‘People’s filibuster’ in Texas cheered across country

Reactionary politicians are brazenly trying to push through anti-reproductive rights bills in several states but they are being strongly resisted by protesters inside and outside the legislatures. Women are standing up and voicing their opposition to the attacks on their rights and health care.

A fuse ignited in Austin, Tex., on June 25. Cheers, yells and clapping exploded across the Legislature’s halls when hundreds of activists stopped the right wing in their tracks. They carried out a “people’s filibuster” to block the passage of SB 5, a bill aimed at drastically restricting women’s reproductive medical care access. When police tried to clear the balconies of protesters, many women refused to leave their seats; some bravely resisted arrest.

This spark of fightback reverberated throughout not only Texas but around the country. It inspired women in many states to stand up and challenge the right wing’s offensive against their basic rights. Although activists saw that conservatives had the votes, they did not back down; they defied them anyway. They elevated a struggle over a state law into a pivotal national one, sending the message that women will defy the misogynist far right. Their bold actions have energized and emboldened pro-choice activists and other progressives.

The movement had been building in Texas since Gov. Rick Perry and his cronies began pushing for a draconian anti-reproductive health bill. It drastically decreases access to abortions and criminalizes the procedure at 20 weeks. New requirements would be imposed on women’s clinics, forcing 37 of 42 to close.

These facilities are vital to vast numbers of women for reproductive health and family planning services, as well as cancer and other screenings and basic check-ups. This law would hurt vast numbers of women, especially rural residents, youth and those with low incomes, including women from African-American, Latina, Asian and Native communities.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards warns that the bill could cause a virtual ban on safe abortions in Texas.

Women take over Legislature

However, this attack on women’s rights was met with a strong mobilization by pro-choice and other progressive forces. After they reached out to women statewide, calling on them to come to Austin and speak against the bill, more than 700 women traveled to the Capitol on June 20 to testify at the State Affairs Committee, beginning the “people’s filibuster.” Right-wing lawmakers prohibited hundreds from speaking.

Five days later, Sen. Wendy Davis (D), waged a stunning 11-hour filibuster against the bill in the State Senate, speaking all that time despite not being allowed to sit, lean, eat, drink or take bathroom breaks. She refused to be silenced by the condescending bullies who control and usually dominate legislative sessions. For hours, Davis, often wiping away tears, read testimonies from women who couldn’t speak at the prior hearing.

Davis continued until Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R.) ruled she wasn’t “germane” – although she was squarely on topic. As the state senate leaders tried to quash Davis, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D.), who is Chicana, rose in support, and asked when should a woman senator raise her hand or her voice to be called on over male colleagues? Activists in the balconies shook the rafters, chanting and cheering for Davis and Van de Putte, pushing the vote on the bill past midnight.

Then Republicans were caught lying as they claimed that the bill passed by the deadline; they date-stamped it June 25. Tapes rerun and times checked, they had to concede it did not pass on time. Due to Internet streaming, nearly 200,000 viewers saw the right-wing’s hostile behavior and deception.

As bold and determined as Davis was, she didn’t act alone. Pro-choice advocacy groups and other progressives gathered women’s testimonials online, publicized the protests on social media and organized to bring activists to pack the Capitol. They are continuing to mobilize.

Hell-bent on pushing through this antediluvian bill in the war against women’s rights and health care, Perry set up a special 30-day session to take it up again. Yet the fightback goes on; 5,000 people demonstrated outside the Capitol on July 1.

Thousands showed up to testify at a Texas House committee meeting on July 2. Demonstrators filled 1,200 seats in nine hearing rooms and hallways. Again, flouting even their own rules, State Rep. Byron Cook (R) shut down the hearing at midnight, denying 1,000 people the right to speak. Many had waited hours to testify, after traveling for hours with children in tow.

Pro-Choice Houston reports that more than 1,000 have signed up to attend a State Senate committee hearing on the bill, now HB2-SB1, on July 8.

It should be pointed out, as progressives in Texas do, that the self-proclaimed “pro-life” Gov. Perry is actually boasting of the fact that he approved the state’s 500th execution since 1976, of 52-year-old ­Kimberly McCarthy, an African-American woman.

War on women, especially poor and oppressed

Additionally, Perry and his cronies’ vendetta against Planned Parenthood caused funding cuts for contraceptives for low-income women in 2011, resulted in the closing of dozens of health centers and left tens of thousands of women without medical care access.

Now the same governor who claims more restrictions on abortion will serve “women’s health and safety” refuses to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, even though it would be covered by federal money. This will deny medical care to 1.5 million poor women, men and children in Texas. This state has brutal requirements for Medicaid: an annual income under $3,000.

Perry is not alone. Governors in Texas, North Carolina and Wisconsin, which are ramming through anti-reproductive health measures, along with 11 others refuse to expand Medicaid, leaving about 6 million people without basic health care in states that rank the lowest in those services. Even though these reactionaries are targeting abortion procedures, they oppose all health care for low-income and oppressed women and men.

In their mad rush to push through regressive laws, conservative politicians have fast-tracked more than 40 restrictions on reproductive health care in state houses this year. But they don’t go unopposed.

Texas struggle opens up new avenues

Events in the Texas Capitol are inspiring women around the country who are fighting for reproductive justice and challenging right-wing attacks. Women activists in Austin showed that a strong struggle, which defies reactionary forces can push them back, even if temporarily.

Women are angry and their fightback is growing. Protests in Austin; Columbus, Ohio; Raleigh, N.C.; Madison, Wis., and other state capitals against these bad laws bode well for future organizing. They matter and they help to grow and strengthen the movement.

Although some fights are taking place within legislative forums, as in Texas, the strong actions show the willingness of women activists to put their bodies on the line and defy the right wing. Davis’ daring action also revived the filibuster as a progressive tool, not one hijacked by rightists.

The Austin protests also had national significance in that they raise the issues of strategy and tactics in dealing with the rabid right wing.

Pro-choice forces in the Texas Legislature were accused of “using the tactics of Occupy Wall Street.” Their response should be, “Why not?” Reactionaries violate their own laws and procedures to aggressively ram through regressive laws, circumvent opposition and public outcries. Why shouldn’t women activists sit in capitol buildings, as workers and students did in Madison, Wis., in 2011 to protest government attacks on union rights?

The Austin struggle is reverberating and empowering women activists around the country. They are strategizing on ways to challenge the right wing. One tactic could be to occupy state legislatures or other venues. The current situation calls for new, creative, challenging and militant tactics to fight back.

The attacks on women’s rights are coming down while the ruling class is frontally assaulting the rights and gains won, many of them decades ago, by the working class, immigrants, and members of African-American and Latino/a communities via mass movements.

The war on women should be seen in this context. Women are fighting back and can also broaden the movement, building solidarity with our class brothers and sisters by supporting their struggles against racism and for economic and social justice.

Together, we can push back the forces of the right.

Gloria Rubac, reporting from Houston, contributed to this article.