It’s Democracy, English!

The line to get into the Senate gallery wrapped three times around the Capitol rotunda.

The line to get into the Senate gallery wrapped three times around the Capitol rotunda.

This is a follow-up to my previous post, “I’m Naive, Not Stupid. There’s a Difference.”

I am still reeling a little from the number of readers who contacted me about that piece, which I wrote the morning after sitting through the Texas House of Representatives hearing on the now-infamous Senate Bill 5. My blog typically generates about 8 page-views a day. That single post has generated about 70,000 page-views since Monday. (By the way, if you haven’t already, please read Dan Solomon’s 3-part series in the Austin Chronicle for the most substantive and informed coverage of the week.)

Now, having watched the history-making Senate filibuster alongside 2,000 protestors inside the Capitol and at least 170,000 around the globe, I feel almost embarrassed about how naive that post, in fact, was.

My shock and anger over GOP representatives’ churlish behavior on the House floor prompted me to write that post. I truly could not believe my eyes. Some have pointed out, rightly, that this is standard for the legislative sausage-making process, the endless train of amendments only part of the grand political theater that would culminate Tuesday night in thousands of demonstrators shaking their fists and screaming “Let her speak!” as Sen. Wendy Davis stood calmly in her back brace and pink sneaks for the thirteenth hour in a row. As such, Republican House members could not be expected to listen or care about the “chubbing,” as it is called when proceedings are artificially prolonged in the House.

Was it just “chubbing”? Although House Democrats were undeniably running down the clock, I still say no. Every single amendment introduced a reasonable exception to an unreasonable bill, and was backed up by evidence of the catastrophic “unintended consequences” of the unamended bill. The only disingenuous aspect of their testimony was the word “unintended,” which everyone knew was a lie.

* * * * *

Regardless, I am here to tell you that if the Texas State House of Representatives is a frat-house, the Texas State Senate is a shark pit. Having watched it from the gallery for eight hours and the auditorium for seven, I can tell you, new depths of my naivete have been plumbed. Every time a point of order was called over some new imaginary violation of the filibuster rules, I was flabbergasted anew. The back brace! The ruling that Roe v. Wade was not “germane” to a bill about abortion! The ruling that discussing the state’s already-rigid restrictions on abortion was not “germane” to a bill introducing further such restrictions!

(And I would like to point out, in case anyone watching missed it, that Sen. Kirk Watson was reprimanded on the “germane” issue for discussing a woman’s right to choose just moments after pro-life Democrat Sen. Eddie Lucio had given the Senate an earful of his own personal beliefs on the matter. In fact, the only legitimately germane questions I heard all night from a Republican came from Sen. Bob Deuell. Note that I didn’t say “evidence-based.” I said “germane.”)

Every time the mics went dead as Lt. Gov. Dewhurst consulted with the parliamentarian and other senators, I thought, “There is no way that objection is going to be sustained. There is just no way the Texas GOP would risk shutting down a high-profile filibuster on a technicality—not when they’re just planning to pull a second special session anyway if the bill is blocked.”

Once again, I was naive enough to believe that the reasoned and impassioned words of Sen. Rodney Ellis, Sen. Kirk Watson, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, and most of all, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, whose absence due to her father’s death the GOP tried to exploit for political gain—I was naive enough to believe that their brandishing of the rule book would shame even Republican senators into voting with the interest of “the body.”

But then again, why would they vote to protect “the body” of the Texas Senate when they wouldn’t vote to protect the bodies of Texas women? Or the body of the fiercely intelligent and candid and brave woman who stood before them in her pink tennis shoes, who forewent food and drink and bathroom breaks to withstand a punishing filibuster during which every word out of her mouth made perfect, crystal-clear sense.

Ladies and gentlemen of the world, Sen. Wendy Davis makes more sense after standing alone on her own two feet talking about abortion for 12 hours than House Rep. Jodie Laubenberg does when she’s propped up at the podium for five minutes answering questions about her own bill. Both women refused to answer questions after a while. The difference is, Sen. Davis wanted to be heard, while Rep. Laubenberg wanted to be silent. Only one of them got their wish.

When the words “sustained” rang out each time, a collective gasp of shock rang through the spectators even before the boos and angry yells. Honestly, even cynical (read: knowledgeable) watchers of the proceedings did not believe those calls would be made, that when Sen. Ellis called out a list of examples of assistance being given to filibustering senators in the past without garnering warnings, that when Sen. Zaffirini read the rules out loud (getting in a delicious dig about the applicability of the word “his”), these direct allusions to the law would make a difference.


But there was one more big surprise waiting for us all at the end of the night. After Sen. Davis had been interrupted so many times that it became clear a full-on battle was being pitched against the filibuster, the atmosphere among orange-shirted protestors in the Capitol were tense. It had by that time become a relief to me that there was no chance I would get back into the gallery, because at least the spectators in the auditorium were free to cheer and boo and chant as loudly as we wanted to, while those in the gallery could only lean forward in their seats, white-knuckled and close-mouthed.

When Sen. Kirk Watson, whom I’m proud to call my senator, began raising parliamentary procedure questions, essentially filibustering in Sen. Davis’s stead for the last hour with the help of the other Dems, the thing started to turn into a bit of a spectator sport. But it wasn’t until that final half hour, when GOP senators turned their attack on Watson, that it really hit the fan. I have no idea what happened in that last half hour. Try as I might to keep up with who was contesting what motion and what was being put to a vote, I simply could not follow the recursive logic of the proceedings, except to note that Sen. Ellis (I think?) kept asking for the transcript to be read to determine what order some things happened in.

I have to say, though, the room around me was on top of it. I know they were, because every time Sen. Duncan (who got called in to replace Lt. Gov. Dewhurst as the President at Sen. Watson’s request) claimed a particular motion had been tabled, the noise around the room was genuine astonishment. Not rage (though that was bubbling under the surface), but astonishment and confusion. “That’s not right!” the spectators in the auditorium yelled pointlessly at the screen, and “Check the transcript! You’re wrong!” The minutes ticked on.

In the last twenty minutes before midnight, as we in orange began to congratulate ourselves, tentatively, for having outlasted them, Sen. Duncan again and again tried to steamroll past the legitimate questions raised about what was quickly becoming a parliamentary nightmare. Sen. Van de Putte called out to be recognized and was ignored during a roll call for a vote on a motion to who-the-hell-knows-what, and a few minutes later, after the vote was counted, she delivered one of the final crushing blows to SB5 by stating in a calm, quiet, voice. “Mr. President, parliamentary inquiry. At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”

This time, when the gallery erupted, it never died down. Sen. Duncan reached for his gavel, picked it up, looked up at the gallery, and then put it down. Women in the gallery and the Capitol, women all over Texas, were sick at this point of not being heard: not being listened to during the public hearing, being ignored in the House hearing, not being permitted to filibuster in the Senate, not being recognized by the President, and, most of all, not being heard when we yell at the top of our lungs that we want the right guaranteed to us by the 1973 Supreme Court decision that, germane or not, gave us the right to a legal abortion. Duncan banged his gavel and said the precise wrong thing at the right time, “If this continues we will have to suspend the vote,” at which point the yellers in the gallery went berserk for a solid 5 minutes. In the auditorium, someone started a call-and-response chant, “Whose House? OUR HOUSE!” And for a minute, it really felt like it was.

And then, a few minutes after midnight came the astounding announcement that the bill had passed.

What followed—the tampering with date-stamps on the Texas lege website to “prove” the vote happened before midnight, the AP reporting the bill passed, since no major national news outlets had covered it were there to contradict it, the violence by some of the DPS officers in the gallery, who put one young activist’s arm in a sling (and having seen the video, I can tell you she wasn’t resisting, in truth she was bawling her eyes out after being awake for nearly three days straight)—I found, once again, that I had been appallingly naive. Again, I am saying, I hope I never lose the ability to be astonished by lawmakers in Texas who ruthlessly abuse their power. Because the more blatant the abuse, the more I want to stand up and never sit down, to talk and never go silent.

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and daughter of Ann Richards, Texas's second female governor

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and daughter of Ann Richards, Texas’s second female governor, rallies the troops Monday night at The Rattle Inn

* * * * *

I think the reason so many people identified with my previous post is that we’re afraid. We’re afraid of being “policitized,” afraid of the time it will take away from our already busy lives, afraid of having to learn that we understand even less about the process than we think we do. We’re afraid of boring our friends and of making new enemies, people we have not wronged but who seek us out to wrong us. We are afraid of being called that most hateful of words, “babykiller”—when our beloved President, on whom we pinned so many hopes, has allowed drones to kill babies and children in countries we’d prefer not to think about.

But most of all, and I’m speaking for myself here, we are afraid to care. We are afraid to get invested because we are going to lose again and again, many losses for every hard-won victory, and it’s going to hurt so much. After the House voted to approve SB5 at 3:30 a.m. Monday morning, I found myself crying and saying, “those bastards” over and over again as the legislators on the floor looked up for the first time and grinned at us up in the gallery. Tuesday I cried tears of joy at midnight, followed by tears of rage, and by the time I learned we had “won,” I could only think about when Gov. Perry would call the inevitable second special session to show us that our voices still don’t matter. No matter how loud we scream for our rights, he will always have the upper hand, and because of the relentless gerrymandering in our state he or someone like him probably always will. It hurts so much when something you love hurts you, and I love Texas, guys, I really, really do.

The only other time I have been involved in organized protests, it was in graduate school. I briefly became active in the Graduate Students United movement at the University of Chicago, where we hoped that we could improve stipend support, working pay, and living conditions for students who often became stuck in their graduate programs for a decade, indentured servants unable to finish because they had to support themselves on extremely low pay. Those meetings were long and often grueling, filled with the quibbling and in-fighting over fine procedure and large ideology that so often divides movements from within. I would drag myself home at 2:00 a.m., sometimes without even getting to vote on the main point of the meeting, because I had to get up and write a paper the next day.

I was, at the time, one of perhaps two humanities students at the meetings and the only one from the English department; the majority were from the social sciences. I remember one guy, a very young Marxist in an olive drab hat, who knew my name but called me “English” instead, which made me feel like I was simultaneously on a barracks and in a Cary Grant movie. Whenever he noticed me sighing in frustration at yet another point of order, or yawning and rubbing my dark-circled eyes, he would lean over, tap my shoulder, and say, with a smile and a clenched fist, “It’s democracy, English!”

It was, and is. The fight in a democracy is not always as exciting as it was Tuesday night. It involves canvassing on foot and registering people to vote and following local government initiatives that most media will never begin to care about. But because of all those groggy, boring meetings, GSU succeeded in doubling the pay of graduate student TAs whose wages had been stagnant for 18 years. And I have no doubt that all the sitting and waiting and standing and yelling and walking and slogging and quibbling and chanting I am prepared to do with my newly politicized peers alongside those who have been there the whole time will eventually turn Texas into the state it was always meant to be.

Pro-choice protestors in the Texas State Capitol rotunda sing “The Eyes of Texas” after the defeat of Senate Bill 5 is announced in early Wednesday morning.

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6 thoughts on “It’s Democracy, English!

  1. jamie lewis says:

    even better than “naive”! i, too, was there sunday/monday and tuesday/wednesday though i left early both nights[1230] to drive home to san antonio and missed some of the real juice that happened. i’ve been working grass roots since Ann lost in ’94. THAT gwb win horrified me and i could not believe my ears when he ran for prez. or shut my mouth ever again. it is a slog that does begin with our local school boards and city councils, but dammit, we must engage and remain informed. i am still thrilled to hear reasoned observation and passionate awareness from someone rather disengaged before. i felt a new awareness all around me both trips to the pink dome this week and spent a lot of time ‘splaining how we got here and what was actually happening. keep talking; you write beautifully and you never know where you may have impact[part of the slog] 🙂

  2. Jessica says:

    Those 70,000 views are probably partially on me, I have quite a few politically active friends in Texas. 😉 Amy, you have really turned out to be Amazing! 🙂 (Context: dated your brother in high school). Reading your posts has made me equal shares angry, upset and moved to act. Thank you.

  3. jeff z. says:

    Thanks for the excellent write-up. I had a lot of friends in the building (including the young activist you mentioned) and wish I could’ve been there with all of you.

    Thanks for fighting and summarising everything so eloquently.

  4. Katie says:

    My sister and I have been following this nightmare as well. She was with you in spirit that night. What says it all is the quote you emphasized, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand…” Really. Harris County went blue this last election….dare we hope for the future?

  5. tinypaperairplane says:

    I’m so very glad I stumbled across your blog. I’m in Denton, Tx, by the way, and I want to say thank you for everything you’re doing.

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