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The last night in Texas: Unanswered questions

The last night in Texas: Unanswered questions

Texas Protest

It was Friday, July 12, 2013, the day the Texas State Senate was to debate, and was expected to pass, the worst anti-abortion bill in modern history. We had fought hard through two special sessions called by the King of Fools, Governor Rick Perry. We poured out in record numbers, wearing orange, over and over again, for every hearing, every debate. Women of every age, every race, every economic bracket understood that this issue was essential to women’s freedom and ability to stay out of poverty. Women who had fought the battle 40 years ago came to fight again. Multiple generations came. Men came, in huge numbers. Whole families came. We came to the point that anti-abortionists, now referred to as forced-birthers, bused in people from across the country to try and match our numbers. But they never did.

They never did because they were still the minority in America. Driven by religious fervor, black-and-white thinking, and an industry that depended on brain-washing them to survive – the anti-abortion industry. Many people’s jobs at forced-birther non-profits, 267 across America[1], depended on the success of this bill. It’s ironic, because if abortion was ever again outlawed in America, they would all be out of jobs.

We beat it in the first session by running out the clock, but there was no such chance in this session. Tonight was our last stand. I am the founder of Faith Action for Women in Need, called FAWN for short, a loose group of activists that takes nonviolent action wherever women are in need. We are over 600 people strong, of all faiths and no faith, contributing faith action, education and agitation in situations where governments, religions and other authorities have failed women. This is my story on that final Friday night.

FAWN is not formally organized and accepts no money, so I must work a day job. Although people started lining up at the State Capitol in Austin before 5:00 a.m., and the Senate session would begin at 2:00 p.m., I wouldn’t be able to make it until I got off of work at 5:00 p.m. I did my best to watch the session online, and follow Facebook and Twitter without my boss catching me.

Of course the thing that got everyone’s attention and went viral was the search of only pro-choicers and confiscation of feminine hygiene products, namely tampons and maxi-pads. Quickly dubbed #tampongate on Twitter, it was reported widely by the media, humiliating the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), which was in charge of security, and the Republican majority, led by Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, who was undoubtedly giving the DPS their instructions.

So pro-choice women, not forced-birther women, on their periods were left inside without sanitation from 6:00 a.m. until approximately 4:30 p.m., when Democratic Senator Kirk Watson of Austin saw to it that the ban was lifted. Even then, menstruating pro-choice women in the Senate Gallery since 6:00 a.m. saw no relief, as no one was allowed to come in and offer them fresh sanitary products.

To add insult to injury, once humiliated, the DPS sent out a press release stating that items including one jar “of what appeared to be” urine and 17 jars “of what appeared to be” feces had been confiscated. This was later exposed to be untrue. The interesting thing about all of this was I had been at the planning meeting the previous night, and no one mentioned doing anything with sanitary products or human waste. These were lies promulgated by the forced-birthers in an attempt to discredit us. One of the ironies of the religious forced-birther movement is that they have no qualms in telling lie after lie. That is a strategy that pro-choicers never use. We are, by philosophy and personal integrity, honest and nonviolent in all our actions.

One of the most important things to activist success is realizing a moment of opportunity to capitalize on the blunders of the other side and taking action. I posted an action alert for women going to the Capitol after work to stop at the store and buy boxes of tampons, fill a bag with them and bring them to the Capitol. I don’t know if anyone else did, but that’s exactly what I did, dubbing myself #tamponninja and  buying $45 worth of tampons and filling a recyclable bag to overflowing with them.

I arrived at the Capitol after 6:00 p.m. and on the way in befriended a group of young people in orange and asked if they could take pictures of the action. They agreed, and before we entered, took a picture of me and the bag. Once inside, they decided to videotape it, only to find that it wasn’t allowed at the security checkpoint. I made it through the checkpoint without incident, the entire time jabbering to the security guards and DPS troopers of how I heard that women were in need, so I brought supplies, because we all know how much women bleed and we don’t want our historical surfaces bled upon. I also asked if I could see suspected jars of feces, to which I was answered with a strong, “No!”

Once inside I ran into our favorite live streamer, Christopher DiDonato, known as Chris Dido on UStream. He was being bawled out by a trooper for streaming the security area. I waited with him to make sure he wasn’t arrested. Witnessing the actions by authorities against fellow activists is another important tool. We are comrades and must protect one another. When they let him go, we walked together to the end of the line. I told him about my action, which he wanted to livestream. I asked the same group of young people if they would save my place in line and watch my bag of personal effects, and off I went with my bag of tampons, following the line to get into the Senate gallery.

I called out, “Tampons, free tampons, get your free tampons here!”  I discriminated against no one, also offering them to the forced-birther ladies in blue. They looked disgruntled and said no or nothing at all. The pro-choicers in orange laughed and sometimes took a few. I followed the line into the rotunda, the heart of the Capitol, where they had orange and blue protesters confined tightly within a roped space, free to do their chanting. I offered them to the protesters, who quickly threw them on a banner and began tossing them into the air with glee.

I kept going, followed by the faithful Dido. We followed the line up the stairs and around the rotunda again. As we entered the foyer of the Senate gallery, I could see about 14 troopers lined up ahead of the line, ostensibly to keep the peace. I was continuing to offer tampons, and thinking that since I couldn’t get into the gallery, I might go to the auditorium and overflow rooms and offer them there. I really did want for women who needed them to have them.

It was about then that a tall man, about 6’2” to  6’4” in a blue shirt, gimme cap and dark hair and short beard, yelled something at me, and reached over underneath my bag and struck it, causing it to come up and hit me in the nose. I dropped it, took a good look at him and turned towards the troopers and said, “I’ve been assaulted. I want to file a report.” For some reason, Dido had turned off his stream, but he turned it back on again to catch the aftermath.

A trooper brushed past me quickly, followed by two others, and demanded that the man pick up the tampons, which were all over the floor. I turned back to the remaining officers and said, “I’ve been assaulted, now who’s going to take my report?”

The troopers were saying they didn’t see anything. A young intern from NARAL that I knew named Emily came up to me and said she saw the whole thing. I found out from her later that she asked the troopers to remove the man from the line because she feared for her safety. She said that one trooper proceeded to question her and intimidate her to the point of causing her to cry. They did get that officer’s name and photo, so he could be reported later.

What seemed like a crowd of reporters gathered around me.  It was actually two reporters and a photographer. I answered the questions of one reporter, then the photographer shook my hand and thanked me, then I talked to the other reporter, who said he was from the local Austin paper.

I told one reporter that we had already won this battle. “How so?” he asked. I told him we would win in the courts, that we had already won in the court of public opinion, and that we would win at the election polls. I pointed out to the other that the forced-birthers had again revealed themselves to be the people of lies and violence. I told him that every pro-choice protester was non-violent and honest.

Once the reporters wandered off, I again insisted to the officers to take my report. One white male officer came over and starting insinuating that I caused it. After a couple of exchanges with him, I drew my shoulders back, stood up tall, looked him in the eye and said, “Now officer, I know my rights, and you know my rights. Let’s get this report started.” He walked away.

I approached the group again and asked for my report to be taken. One latino officer stepped forward and said he would right after he finished with this other person, then walked away. I repeated my demand a couple of more times, to no avail. So I decided to go look for the security office, which I knew was on the first floor.

I stopped and asked troopers along the way if they could direct me to it. Every one of them wanted to know why, so I told my story over and over again. Some had been brought in from other areas of the state, and didn’t know where it was. Others would tell me to wait where I was and then wander off.  I would wait a couple of minutes and then keep moving. After about 20 minutes, someone finally got someone to take me there.

The security office is in one of the corners of the first floor. These old offices have incredibly high ceilings and lots of windows. It was still light outside, and the hot Texas sun from a 104 degree day was streaming in, making the room uncomfortably warm. I was beginning to get thirsty, wondered to myself if those young people still had my bag, which had my phone in it. Being a good protester, I had placed my keys, ID and a debit card in my pants pockets, but everything else was in the bag.

They left me in the office to be interviewed by a blonde female trooper, who I thought would take my report. I started telling her the story. She asked for a description of the man. After I described the man, who had been holding a child when he hit me and had a couple others and his wife with him, the trooper said the description matched a man she had trouble with twice already that day. She said that at one point, she thought he was going to hit her. Then she got on the phone and started telling someone to look for him. As far as I knew, he was still standing in line or already in the gallery. They never took him out while I was there.

Then several men in suits came in and told me they wanted to go over to the DPS office to take my report. So I went with them down the street to another building. A young one sat down with me in an office and listened to my story, then had me write it out, as is standard. They asked me several times if I wanted to be checked out. I told them that my nose was sore, but didn’t appear to be broken or bloodied, so I didn’t think it was necessary (my nose is still sore two days later). I asked for a bottle of water and they brought one. Then they had me stand out in the hallway and took close-up photos of my face and nose.

Then they told me they had a man they thought was the right one, and they were going to take me back to the Capitol to ID him. They said I wouldn’t have to talk to him or anything. I thought justice was at hand.

We walked back to the Capitol and towards the Senate floor itself, entering one set of doors and turning right into one of those bright offices with the high ceiling. Inside the office was another room that had a beautiful door with a frosted glass window. They asked me to have a seat and wait while they went in.

In a couple of minutes, to my surprise, they came out, told me I didn’t need to go in there, and that they would call me in a “few days.” I never saw the man they were holding, they gave me no case number, and no phone number to follow up with. The young officer did give me his card. I guess, my training to be a nice girl kicked in, and I politely left. On Monday, I will call to get the details.

Suddenly left without completion, I remembered my bag and went to look for it. I followed all down the line I had followed before, looking for the three young people I had entrusted my bag to. They were nowhere to be found. I then ended up spending the remainder of the evening wandering the halls, looking for people I knew and asking them to tweet about my lost bag. No one had any luck. Exhausted from wandering every hallway of the Capitol and its extension full of offices, I ran into my friends Pamela and Gary Oldham sitting on a hallway bench at about 9:00 p.m. We sat and commiserated our experiences of the day. She’s a close friend, and I was glad to have the company.

At about 9:20 we decided to walk to the Auditorium. On the way we saw troopers with batons, marching the stairs, then a loud roaring from the crowd went up, and someone said, “They’re taking the vote.”  At the same time, PP was informing everyone to meet outside the West entrance for the March to begin. We decided to exit, but discovered the building had been locked down. Pamela eventually persuaded them to let us out. Turns out, the vote wasn’t being taken, they were still arguing amendments. But the activists were already taking actions that were planned for the moment the vote was taken.

Once outside, the march was started with no fanfare. Some complained that we were abandoning hundreds, maybe 1,000 people inside. I felt this way too, but we couldn’t get back in. I wanted the march to make a strong showing, so I went along. By the time we got back, everything had already gone down. People were arrested and brutalized by the police, and the vote had been taken. The bill passed, 19-10.

Unanswered questions:  Why did the activists take the actions they took early? Why was there a lockdown and police with batons? And why did PP’s action happen at that precise time?

There were a lot of things that pointed to injustice for the pro-choice crowd. We’re calling on an investigation into the actions of the troopers that night. The next day, the sun rose for another 100-plus-degree day in Texas, and women felt a lot more unsafe. The bill, HB2, now heads to Perry’s desk, and he has promised to sign it. Welcome back to Texas, illegal abortions.

 * * * * *

Cindy Nolan

Cindy is the founder of Faith Action for Women in Need (FAWN), a group of activists who bring tools of activism and faith to the struggle for women’s rights. FAWN’s activists come from all faiths, and include agnostics and atheists as well. Cindy is also a graduate student in Pastoral Counseling at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest. A Roman Catholic, she is active with Catholics for Choice, a group for pro-choice Catholics.

 



[1] Source:  AbortionReason.com, Anti-Abortion Directory. http://www.abortionreason.com/antiabortion-organizations.php.


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