What happens next in Texas?
I’ve asked and tried to answer this question countless times over the past month, but never more than in the last week, after the Texas legislature gave its final approval to HB 2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill that will drastically reduce access to abortion in the state. Folks pose the question in the hallways of the capitol, in elevators to the top of the rotunda, over coffee at any number of Austin’s local cafes. And, of course, at the bar. Specifically, a 40-year-old dive called Posse East, just north of the University of Texas campus.
“If we’re going to talk about this,” my friend Carrie said, “I’m getting another pitcher.”
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Because what happens next in Texas is a multi-pitcher question.
How can anyone capture the excitement of the 10,000 or more Texans who realized the power of their presence at the capitol these last few weeks? These Texans didn’t skip their summer vacations, lie to their bosses to get out of hourly wage shifts, and tote around laptop-driven mobile offices because they were casually interested in seeing a little special legislative session wonkery in action. They came because they were ready to make a stand—even if that meant sitting for 12 or more hours in gallery seats as conservative legislators quoted Bible verses and dismissed the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as a body of abortion conspiracist quacks.
But those 10,000 are just the people who were able to physically show up. What about the 180,000 who watched Wendy Davis filibuster live online? What about the thousands and thousands of Twitterers, checking in surreptitiously from cubicles and break rooms?
How can anyone not only capture but maintain that enthusiasm?
If it’s a question of holding attention, we sadly have very little to worry about, because the real impact of HB 2, if it is not immediately tied up in litigation, will be felt as soon as portions of the bill go into effect this September. We can expect reports of increased births among Texans who cannot access contraception and safe, legal abortion care. A system that already struggles to provide a safety net for the poorest Texans will become further overburdened, especially as lawmakers have refused to take the federal Medicaid expansion. And, terrifyingly, we can also expect reports of dead and gravely injured Texans forced to resort to flea market abortions and back-alley providers in rural areas along the border, in West Texas, and in deep East Texas.
While organizers and party leaders with Battleground Texas work to mobilize get-out-the-vote actions and strategize a potential Wendy Davis gubernatorial run over coffee and breakfast tacos, I believe there will be much happening on the ground among ordinary Texans who are now as familiar with the phrase “parliamentary inquiry” as they are “Shiner and a shot, please.”
Case in point: Last Friday, when state troopers were busily confiscating tampons from Texans waiting in line to enter the senate gallery, my friend Jenny got a Twitter message from state Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson’s people about the feminine hygiene product panic: “We’re working on it.” Watson was ultimately able to stop the ridiculousness, but only thanks to constituents like Jenny, who have gone from occasional letter-writers and voters to people who know legislative staffers by first name.
Jenny is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas; she lives in a world of intellectual theories and dissertation chapters. She is not a radical political activist—at least, not yet. Republican missteps and blatant disregard for the democratic process have mobilized people like her, people who have been otherwise resigned to quiet rage in the privacy of their own homes for years.
From Republican state Rep. Byron Cook’s atrocious mishandling of the original “people’s filibuster” on June 20, when he silenced 700 people ready to testify against new abortion legislation to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s shameless time stamp antics on the night of Wendy Davis’ epic stand in the senate, the first special session this summer was an exercise in public embarrassment for conservative lawmakers accustomed to practicing shady politics without scrutiny. When the second special session began, the Republican Party had given Democrats and progressives a remarkable gift: thousands upon thousands of freshly enraged Texans, who’d watched these reprehensible tactics in action. While every HB 2 protestor knew that the bill’s ultimate passage was a done deal, they had already realized the sheer power of public witness.
It’s one thing for Republican lawmakers to crow about personal responsibility, but when legislators decimate family planning funding, shut down good, quality health centers, and refuse to toss even the smallest scraps to children’s Medicaid or food stamps, they deny Texans the opportunity to demonstrate how resourceful and responsible they can be in the first place. And this year, Republican legislators have done all of this in full view of hundreds of thousands of Texans paying very close attention.
“Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps!” says Texas to its poorest citizens, even as it snatches those boots away, outlaws escalators, jams elevator doors shut, over-regulates ladders and pulleys, and restricts the sale of bootstraps to the state’s largest cities.
Despite all of this, in the face of certain defeat, thousands of Texans were not cowed into silence. That, I think, is the most important place to begin when we talk about what’s next for the state, not only in terms of undoing the damage done by HB 2 and its ilk but in terms of moving the state from red to blue. Can it be done in four years? In eight years? There is much hand-wringing over the worry that if Texas doesn’t see a sweeping Democratic victory in the next couple of elections, progressive Texans will quietly retreat in resignation, fed up and out of energy. Because Tea Partying conservatives haven’t just pissed off liberals; they’ve alienated their own more reasonable constituents.
The alternative, and one that many Texans would very likely be agreeable to, is turning not blue but purple, and ousting some of the hyper-right-wing conservative legislators who either took office during the Tea Party frenzy, or sitting legislators who took that opportunity to jump on the bandwagon. There are moderate Republicans here who trust their doctors and medical associations, who believe that the practice of religion belongs in the church and in the home, but their voices have been drowned out by the likes of Dan Patrick, Glenn Hegar, Donna Campbell, and Jodie “Rape Kits Clean a Woman Out” Laubenberg.
I don’t believe the kind of political enfranchisement we saw in Texas this summer is a one-time deal. I think it’s a starter package. Reasonable Texans know we have a long way to go. We’ve known that for a long, long time. What we have now is a road map and a rucksack of supplies. We have grassroots movements like the Feminist Justice League, organizing in both English and Spanish with actions for Texans to take from their own homes, and calls to public meetings across the state. We have seen a surge in donations to the Lilith Fund, which helps low-income Texans pay for abortion, and to Jane’s Due Process, which helps minors seeking abortions navigate the legal system.
We have Twitter, Facebook, Ustream, open records, independent media outlets, and an ability to see a larger landscape beyond our own gerrymandered home districts—although certainly we see those home districts more clearly than ever, now, and have a better understanding of just how dirty Republicans will play to keep them intact.
Reasonable Texans have not been handed a fry-up of big-mouth bass and hushpuppies. We’ve been taught how to fish. So grab a pitcher to go with that catch. We’ve got a lot to talk about.