No expense was spared to oppress every Texan who needs access to reproductive healthcare.
On July 12, 2013, the deadly anti-abortion bill HB2 passed the legislature in Texas, forced through in an expensive special session despite the extremely loud opposition of thousands of people who came out to shake the granite building with their angry voices. On that same day this month, one year after the passage and the police brutality of the final night of protests, a few of us returned to the Texas Capitol to reflect on what’s been lost.
In the previous weeks, there’d been numerous other events to mark what happened last year. Wendy Davis, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful and one of the primary legislators to side with reproductive rights, had packed a major events center in town on the anniversary of her filibuster. She seems to take all the credit for it in the media these days, despite the grassroots direct action which temporarily kept the bill from passing after her filibuster was shut down by male politicians.
The same night as the Davis fundraiser, another celebration occurred at a small bar attached to a local theatre — organized by some of those grassroots activists, but still featuring a stump speech by Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor. Both were upbeat, aimed at bringing activists together to honor the most powerful and positive moments of last summer and encourage hope for the upcoming election.
I hadn’t attended either. My requests for press credentials at the Palmer Events Center went ignored — unsurprising given the chilly and deliberately hostile reaction I got from the Texas Democratic Party last summer. And the tone of the other event felt off to me — too positive for a bill that is expected to close all but 6 clinics in Texas and which is already endangering lives and causing a rising number of self-administered abortions. I didn’t hate anyone’s desire to celebrate — summer of 2013 held some unforgettable moments of popular activism showing its true power, despite the defeat. But on the filibuster’s anniversary, I felt a lingering sadness when I rode my bike through the Capitol grounds and saw only tourists — not a single person there to claim that public space for free speech and reproductive liberty.
Days later Jay Kasturi, an ally and friend from those days, invited me to co-organize a small vigil on the Capitol grounds on the one year anniversary of the bill’s actual passage. It seemed perfect to me — a chance to honor what we’d done but also all that was lost by everyone who needs open access to reproductive healthcare.
In 2013 we’d held a sit-in the small hours of July 12, and Texas Department of Public Safety State Troopers — dozens of them, imported from all around the state — bore down on us in a spasm of violence and patriarchal rage. One woman had her pants pulled down as Troopers paraded her to detainment in front of witnesses. One temporarily disabled comrade of mine was pushed up and down a short flight of stairs by a pair of Troopers unable to understand why she wouldn’t comply with them until a third pointed out that she was trying to reach her cane.
Anti-police brutality activist Joshua “Comrade” Pineda was also part of that sit-in, and Troopers hurt him so badly he bled, half-conscious, onto the marble floors before being taken to the hospital for stitches in his head. He and about a dozen others still face charges for taking part in nonviolent civil disobedience.
But Pineda and all the rest we reached out to loved the idea of our vigil, and he and several others joined us that evening while others let us know they were “attending in spirit.” At 6pm, it was still in the 90s so we circled in the shade. The ritual Jay proposed was a simple one, drawn from Buddhist meditation. We’d sit in contemplative silence on the grass outside the Capitol for ten minutes, then spend about twenty on a meditative walk through the Capitol, before returning to discuss our experiences and share our feelings.
I looked around to new faces in the circle, like the family that drove out from Dallas for our vigil, and at others I’ve been working with now for years. The silence of the Capitol grounds — even broken by the voices of the handfuls of tourist families and a bride with a fleet of maids on a pre-wedding photography mission — felt barren compared to the raucous energy that had filled them the year before.
After the sitting meditation, I followed Pineda up to that marble hallway where the final confrontation took place.
He pulled his phone from his pocket to display the photo of his bloody face and try to find the exact place where he’d laid waiting for medical assistance. I listened to him piece together from the photos and his foggy memory what he thought might have happened. That night, a pair of Troopers dragged me out of the sit-in (with surprising kindness, compared to the treatment of others) into the Senate antechamber. Every time the door opened, some inside could see Pineda bleeding, but we couldn’t know what would become of him. The fear I felt then remains vivid in my mind.
Lt. Governor Dewhurst complained about what was called an “unruly mob” using “Occupy tactics,” but it had really been the voice of the people of Texas. It was democracy at its most raw and unmediated.
But the Troopers used “Occupy tactics” against us — the tactics of police repression against people’s movements. Imported officers from around the state ensured an intimidating show of force at all times. They selectively enforced the law against the groups they wanted to silence. Troopers used surveillance technologies to track us then arrested key organizers regardless of whether they were participating in direct action. And on the last night, they sent dozens of Troopers to violently break-up a sit-in without warning, though it couldn’t block traffic in and out of the Senate chambers and was therefore purely symbolic.
While physically violent, their actions were symbolic too: those of us who stood up against the state would be smashed. No expense was spared to oppress every Texan who needs access to reproductive healthcare.
We gathered again to close our ritual by sharing our memories. Each person bowed before they spoke, with the rest bowing back. Writing for the Austin Chronicle, Mary Tuma opened her coverage of the looming “human rights crisis” caused by HB2 with her visit to our event:
The modest vigil, organized by local activists, provided a space to reflect on the wins and losses in solidarity with fellow advocates. While less widely publicized than the previous week’s celebration, attended by hundreds, of the one-year anniversary of the filibuster against the bill by state Sen. and now gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, it was certainly heartfelt.
‘The moment I realized the politicians didn’t care about the truth; didn’t care about our health; didn’t care if we lived or died – it was both horrifying and liberating,’ said Geraldine Mongold, one of the thousands who crowded the Capitol last summer to protest HB 2. ‘It freed me from being congenial – from being awed by their authority, and reminded me that this Capitol and this government belong to me.’
The mixture of grief and hope among the participants reflected the range of emotions felt by those who are now coming to grips with the bleak post-HB 2 reality. The first part of the Republican-backed omnibus legislation, which took effect last Nov. 1, bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, forces women receiving pharmaceutical abortion to follow outdated and more expensive protocols, and requires physicians to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic where the abortion is performed. The law has triggered a wave of clinic closures, eliminated abortion care in large areas of the state, and produced severe disruption for vulnerable patients.
I was proud to attend the memorial [...] and thankful for the space to process my own feelings about the current state of women’s rights both in Texas and America at large. It was moving to hear the stories of both those who remember fighting in the Capitol building itself, and others, like me, who kept tabs on the protests via social media.
[...] Some who attended the memorial are still hopeful that politicians like Davis will do the right thing for Texas women if elected in November. Others have more faith in the people than the leaders who claim to represent them, believing that the spark of activism which was ignited last summer will burst back into flame when our rights are again put at risk.
I don’t know what the future holds for American women. But I know it is as important to remember our defeats as our victories. While we should to honor and celebrate the voices which literally shook the granite walls of the Capitol in their defense of women’s rights last summer, we also must recognize the political forces which ultimately silenced them in order to move forward in a responsible and meaningful way.
There was a sense of unity among the people assembled on the grass, but undercut with the slightest bit of tension between those who’d put their hopes fully behind Wendy Davis, and others less sure of her ability to deliver women from this evil.
Though I respect my many friends and allies who’ve joined her campaign, I’m on the side of the people not the electoral process. Even if she wins against odds, how can Wendy Davis fix this mess?
There is no gubernatorial wand to wave to reverse existing legislation. Even after the issue gave them national prominence, local Democrats often seem terrified to say the word abortion: at a Roe v. Wade anniversary rally I watched Austin-area Representative Elliott Naishtat speak for 15 minutes without saying it (it took him about ten to say ‘choice’). Assuming the party keeps the issue a priority, it could take years to “turn Texas blue.”
Until that day, it will be up to the people to stand for abortion.
Photo by Kit O’Connell, all rights reserved.