A veteran women’s rights activist describes her time in the chaotic Texas Capitol rotunda in the hours before the Senate vote.
It is 11:28 a.m. and hot as hell outside when I finally pass through one of four security checkpoints at the Texas Capitol on Friday, July 12, the day of the big showdown on the Senate floor. Thousands of people have already entered the Capitol before me. Dressed in pro-choice orange or pro-birth blue, many of them stood outside before dawn just for the chance to get into another line inside that travels upward on beautifully wrought staircases to the Senate gallery on the third floor. History will be made today. But debate on the most horrific anti-abortion bills ever to see the harsh heat of the Texas sun won’t begin for another two-and-a-half hours.
As I walk through the entrance hall and into the cavernous rotunda, I notice that the chained-off area where thousands of noisy protesters have gathered for the past few weeks is empty, except for a group of four or five heavily tattooed pro-choicers who are gathered on the floor in the rotunda’s center – prime real estate for activists. They are huddled around a pile of fat markers and a fresh stash of orange and white posterboard. I walk beyond the white plastic chains that differentiate between the outer walkway that must be kept clear for people moving between the four wings of the Capitol and the large inner region where the public is allowed to loiter.
I approach the group and see that most of them are hastily transforming the posterboard supply into two-sided protest signs. The messages are familiar: “My body, my choice” and “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries.” A man in the group is putting the final touches on a sign that reads, “Perry is a dick.”
“Morning, y’all,” I say to the group. “So what are we doing here today?”
One woman glances up and smiles. She is neatly stacking reproductive rights and sex education pamphlets, and then carefully placing them into a bright green box set on its side.
“I’m setting up the library,” she says.
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On May 24, 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law House Bill 15, known as the abortion sonogram bill. The law was yet another in a relentless attack against women’s reproductive freedom that Perry and the GOP majority in the Texas legislature have waged over the past 11 years. Among other things, the law requires that before undergoing an abortion procedure, women must undergo a medically unnecessary sonogram at least 24 hours in advance. They must also listen to a description of the embryo or fetus.
External sonograms are often unable to image a pregnancy in its earliest stages – the timeframe in which the vast majority of abortions are performed. In these cases, to comply with the law, many women must instead undergo a transvaginal ultrasound. This invasive procedure requires women to lie down on a table with knees bent, feet held in stirrups. A long, stiff probe covered with a condom and gel is then shoved into the women’s vagina and pressed against her cervix to obtain the image mandated by the State of Texas. Opponents of say the procedure is akin to state-mandated rape.
After Perry signed the bill into law, its Senate sponsor proudly announced at a press conference that the new law was “the beginning of the end for abortions.”
I wept uncontrollably at my kitchen table as I watched the reports about the new law on television. As a women’s rights activist in the 1970s and 1980s, I marched and lobbied and stood with thousands of women and their allies to protect reproductive freedoms. But in Texas in 2011, there were no sizeable protests, no marching in streets, no massive rallies at the Capitol, no visible outrage over the loss of what is a basic, fundamental human right: control over our own bodies.
Where were our daughters? Where are the young feminists, I wondered aloud that day. Do they not realize what is at stake? Why are they not in the streets fighting for their rights?
Two years later, in 2013, Perry called an emergency special session to reintroduce anti-abortion bills that had failed to make it out of committee in the regular session. Women finally awoke. And, all hell broke loose.
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Adjacent to the rotunda in the west wing of the Capitol, a mass of people in orange and blue stand waiting in a line that snaked back and forth before winding through a short hall and then up the dimly-lit stairs to the gallery on the third floor. Amongst the sea of orange, one pro-choicer (I’m assuming it was a woman, but there’s no way to be sure) instantly caught my eye. She was dressed in a heavy black burqa that covered her entire body from head to toe. A narrow, bright orange scarf had been placed around her head like a sweatband. When I mention the burqa-clad activist to pro-choicers dressed in orange t-shirts, I’m told others similarly dressed have been seen waiting in the line to the Senate gallery, including a woman who placed an orange baseball cap atop a black hijab that covered all but her face.
Interspersed amongst the pro-choicers – or “orange shirts” – stand small groups of people dressed in varying shades of blue – the “blue shirts.” Lest their position in favor of the legislative bill go unnoticed, many blue shirts wore a piece of bright red tape upon which the word, “life,” was emblazoned in bold capital letters in a type font that resembled handwritten scrawl. As I walk past, I hear some of them praying earnestly for passage of the bill, as if divine intervention of any sort will alter the outcome. The bill’s passage has been a sure bet from the moment Perry called the second special session. Just as sure is that when Perry signs the bill after it passes the Senate, it will be as if he signed yet another death warrant, this time ordering the sacrifice of many Texas women for political gain.
After checking in with friends and determining from organizers that the number of orange shirts in line was more than adequate for a strong showing in the gallery, I decide to make my way back to the rotunda. Given its easy access to the media, a strong presence in the rotunda is both visually impactful and strategically crucial for both sides. But with so many people in line for a seat in the gallery and just two hours before the Senate session is scheduled to begin, I’m concerned that the rotunda floor is still virtually empty.
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At hearings held at the Capitol over the past couple of weeks, pro-birthers, who had either experienced their own awakening after seeing pro-choicers act or were bused in from other states, moved in to the Capitol and brazenly claimed public areas as their own, holding prayers, sing-a-longs, video interviews, and anti-abortion testimonial sessions that resembled open mic night at an old time tent revival. To take over public spaces, they used passive aggressive behaviors that relied on the general good nature of most people to move or give way when pressed to do so.
In the days immediately preceding the Senate debate, a House committee’s public hearing was held at the Capitol. Blue-shirted anti-abortion activists set up shop in an open air rotunda on the lowest level of the building, not far from the meeting room. Pro-choicers who had been duped into ceding the space then marched around the anti’s for hours, loudly chanting and generally raising a ruckus. One of the pro-choice protesters hollered one time the infamous words that would be caught on video and reported in the media the next day: “Hail Satan.”
The two groups have starkly different missions in the battle for visibility.
Pro-choicers protest the government’s actions that interfere with personal decisions and the underhanded manner in which Texas has handled the entire process of legislating the stripping away of women’s reproductive rights. Our stamina, growing numbers, and high visibility serve to energize pro-choice legislators and heighten awareness of the public while serving notice to GOP politicians that we represent the majority view of Texans across the state.
The right-to-lifers are here because they were summoned by Perry and Lt. Governor Dewhurst at the recent National Right to Life convention, after Senator Wendy Davis and the people present in the gallery filibustered Senate Bill 5 out of existence in the first special session. They’ve prayed with Dewhurst at the Capitol, lobbied legislators, and hosted rallies headlined by some of the nation’s most extremist Conservatives who were brought from outside Texas in an attempt to draw a big crowd. Their presence transformed protests at the Capitol into something that resembles a turf battle between the neighborhood group and a gang of outside agitators.
The political aims of Perry and Dewhurst as well as the rest of the Texas GOP contingent depend upon a good showing in Austin by “pro-life” forces. Their quest is to show the world through the media that proponents of their anti-abortion bill are at least equal in number to the “unruly mob” that they say broke decorum and derailed the Senate vote. When questioned about their own rule-breaking, they’ve told folks that rules don’t matter when something so important is at stake. But the biggest blunder they’ve made is in ignoring the fact the “unruly mob” consists of thousands of Texas citizens and our numbers have continued to grow.
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I enter the public area in the center of the rotunda. Random voices from upper floors and adjacent hallways echo in the large space. The woman who was setting up the library on my previous visit reports that her work is nearly complete. I ask if she might move the library to very center of the space, to claim the space.
“Oh, no. I don’t want to interfere with the tourists,” she says.
A few other “orange shirts” are milling around me, not knowing exactly where to go or what to do. I decide to stand in the middle of the big Texas star in the very center of the Rotunda. A few other orange shirts move in closer. Just then, a white-shirted tour guide leads a contingent of tourists directly to my location.
As the guide tells a story about the portraits in the gallery, a blue-shirted woman with a “life” sticker on her chest and a video camera in her hands appears in front of me and leans in close, invading my personal space, bumping me with her elbow. She then lifts her camera upward, the strap dangling near my left knee, as she bends her body around the front of mine.
I do not yield.
Finally, she moves on and leaves with the tour group. I watch as she joins a couple other blue shirts on the outer edge of the public area and huddles with them. Several orange shirts who witnessed the action by the videographer quickly move in to take up places near me. “What the hell was that?” they ask me.
More orange shirts arrive. We begin to chant, “We Won’t Go Back, We Won’t Go Back”
As if on cue, blue shirts begin entering the rotunda, a few at a time, taking up positions near the white plastic chain. Anti-abortion posters are brought in. A woman begins shouting at us, “Don’t kill the babies.” I hear prayers being said behind me. A blue-shirted man with a guitar begins playing above us on the second floor, and the blue shirts there break out in song, singing “Amazing Grace.”
Our numbers grow and the pro-choice chants become louder and more insistent: “Not the Church. Not the State. We Alone Decide Our Fate.” As more and more people enter the Rotunda, the noise quickly becomes deafening and the physical battle for the space begins. We pro-choicers find ourselves surrounded by forced birthers.
The woman who set up the reproductive rights and sex education library hastily shoves the green box and other supplies toward the center of the pro-choice group that’s now holding hands and standing its ground around the Texas star on the floor. My eardrums are buckling from two women behind me who are shouting Rosary prayers in my ears. One is waving a large wooden crucifix very close to my head. Rosary beads smack against my back as I chant louder and louder.
Suddenly, I notice that a small child, a girl I’m guessing to be about four or five years old, is standing directly in front of me playing a game on smartphone. I see a slender, female hand on the child’s shoulder, and I quickly determine that the hand belongs to the little girl’s pro-choice mother and an older sister who are standing to my left, slightly behind me. The mom and sister are chanting loudly, but the young child is getting lost in the increasingly aggressive crowd that is pressing up against us.
I alert the orange shirts on either side of me. In unison, we slowly and deliberately move one giant step backward, forcing the hoard behind us to back off and enabling us to create more space for the child. Her mom places her in newly opened area, on the floor next to the green box. We quickly create a barricade around her with our backpacks and stand closer together, to protect the little girl with our bodies.
Across the way from me, I watch as a couple blue-shirted women break through the circle of pro-choice protesters. One of them assumes the pose of a hostage: her arms crossed at the wrists, mouth covered by “life” tape, eyes closed, face turned upward, catching the light from the dome of the Rotunda.
I continue to chant and hold the line with my body – my legs are stretched out and firmly grounded, my knees locked in place to keep steady as I continue to be pressed from behind. While I chant and watch the chaotic scene in front me, I’m wondering how long the pro-birther woman might sustain her precarious position.
A blue-shirted man approaches me from the right, cutting through the fray by parting the crowd with his professional camera. “Careful. A child,” I holler loudly, while pointing toward the little girl. I notice the man wears no press credentials. He glances down at the girl, grimaces, and then points the camera’s lens at me. He’s so close that I’m sure he’s photographing the pores of my face. When I move my head back slightly, he fires off the flash unit atop the camera repeatedly. I try not to react to this assault, but I am momentarily blinded and am forced to close my eyes.
* * * * * * *
In the late 1970s, I regularly participated in actions to commemorate the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade and to protest state and federal funding cuts for abortion services for the poor. Counter-protests were common at these events, especially as extremist factions of the right-to-life movement began to develop and grow. At one of the marches I attended, counter-protesters positioned themselves at various points along the route, standing on sidewalks or near the street curbs. As we walked past, they hollered at us and taunted us, calling us baby killers and murderers. We ignored them and kept walking, chanting.
At one point during the march, however, counter-protesters began throwing glass bottles at us. Glass shattered all around us but we never stopped moving forward, never stopped chanting. When another group of bottles was hurled at us, we saw that they had contained liquid. At least one of the pro-choice protesters in my line was splashed with the liquid. As the scent of gasoline began to waft through the air, we moved her to the center of the line, and as we took this protective measure, I heard someone from the street holler, “We’re going to light you up.”
The most important rule for all activists is to never engage or acknowledge counter-protesters. It is also the most difficult rule for activists to follow.
* * * * * *
Suddenly, arms are thrust from behind me, past my arms and shoulders, bumping me and brushing up against my body, reaching out to a woman holding a sign and praying in the center of the frenzied action, standing next to the pro-birther woman posing as a hostage. Other pro-choicers are doing their best to hold the line, too, even as pictures of dead babies and signs with damning scripture are shoved before their faces.
People behind me are shouting prayers at the woman with the sign, trying to touch her, pressing against me, shouting in my ears, trying to break through our lines. The pro-choicers raise the chanting volume. “My Body. My Choice,” we scream. But I’m starting to feel a little anxious and claustrophobic.
I glance down and see that the little girl on the floor is fiddling with library materials that have fallen out of the green box. The lady with the big wooden crucifix is back and she’s waving it too close to my face for my comfort. I take a deep breath and spot a group of DPS troopers nearby.
Dodging the crucifix to avoid contact, I shift my body slightly away from the outstretched arms on either side of me and reach for my pants pocket, and then slowly slide my smartphone out. I quickly shoot the scene in front of me and attach the image to an SOS message I post on Twitter and Facebook: “We could use some help here in the Capitol rotunda!”
My friend and fellow pro-choice activist Susan Norris Haney responds immediately. “Coming down!” she replies. By the time I tuck my phone back into my pocket, orange shirts are flooding into the rotunda. I glance to my right and see that Susan has suddenly appeared beside me and is chanting loudly. Seeing my surprised reaction, she laughs. Then, straining to be heard over the wall of sound that surrounds us, she shouts, “Hey, you said you needed help.”
Later, my voice and my body begin to give out. I quickly glance around me and on the far edge of the crowd, I see a young black woman wearing a Stand With Texas Women t-shirt. I motion to her and urge her forward. She walks tentatively toward me, and as she gets closer, I shout to her, asking her to take my place. She nods in agreement.
Without yielding the space I’ve held for nearly five hours, I then reach out to her and take her hand, guiding her past right-to-lifers and pro-choicers alike. When she is beside me, I explain that I’m tired and must take a break. I ask her to hold the line. Then, as if we’re conducting a prisoner exchange, I give up my space to her and step back.
Slowly, I make my way out of what is now a very crowded, very rowdy protest dominated by pro-choicers. When I reach the area beyond the white plastic chain, I turn back to regard the frantic scene I’ve just left. My throat tightens and my eyes well with tears as I realize Texas feminists of all ages have finally awakened from their slumber.
Main photo: Forced birthers encircle pro-choice activists in an effort to invade and disrupt the pro-choice demonstration at the Texas Capitol rotunda, July 12, 2013 1:58 p.m., two hours after it began. Ultimately, pro-choice activists prevailed as the invaders were repelled. The rotunda protest began at noon on July 12, 2013 and continued into the early hours of July 13, 2013, after the final Senate vote on HB2 was taken. Image: Copyright 2013, Gary Oldham.
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Pamela Oldham is an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in regional and national media outlets, including The Washington Post, MSN.com, Miller-McCune (now Pacific Standard), and many others. Follow her posts on politics and breaking news on Twitter @pamelaoldham.
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