Scenes from the Pro-Choice Chaos at the Texas Capitol
A massive crowd gathered at the Texas Capitol to protest an antiabortion bill and cheer on State Senator Wendy Davis's epic filibuster. We spoke to one of the protesters about the surreal scene and the late-night confusion.
Photos by Karen Little & Abigail Perry
Last night, the Texas state legislature failed to meet, then changed time itself to meet, then ultimately admitted that they actually failed to meet a midnight deadline to pass a far-reaching antiabortion bill because of an ten-plus-hour filibuster by State Senator Wendy Davis. A massive crowd gathered at the Texas Capitol to protest the assault on women's reproductive rights, and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst described the scene as an "unruly mob using Occupy Wall Street tactics." (Apparently occupy is a dirty word now.)
I was glued to a choppy YouTube live feed from the unprotected WiFi that only works in my girlfriend’s kitchen. (Note to Clare: sorry I yelled so much. I realized during this thing that I yell at a filibuster livestream exactly like my dad yells at sports, except I never use the N word.) While feverishly switching between the infuriatingly start-and-stop mess of the web feed and the slightly more dependable real-time text assault of my Twitter feed, I saw that my friend Jake Flores had jumped on his bike to speed over to the Capitol in order to witness the madness firsthand.
Jake is a comic and writer in Austin, Texas, who’s opened for everyone from Doug Stanhope to Tig Notaro, and whose debut album with Stand Up! Records will be available soon. I texted him around 9:30 my time (11:30 his time) and told him to start taking notes. He obliged. Just after 1 AM in Austin, it looked like all was lost and the bill had passed, so I started watching an illegally downloaded video of Magic Mike and ate an entire pizza. An hour later I got a text from Jake: the bill was declared dead, and the women of Texas were free to control their bodies... for at least the rest of the night. (If the governor calls a special session of the legislature and the bill is put on the agenda, it will probably end up passing.) As soon as he got home, he cracked open a beer and gave me a call.
VICE: All right, dude. When did you decide to head over to the Capitol and why?
Jake Flores: Well, I had the day off, so I was hungover and motivating myself to actually work on comedy—that’s when I got word of what was happening. At this point it was about 10:30. It’s embarrassing, because I wish I had been there all day. It would’ve been so depressing tomorrow to wake up and be like, “Oh, last night I just stayed at home and watched a movie”... but c’mon, it’s fucking politics in Texas. There’s such a “Why try?” mentality. A lot of left-wing people don’t even vote. I feel like I don’t do enough because you just kinda grapple with apathy so much in Austin. It was only a 15-minute bike ride away, so I worked up the willpower to actually head out. On the ride, I had this weird idea that I was only going down there because I was procrastinating. Like, Here’s another reason to get out of the house and not write! Just, Me me me, my life! It’s so weird to think about that because now I feel connected to so many people.
What was the scene was like when you rode up to the Capitol building in Austin?
The Capitol building is really bizarre because Austin is this big oasis for lefties, but it's inside this big tower where Texas government happens. This freaky, monolithic building is a monument to all these almost foreign conservative values. Plus, there’s this weird statue on the top of the building of a woman—it's made to be viewed from hundreds of yards away, but her features are so drawn out. Basically, if you’re close enough you realize that there’s this ludicrous fucking goblin on the top, like some weird 80s fantasy-movie character. I got inside, and it was packed full of people. It’s interesting though, because it’s a protest but it’s not like a full-on “Occupy it!” thing. Occupy is a thing, so there were some anarcho guys, but most of the crowd were actual fucking people who were interested in local government.
What did the crowd look like?
People were told to wear orange to “kill the bill,” but it’s so weird because orange is the color of the University of Texas, so orange is the color of fratty rapist douchebags. I don’t wear any orange for that reason! That’s where the line started getting blurry... orange is our thing now, I guess? Plus, I heard that earlier in the day there were a ton of pro-life people there and they were wearing blue! Blue is the color of Democrats, and the people supporting the filibuster were mostly Democrats, so I heard stories where a lot of people just happened to be wearing blue and people would be screaming at them. They’d be like, “I didn’t know, I didn’t know! I’m just wearing a blue shirt.” There was this crazy mob mentality.
What it was like inside the Capitol?
So I get into the capitol and I start texting with my sister and friends who are already in there. Most people are in the dome, and there are multiple tiers so you can go look over the ledge—but attached to the side of this huge dome is the actual chamber where the shit is going down, and by the time I got there you couldn’t get in. Everyone was freaking out because they locked the doors to the chamber. People in the chamber couldn’t get out and crazy rumors started going around that all the doors in the Capitol would be locked in case of riots. At this point, I bumped into this dude in a “Fuck Rick Perry” shirt. The guy was like, “Check out the shirt, I bought it from this guy!” And he points to a dude hanging off the second-floor balcony.
What was happening inside the Senate chamber?
At this point, Davis was off the clock, so everyone was in the main room outside the chamber. Nobody knew what was happening, we’re all just checking Facebook and Twitter. Suddenly, a guy came running out of the chamber and got on the second floor and started screaming — everyone erupted and cheers and claps. For a minute, I thought it was over. The genius selling “Fuck Rick Perry” shirts takes off his shirt and starts waving it around, still hanging off the balcony. The cheering went on for ten minutes. I was like, “Hey, did it end? What happened?” The only answer I could get was, “I dunno.” It was so fucking loud, I felt like I was at a Slayer concert. My ears were shaking, everyone was losing their mind, and half didn’t know why.
What was the crowd celebrating?
Well, that’s when we realized people were going nuts because it was midnight. I tried to get as close as I could to the Senate gallery door, I got up close, and there’s some guy with a drum there, and that’s a kinda iconic thing about Occupy movement, you know? Like, ugh, fuckin' drum circles—they’re the airline-food jokes of protesting. So there’s these drum guys and crusty guys mixed with normal people when a serious-looking guy in orange came in through the crowd. He managed to get everyone’s attention and said, “Hey everyone, be quiet! The Democratic senators are gonna come in and talk to us.” This caught us off guard. Then one of the crusty dudes yells, “We won’t be silenced!” The poor dude with the information pleaded with him: “No, they’re gonna speak!” The crusty dudes wouldn’t have it, they started yelling, “Why should we be quiet?” and the info guy just gets fed up, throws his arms in the air, and yells, “They're the fucking good guys!” Again, in the chaos it was hard to tell who was on whose side.
When did the senators address the masses?
Just after midnight. The senators told us that the Republicans passed the bill at 12:03. Everyone is on their phones seeing the reports that the legislature switched the times, and we’re all feeling like it’s 2000 again and Bush is about to steal a win. It doesn’t help that he’s right above us, smirking over everything like one of those creepy ghost paintings where the eyes are always following you. People started leaving. They had to work, and they were just beaten down by the news.
What did the senators say?
They kept going on about the massive noise and energy we brought that helped the filibuster. They kept saying shit like, “It came down to the wire.” They were sincerely trying to thank us, but it still felt like everything’s going to shit. So, [Judith] Zaffirini came out and gave a really heartfelt, but still totally political, speech—like there were applause breaks every few minutes. As a comic, you can tell when it doesn’t matter if you say anything funny as long as you keep it in the rhythm, y’know? It was exactly like that. She just had to say something the way we wanted to hear it. It was all going fine until one senator said, “God bless you all.” It halted everything. Everyone just looked at each other, all thinking. "God bless you" is the reason this bill is happening in the first place... it’s fuckin’ religion and politics. So, more people left. That’s when we started dealing with cops. I ran into my sister. She was mad because a cop was manhandling her. You gotta understand, state troopers in Texas wear ten-gallon hats so they look like complete fucking assholes. Everywhere else, cops look like cops. I hate them.
When did the news break that the bill actually didn’t pass?
Someone came out, I think it was Zaffirini. She started telling us to hold our applause. She said, “I’m about to read a text message from Wendy! ‘The bill has been killed!’” Everyone erupted in cheering. Then, right away, she leads everyone in a singalong of "The Eyes of Texas." It’s the University of Texas alma mater song. So confusing. I hate football, I like what’s happening, and now I find myself singing for some reason! Can I tell you a personal anecdote?
Go for it.
So, I was thinking a lot tonight about these ambiguous lines, and about what’s really bizarre about being a Texan. A lot of people who are really cool, who are y’know, just Austin people, are really into Texas. It’s hard to explain because it’s all about the individual, but there’s also this huge pride in the community, in the state. It’s a value not only championed by redneck idiots, but it’s really hard to be into all of that when the state as a whole is so backward. People constantly wanna pidgeonhole you for being a “Texas person,” so my friends and I are constantly defending ourselves—like, "No, it’s not just about the bullshit!” When my friend Blake first moved here, I was trying to describe this to him, and I couldn’t find the words. Finally, I told him the only way to understand Texas is to watch someone stand at a bar and yell “The stars at night / Are big and bright” then see the whole crowd respond with CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP, “Deep in the heart of Texas!” like in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. It happens every time. So I stood up on a bench and yelled out the first part, and... absolutely nothing happened. It just fell completely fucking flat.
So, wait... you’re saying that even though it doesn’t work every time, people in Texas believe that, because they’re in Texas, it’ll work every time? Even though they’re not special, they believe so passionately that they’re special that they’ll fight even harder?
No way! I’m still convinced it works every time! That was just one weird time. Look, back to tonight: I’m leaving the Capitol, and on the way out I see a ton of my friends. It’s incredibly heartwarming, especially in Austin, to see everyone give a shit. I was trying not to get too wrapped up in it, but I couldn’t help myself—on a whim, right there on the steps of the Capitol, I shouted, “The stars at night / Are big and bright!”
I’d say I got a little over half the crowd. I’d put it at 51 percent, which is a perfectly Democratic figure. I won, sort of.
(NOTE: Jake and I would like to point out that we, as men, have no idea what it’s like to have control over our very biology threatened by strangers. We stand with the women of Texas and all across the world.)
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