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A Message From Texas: When The Left Fights Together, We Win!

Posted in Act Out!, Austin, Creative Commons, Journalism, and Video

Kit O’Connell wrote this segment of Act Out!

Welcome to Act Out! I’m Eleanor Goldfield and this is your tipping point.

Our show doesn’t typically hone in on one state legislature at length. While we do focus on local battles and the importance of working together, state houses are rarely the scenes of cooperative progress. But every now and then, they are — and every now and then, it’s Texas.

With all the leftist bickering, in-fighting, both-siding, my anti-war prayers are bigger than yours bullshit, it seemed like a good time to highlight a leftist success story — particularly as it takes place in a bastion of right wingdom and frequent contributor and gonzo journalist Kit O’Connell was there to document it.

Activists hold a rainbow “pride” banner with the word “COEXIST” spelled out using the symbols of various world religions (plus atheism/humanism). Texas State Capitol, July 18, 2017. (Kit O’Connell, CC license)

So yes — the Lone Star State is perhaps the last place where many of us would expect to see a broad coalition of left leaning groups successfully fight off the hateful Republican agenda. But that’s what just happened during a recent “special session” of the Texas legislature.

Special sessions are a loophole written into the Texas Constitution to allow the state government to conduct emergency business, but in this case the only emergency was that Gov. Greg Abbott had failed to oppress transgender people by passing a version of the so-called “bathroom bill” during the first part of the year. The Governor drew up a 20-point plan of hate for his month-long session, ranging from an attack on public workers’ unions, a pile of new restrictions on abortion, the bathroom bill, and even a bill that undermined the ability of cities to collect taxes to fund social services.

Then, to the surprise of even the people involved in the organizing to resist Abbott, activists working together across issues managed to fight off all but a handful of Abbott’s proposals, in an extraordinary display of the effectiveness of intersectional activism against seemingly insurmountable odds. At a time when some of our fundamental rights are under attack, the success of activists in one of the most politically conservative of states should give us all renewed faith in the power of movement building.

In today’s Front Lines, we’re headed deep in the heart of Texas to look at how cooperation saved the day for transgender people and so many others.

We last looked in on Texas politics in episode 92, but in brief, the Texas legislature only meets for 140 days every other year, and lawmakers are expected to cram all the state’s business into that time period. That’s where the special session comes in, which Republicans love to misuse for their bigoted bullshit.

Protesters crowd the halls of the Texas Capitol building just before midnight on June 25, 2013, shouting down an anti-abortion bill. (Flickr / Blackbird Film Co.)

You might remember the massive reproductive rights protests in 2013, when Wendy Davis, then a Democratic state senator, and thousands of very loud protesters temporarily blocked passage of a bill imposing new restrictions on abortion. Back then, Texas Gov. Rick Perry used two special sessions to force that bill into law, until the Supreme Court overturned parts of it.Wendy Davis was then defeated in the next governor’s race by Greg Abbott, Perry’s successor and the state’s former attorney general, and four years later you’re lucky to get a handful of protesters out at the legislature, where once thousands packed the halls to support Davis.

That’s where the One Texas Resistance coalition stepped in. Build on top of a pre-existing coalition that brought the ACLU of Texas together with Planned Parenthood and “abortion funds,” organizations that help pay for abortions and associated costs, One Texas Resistance organizers brought diverse groups together to fight against the Republican agenda. The coalition of about three dozen organizations included LGBTQIA rights groups like Equality Texas, labor rights organizations like Workers Defense Action Fund, and even representatives of decentralized movements like Indivisible.

Democratic legislators on the inside delayed legislation to give activists more time to work. With just 30 days to pass almost 20 agenda items, including a must-pass budget bill that the Republicans had deliberately left unpassed in the regular session in order to justify the special, activists knew that simply slowing things down would probably kill at least a few of the bills.

Activists dressed as “handmaidens” arrive at the One Texas Resistance rally at the Texas Capitol on July 18, 2017, the first day of the special session of the legislature. (Kit O’Connell, CC license)

However, that alone wasn’t enough without the continuous and concentrated efforts of activists from groups like those represented in One Texas Resistance. Their efforts combined modern, social media-based organizing on Facebook and Twitter with old-fashioned tactics like lobbying in legislators offices and making phones ring off the hook. Lobbying days brought people in from all around the state who’d be affected by the new laws. Parents of transgender families, supportive clergy, and even cops were enlisted to testify against the “bathroom bill,” a vicious and unnecessary bill restricting where transgender and gender non-binary people can pee — along with a host of other restrictions on their access to public life. People who depended on Planned Parenthood were brought in to share their testimony against a bill that would have banned cities from contracting with Planned Parenthood for sexual health services.

By combining forces, the different groups could share information about upcoming bills, and ensure that activists were ALWAYS present at the legislature to push back. Hundreds came out on the opening day of the session in near triple-digit temperatures, but even more importantly dozens kept coming out day after day. By the end of the special session, even the Republican speaker of the house Joe Strauss was repeating activist’s talking points to justify leaving the bathroom bill in the trash bin where it belongs, as revealed by this Associated Press story from July:

“I’m disgusted by all this. Tell the lieutenant governor I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.”

… The comment appeared to echo concerns raised by LGBT rights groups that efforts to restrict which bathrooms transgender people can use further marginalize a group of people who at least one recent survey has shown attempt suicide at a higher-than-average rate.

And working together also highlighted how all these issues are linked together, in a way that will hopefully last beyond just the legislative session. Because all these issues ARE connected.

Young activists at the Texas Legislature hold signs including “Girls just want to have FUNdamental Human Rights” and “Nacho Uterus.” (Kit O’Connell, CC license)

As Nan Little Kirkpatrick, director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, an abortion fund serving northern Texas, explained in an interview with regular Act Out! Correspondent Kit O’Connell, this coalition builds on work that began outside the legislature and must continue after the lawmakers go home:

Nan Little Kirkpatrick: TEA Fund particularly in Dallas Fort Worth has really strived to create cross movement coalitions around abortion access, and to be active in the anti-police brutality work in our community and the immigration work in our community because we think that’s really important and that just strengthens all of our movements, so we just want to see that momentum keep going and and just see that build out.

Kit O’Connell: How do you see these issues, like abortion connecting to trans rights and immigration and all that?

NLK: Abortion access and trans rights are directly related in a lot of ways because it’s a bodily autonomy issue, it’s about people having the ability to choose for themselves what’s best for themselves and to have access to health care and access to rights and that’s true for all these things.

All these things are about human rights, and so we need to use a human rights framework and really fold all these things in together and show that when one right gets threatened, other rights quickly follow. And so all the rights are important and they all deserve protection. And so we should be fighting for all the rights.

By the end of the special session, barely any parts of the governor’s agenda passed. The bathroom bill was soundly defeated. And though some new abortion restrictions slipped through where they’ll have to be challenged in court, the bill to block Planned Parenthood’s ability to work with local municipalities also failed, along with the attack on unions and a host of others. And reproductive justice advocates remain hopeful, because they know this is long term work, about more than just winning elections and beating bills in the legislature but also about building a new culture that respects everyone’s bodily autonomy and right to health care.

Activists in pink t-shirts assemble on the steps outside the visitor gallery of the Texas House of Representatives during the Planned Parenthood “Pink Out” lobbying day on July 31, 2017. (Kit O’Connell, CC license)

Here’s Hannah Thalenberg, Houston field organizer for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas in another interview with Kit O’Connell:

Hannah Thalenberg: But at the end of the day there is so that much we can do for each other outside of that so that’s where grassroots power building comes in. What can we do at the local level to build that ground swell of support for abortion access and reproductive justice? NARAL as well as some main Texas abortion funds — TEA Fund, Lilith, West Fund — are now introducing reproductive justice agendas at the local levels. So Houston, Austin, Dallas to do just that.

Kit O’Connell: Like local legislation?

HT: Right. So engaging with local elected officials as opposed to state or federal level officials to really just bring this up from the bottom. If we don’t have that grassroots community support, I don’t think any movement for change can be sustainable.

If you look at just the short term political situation, it’s easy to get discouraged. On the other hand, if we begin building real sustainable movements, starting at the local level, we can shift our culture back towards justice. We can’t just come out for one march, or even for a single legislative session — it’s going to take the every day work of real, bottom up, grassroots movement building to save each other and our planet.


When The Left Fights Together, We Win! by Kit O’Connell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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