What did you do Tuesday? I spent a large chunk of it bearing witness to an absolutely EPIC battle for women’s reproductive rights that went down in Texas.
The state senate was holding a special legislative session during which a vote was planned on Senate Bill 5 (henceforth referred to in this post as SB5), an omnibus bill that, if passed, would see women’s access to abortion services severely restricted; in fact, critics suggested its passage would likely result in the closure of 37 of the 42 clinics currently offering abortions in Texas, a geographically huge state that’s home to 26 million people.
I had seen rumblings online about some crazy shit going down in Texas with respect to abortion rights but, to be honest, I hadn’t paid super-close attention — mainly because challenges to abortion rights is something that happens ALL THE DAMN TIME in the states.
On Tuesday, I started paying attention.
With the vote on SB5 imminent and likely to pass, Sen. Wendy Davis decided to take a stand. Figuratively and literally.
Davis announced a plan to filibuster the bill. Basically, that means she intended to stall on the floor of the senate until midnight, when the special session ended. To borrow a sports analogy, she was going to run out the clock.
This plan was not as easy as it might seem. In order to be successful, Wendy Davis needed to filibuster for 13 hours straight.
According to Texas senate rules, she would have to speak continuously and stay “germane” to the topic at hand. She would also have to stand, unassisted, the entire time — not even allowed to lean on her desk. No food or drinks would be allowed. No bathroom breaks.
The event was being live streamed by The Texas Tribune, a small non-profit media organization. It was also being tweeted about by thousands of people.
I tuned in after five hours.
Davis was wearing pink running shoes. I heard a rumour that she was also wearing a catheter. I usually wouldn’t share something I can’t confirm but I’m doing so here just to help you understand how FUCKING HARDCORE this woman is.
(Here’s another fun fact about Davis, who was a single mom living in a trailer home at age 19 and who went on to put herself through Harvard Law School: her Fort Worth office was FIREBOMBED last year.)
At that point in the proceedings, Davis was reading testimonies sent to her from “ordinary” Texan women.
It. Was. Riveting. Like, seriously, I could not stop watching.
Here are just a handful of choice quotes, read by Davis in a calm, strong, unwavering voice:
We are women. We are mothers, daughters. And most importantly, we are human beings. Trust us.
The government doesn’t have the right to take my guns, but does have the right to force me to have a baby I can’t care for? Please.
I made a decision to save a life. My own.
It is time for men to shut up and let women make decisions about their own lives.
It went on and on: testimonies from women who had had abortions, testimonies from mothers, testimonies from people who were alive before abortion was legal and who knew women who had died, testimonies from men.
I began carrying my laptop around the house and obsessively refreshing Twitter so as not to miss anything.
Fast-forward to early evening. Having taken a break, I returned to the live stream around 7:30 p.m. By this point, more than 30,000 people were watching along with me.
Things were bad.
Davis had been called on a second “point of order,” which basically means she was accused of breaking the rules of a filibuster. Three points of order and her filibuster would be stopped and the vote would occur. (FYI: her first POO — yes, that’s the acronym, let’s all giggle and then move on — was on the germaneness of mentioning Roe. V. Wade, the US’s defining legal battle on abortion, during a discussion of abortion. Yes, really.)
This POO was called because one of her fellow senators had helped her adjust a back brace, which she then almost-immediately removed. Her opponents argued this counted as assistance.
I would like to take a moment to offer props to the people on Twitter who offered astute commentary, cracked funny jokes, referenced The Handmaid’s Tale and took on anti-choice trolls.
Mainstream media coverage of the event was almost non-existent; score another point for the power of the Internet to bring the news to the people.
Would you believe I’m just getting to the craziest/best part? YOU GUYS I’M JUST GETTING TO THE CRAZIEST/BEST PART.
By 9 p.m., Sen. Wendy Davis, a bona fide rock star at this point, is reading various parts of the bill and scientific studies, talking and talking. Other senators ask for permission to ask her questions — and this time, she refuses. (Earlier in the afternoon, she had indulged them.) They pout that answering questions is a senate tradition. She still refuses. She will not yield the floor.
It becomes clear Davis is going to try and talk, uninterrupted, all the way to the finish line. There are three hours left.
I wander off again from the live stream. When I check back around 11 p.m., things have devolved. Davis has been called on a third point of order — this time for referencing sonograms. (Apparently, sonograms — you know, the medical procedures women seeking abortions in Texas ARE NOW FORCED BY LAW to have — are not germane to the topic of abortion. Yes, really.) I glean that “the president” (aka Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the person in charge of facilitating the proceedings) has unilaterally decided that she broke the rule. Davis nonetheless remains standing.
Despite being threatened with arrest and jail time if they obstruct the session, the crowd (a packed house — both in the gallery and in a separate overflow room) cannot contain themselves. They are pissed off by the ruling and they make themselves heard.
At this point, it appears other Democratic senators are going to pick up the filibuster torch and attempt to talk their way to midnight.
With over an hour left, one senator tries to appeal the ruling. Others argue about procedure and ask questions. More than 90,000 people are watching the events unfold. The chatter on Twitter is intensifying.
The pivotal moment happens with less than 15 minutes left.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte — who missed the bulk of the filibuster because she was ATTENDING HER FATHER’S FUNERAL OMG — gets tired of being ignored and talked over by others and delivers the smack-down to end all smack-downs.
At what point must a female senator have to raise her hand or her voice in order to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?
The crowd goes bananas. The gallery erupts in applause despite the earlier warning about arrests and jail. The senators can’t hear themselves over the din. The president (a new guy now, the previous guy having recused himself) asks for order. Everyone ignores him.
And then, it’s as if the crowd collectively realizes that if it keeps making noise, the vote won’t happen. It does just that — screaming and clapping and chanting Wendy’s name as the minutes tick down and 180,000 people watch via the live stream.
Outside the gallery, protesters who have been crammed into the rotunda this whole time join in.
After 13 hours, it comes down to the power of the people’s voice and 10 crazy minutes.
Truthfully, I don’t spend all that much time following the daily grind of politics, particularly American politics. That said, I have never seen anything like this.
BUT WAIT — THERE’S MORE.
The chaos continues. State troopers show up and begin removing people from the gallery — some in handcuffs.
As all this is happening, the new president appears to call for a vote on something; it’s unclear as to what. Names are being shouted out; some sort of roll call. Twitter buzzes with confusion: are they voting on SB5? On Davis’ filibuster? No one knows what’s going on.
Midnight arrives and the crowd — which has been going insane the entire time — somehow gets even louder. The cheers continue for a couple of minutes as people celebrate what they think is a victory, and then the president says something has passed by a vote of 17 to 12. There is total and utter confusion, both by those in the building and among those of us online.
SB5 was to be settled by midnight. Instead, it would be two more hours before the drama concludes. Some 140,000 people continue to watch the live stream until it cuts out, at which point some dude with a cellphone camera begins live streaming from the rotunda. Within a few minutes, more than 20,000 are watching.
Outside the chamber, the rotunda of Austin’s Texas State Capitol is packed and the vibe is defiant and electric.
Confusion reigns. Rumours fly. AP reports the bill has passed. People are discussing the time stamp of the vote; some are alleging it has been doctored. It’s reported the senate has reconvened for another meeting, this time, behind closed doors.
Just after 2 a.m., Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards reads a statement: the bill is officially dead.
Exhausted, I go to bed.
Is the fight for women’s bodily autonomy over in Texas? Not a chance. (In fact, less than 24 hours later, Governor Rick Perry released a statement that said SB5 will be debated in a second special session starting July 1.)
What happened on Tuesday was merely one more battle in a war that has been going on for longer than I have been alive — in Texas and beyond. A war that will likely continue for years.
STILL. What I witnessed was, nonetheless, truly inspirational.
The fearlessness, determination, perseverance and grace under pressure of Wendy Davis, a woman who stood up for other women and refused to yield.
The speaking of truth to power by Leticia Van de Putte.
And the crowd-sourced, grassroots activism of thousands of people who spoke up, showed up and refused to back down.
Power to the people. It was a beautiful thing.