Photos by the author
The battle for reproductive rights is on in Texas. You might not have known that if you watch the 24-hour cable-news channels, since during State Senator Wendy Davis’s ten-hour filibuster against an extreme antiabortion bill and the subsequent too-late vote forced by the Republicans last week, they were talking about muffins and George Zimmerman.
Media attention or no media attention, yesterday marked the second day of the second special session of the 83rd Texas Legislature, which Governor Rick Perry called on June 26 so lawmakers could vote on the antiabortion bill and a couple of other measures. “Texans value life and want to protect women and the unborn," Perry said; meanwhile, the state of Texas was executing its 500th prisoner since 1976, a woman named Kimberly McCarthy. The big event yesterday, which drew hordes of pro-choice and pro-life protesters, was the second public hearing on the antiabortion bill at the Capitol building in Austin.
The hearing was not held in the actual Capitol, but in the basement of the Capitol extension, and many people seemed lost as to where to go initially. I've been on numerous tours of the Capitol and visited many of my representatives in their chambers though the years, but had never been in the annex before. Turned out, the stairways that lead to the basement can only be accessed by going through closed wooden doors that seem like they might lead to cupboards, and there were no signs telling anyone where to go. However, once you got to the bottom of the stairs, walked through an empty hallway, and went through two doors, you entered a space that reminded me of Gringott’s wizarding bank from the Harry Potter books.
Everywhere I looked was marble, and there were hundreds of people lining the lower level—eating pizza, registering on iPads to give testimony—lined up to enter the hearing room. Texas state troopers, who are in charge of security at the Capitol, had taken positions around the room—they had extra cops on hand for the hearing, just like they did for the previous session. (I was relieved that the mounted police that came from Houston the previous day were nowhere to be seen on the Capitol grounds.) I will say that many of the troopers were cordial, laughing and talking with both opponents and proponents of the bill, even though I couldn’t help but feel like the Capitol, like the Wizarding Bank, is run by goblins.
In the middle of the extension is an open-air rotunda which seemed to be the designated area for protesting. In the center of the rotunda were the pro-lifers, decked out in blue and singing hymns in a circle that for most of the night was surrounded by a paper streamer held aloft the group. Some held signs stating that they regretted their abortions; many had red duct tape affixed to their clothing with the word "LIFE" written in black marker. Around them were a ring of pro-choice advocates, who chanted and held signs thatstressed bodily autonomy and were much more pun intensive than the signs of those in blue.
At the beginning of the day, the Capitol was awash with pro-life lobbyists, but as the evening wore on those wearing orange began to outnumber them. At 11 PM, I walked around and looked at all of the overflow rooms in the annex and counted about 30 people wearing blue in contrast to the 100 decked in orange. I wasn't able to view the hearing room as the line to get in was massive. From the live-stream feed in the overflow room, the crowd seemed fairly equally divided for the most part in the hearing room, but the camera only gave a narrow vantage, focusing only on the first few rows, the podium for those giving testimony, and the committee’s panel.
Unlike the previous hearing that took place a week and a half before, it was announced that the testimony would end at midnight. However, testimony didn't even begin until 4:45, more than an hour later than it was supposed to. In all about 100 people were able to give testimony and when Democratic representative Sylvester Turner asked at midnight how many were left on the list to testify he was told there were 1,000 citizens that would not be heard. Turner went on to say that it was wrong to cut off people who came to testify, which resulted in applause from the overflowing waiting rooms.
It was obvious that by midnight the Democrats on the committee were tired of being ignored. Earlier a woman testified and had time left over when she was finished, so she gave her minutes to representative Jessica Farrar, only to watch as Committee Chairman Byron Cook called the next person immediately. When Turner objected to Cook taking a vote on the bill because he wanted to present amendments, Cook responded that he could present them in debate and ramrodded the vote through, much like what happened on the floor of the senate only a week ago.
After the committee voted eight yeses, three nos, and two absents, the pro-choicers congregated in the rotunda to discuss what to do next and spar with the pro-lifers who dotted the levels that ringed the edge of rotunda. Chants of “Is masturbation murder?” were quieted as organizers got protesters to read the updated information of when the bill would go to the floor in unison. It was decided that they would march out of the Capitol annex together in solidarity. This would be the second time they would march in two days—a march on the night of July 1 shut down traffic on Congress Avenue and Lavaca Street and was a considered a peaceable protest by the Austin Police Department, who provided escort for the protesters. Today it is being acknowledged by many who oppose the bill that it will likely pass once the state legislature reconvenes on July 9 after the national holiday.
Many organizers are urging those involved with the pro-choice movement to get deputized to register voters, to donate to nonprofit organizations such as Planned Parenthood of Texas and the Lilith Fund, and to continue calling their representatives to tell them how they will vote in November 2014. It is likely that if this bill passes it will be challenged in court (Roe v. Wade specifies that women are entitled to abortion services up until 24 weeks after fertilization, and this bill seek to ban services after 20 weeks), but whatever happens, I have seen an awakening of a movement in Austin. In the words of Katie Heim, who gave testimony last night, “Hell hath no fury like a Texas woman scorned. Now, God bless ya’ll’s hearts.”
Nikki Birdwell is a student activist and abortion rights supporter in Austin, Texas. For more information on the Lilith Fund, go to lilithfund.org.
Previously from Texas: Scenes from the Pro-Choice Chaos at the Texas Capitol