of the troopers, who have the whole capitol complex wired with cameras resulted in the sudden appearance of troopers from the moment the group gathered. Multiple patrol cars were also spotted around the parking garage.

Isaac Brown and JoeAnthony Rodriguez (Veteran in Uniform) speak with Ben Stratmann while Chaplain Robert Hall records

Isaac Brown and JoeAnthony Rodriguez (Veteran in Uniform) speak with Ben Stratmann while Chaplain Robert Hall records.

Though the bicycle trooper ostensibly came by to warn us that smoking was not allowed on the rooftop parking area, he had also radioed our location back to his superiors and the message was clear — they were aware. As GetEqual TX protesters stood in front of the Capitol giving statements about their actions, another bicycle trooper was watching from the background — she’s visible in the video at the top of this post. She introduced herself as “Cathy” and said her job was to ensure “everyone had their voice heard.”

Whatever advance intelligence they possessed, troopers made little attempt to prevent protests from beginning. Two groups occupied the offices of Senator Birdwell and Senator Bob Deuell, R-Greenville. When Deuell’s staff refused to negotiate with protesters, loud chanting began with almost a dozen activists crowded into the office. Next door, in Birdwell’s office, staff seemed to disarm the activists with politeness.

Birdwell’s Chief of Staff Ben Stratmann told me:

I know there were SB 237 protests and arrests next door to our office and in some other Senate offices, but we didn’t have any protesters in Senator Birdwell’s office. I had an opportunity to speak at length with some extremely polite gentlemen about their support of the bill.

These are the same polite conversations that activists have been having for months. Sometimes too polite — a staff member told GetEqual TX’s Iana Di Bona that Birdwell opposed SB 237 because it would make it harder for employers to fire a gay person that didn’t do their job.

In email, Stratmann denied that this statement represented Birdwell’s views:

That staff person was unfamiliar with the bill and spoke out of turn; she has since been corrected. That is not the senator’s position on the bill. Only Senator Birdwell—or I, with his discretion—speak on his behalf. With the exception of telling you that he is not supportive of the measure, we really have no further comment.

For whatever reason, plans to escalate beyond politeness into civil disobedience never materialized in Birdwell’s office.

Three protesters sit in office chairs in Senator Deuell's office.

C. D. Kirven, Erin Susan Jennings, and Koby Ozias chant during a sit-in at Texas Senator Deuell's office before their arrests.

Next door, loud chanting echoed in Senator Deuell’s office until troopers gave a warning: activists had moments to wrap this up or face arrest for criminal trespass. Three would remain behind and leave unresisting in handcuffs.

This was also the cue for the remaining arrestable activists to continue the sit-in at two more offices, Senators Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills.

I followed Tiffani Bishop and Jennifer Falcon-Price to Hancock’s office where a meeting of his staff prevented us from entering immediately. Surprisingly, there were no troopers in site. One appeared briefly and entered the Senator’s office, perhaps to inform him of the arrests elsewhere in the building, but then we were left to our own devices — despite Tiffani and Jennifer’s presence in the waiting room. When I looked out into the hallway, it was deserted.

Once we could enter, the sit-in was quickly over. “This is a peaceful protest, do not be alarmed!” Tiffani announced before the chanting began. Troopers entered the office quickly and Senator Hancock told the group to leave. With another warning, the final two arrests began. I followed the pair as they were led, still chanting through the Capitol halls until I could follow no further. Many spectators cheered; one state trooper yelled “Shut up!” I recorded the entire encounter, from sit-in to the moment the pair disappeared into the bowels of the Capitol for processing, and it was over in less than ten minutes.

Senator Hancock and a State Trooper

Texas Senator Hancock tells GetEqual TX activists to leave his office before their arrests.

Meanwhile in Foster’s office, the final arrests failed to materialize. From my conversations with GetEqual TX activists, it appears that troopers present made ominous pronouncements about the severity of criminal trespass (actually a minor misdemeanor), disrupting the morale of the fourth sit-in.

The legality of criminal trespass charges is questionable. The Texas State Capitol is a public building. Activists took the offices during normal office hours, and sat in the provided office furniture so that no office traffic was blocked — in fact, Deuell’s staff took other visitors to the back of their office for meetings. During past some Capitol sit-ins by groups like ADAPT, police have waited till the close of business to begin arrests. Tiffani Bishop told me she believes everyone has a right to petition for redress of grievances in public spaces during normal business hours, even loudly. GetEqual TX’s lawyer laughed incredulously when he heard the charges.

Impact?

Until something changes — the bill goes to a vote, for example — it’s hard to measure the impact of direct action. Past experience shows that these kinds of actions almost always generate conversation among their targets and staff.

The other impact of a protest is visibility. Throughout the event, people voiced support with cheers and applause. In Deuell’s office, one visitor initially seemed hostile to the protest — he asked the group if they would stop their chanting until he had finished his business with the Senator. After he listened to activists stories, staff members took him to a back room to discuss his business and when he left he wished the group good luck.

The best moment of the morning came as we first entered the Capitol complex. We entered in a large group, since it was clear that secrecy was no longer an issue. As the group marched on the first two offices, some wearing GetEqual T-shirts, a spectator’s voice behind us called out,

What’s going on? Is this EQUALITY? That’s SO AWESOME!

If not equality itself personified, then at least some very determined queers. Tiffani told me that the lobbying and direct action will continue:

Our lawmakers need to understand that our right to work is about survival. We will continue to fight for our jobs and our survival until our message no longer falls on deaf ears.

Arrestees at Travis County Jail

The five members of GetEqual TX arrested at the sit-in raise their fists after their release from Travis County Jail on May Day.

Portions of this story appeared in The Horn.

Photos by Kit O’Connell, except Senator Deuell’s office sit-in and Travis County Jail release photo, courtesy GetEqual TX.