an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
The state capitol of Texas sits in the center of Austin on the top of a hill. Its sunset red granite looks pink in the sun. Statues dedicated to a range of groups from volunteer firemen to the pioneer women of Texas’s past pepper its manicured grounds. Its dome, which is 15-feet higher than the national capitol in Washington, D.C., is flanked by two wings on the eastern and western sides of the building. You can enter on any side, but the south side, which faces downtown and Lady Bird Lake, is by far the most popular one. The capitol also has an extensive, maze-like underground basement area that houses multiple hearing rooms, a cafeteria, offices, and an auditorium.
This summer I was one of thousands of Texans who spent roughly six weeks all but living in the Texas capitol protesting Texas Senate Bill Five, anti-choice legislation ushered in during a special legislative session and made most famous by state Senator Wendy Davis’s 11-plus-hour filibuster against it on June 25. We protested throughout two special legislative sessions, during which I attended the floor debates and votes in two sessions of the House and the Senate, two House hearings, two Senate hearings, and a huge rally at the capitol. Most of these days were long, starting early in the morning and running deep into the night. In the end, we lost this battle. The bill passed and was signed into law. Most of it went into effect on October 29, with a final piece to be implemented in September of next year.
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When I first arrived at the capitol, I could not tell which wing I needed to be in, how to find the elevator, or how to navigate its underground sections. But that changed quickly. Through my use of social media, mainly Twitter, I became a point person for food deliveries. Someone had gotten us permission to use a large, carpeted room with an attached kitchen in the basement. To pick up pizzas or cookies or whatever, you went out of the room, turned left, and went through a small rotunda, then down a long, windowless hallway. There, you took an elevator up – it didn’t matter which one. It was easier for the people delivering to park somewhere on the capitol’s west side, so you had to re-orient yourself after coming out of the elevator in the south wing and head west down another long hallway. Finally, you waited on your side of the metal detector for the delivery person to get through security, and then you returned to that carpeted room, food in hand.
If the capitol floor was made of dirt instead of marble, I would have run a deep trench into it by the end. I did wear a hole straight through the bottom of one of my shoes.
We gathered in the room with the food to eat, but would find places to watch and listen to whatever was happening upstairs. An auditorium in the basement was always available for this. During the Senate and House hearings, several other hearing rooms were open for overflow, each equipped with audio and video of the testimonies. Meanwhile, people would spend hours in the galleries during the House and Senate floor debates. On the day of the filibuster, some were so frightened of losing their seats in the gallery they stayed the entire time without food and without bathroom breaks.
As one of the main people using social media to organize protesters, I traveled throughout the capitol to make sure I knew what was going on and what the next plan of action was. Representative Jessica Farrar opened her office to us, sometimes feeding us, sometimes giving us hugs. Up on the fourth floor, just off the main rotunda, there was a room with a large table and plenty of electrical outlets. Those of us tasked with social media duties would sit there together, exchanging information received throughout the day. That is how we first heard about #Tampongate on the final day of protests. Receiving reports via social media throughout the capitol, we learned that Department of Public Safety (DPS) officers were confiscating tampons from people entering the Senate gallery.
One night, while I was waiting in a long, white, windowless hallway by a loading dock for the pizza guy to arrive, a team of DPS officers carrying bags of what looked like batons and white plastic handcuffs attached to their belts pushed past me.
As we proceeded, we were denied the use of that carpeted room in the basement, so we set up tables in the hallways. We took up tables in the cafeteria and carved out space for ourselves. By the final day, we were denied all space in the capitol, so we squeezed into Rep. Farrar’s office. It quickly became overcrowded, a sea of people looking for their iPhone chargers and struggling to find places to meet and discuss strategy.
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When I think about how we took up space during the protests, nothing compares to the main rotunda.
The main rotunda has four stories accessible to the public, but it goes much higher. On each level, a balcony rings around so that you can look down to the floor and up to dome. The long west and east wings extend, too. On the third floor, at the end of those wings, you will find the Senate and House galleries.
The night of the filibuster, I was in the basement in an auxiliary overflow room opened due of the large number of people who had arrived. As the night progressed, the room became more and more crowded. We watched Senator Davis on a television screen, someone yelling out every so often the increasing number of people watching around the world via the internet livestream. When Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst announced that Davis had received her third strike, claiming the Senator’s comments had gone off topic, a move that would threaten to end the filibuster and put the bill to a final vote, I panicked.
I physically climbed over people in the room to get out, needing to get to the rotunda, fearful that DPS would shut off sections of the capitol from one another. I raced up the stairs around the small rotunda in the basement and then up another set of stairs that took me to the part of the capitol basement that was directly below the rotunda and the wings that housed the Senate and House galleries. I raced through those hallways, hearing the yelling of thousands of people above me. I quickly climbed the steep stairs that lead to the south wing and turned a corner. The rotunda was packed. I pushed my way into the crowd, trying desperately to get to the center where I could see many of the organizers. Above me, every landing of the rotunda was full of people. Later, I learned that people spilled out into east and west wings of each floor, with an especially concentrated pack on floor number three, just outside the Senate gallery doors. We filled so much of the capitol, DPS officers actually shut off access, keeping people outside.
All of these bodies, these voices, these people together, supporting Davis and her colleagues, gathered to stop the passage of the bill. We tried desperately to follow what was happening via social media, but access to the internet was getting worse and worse. About 15 minutes before midnight, when the special session would end and the bill would die, noise tumbled out of the gallery and down the third-floor wing. People were yelling. It spread through the rotunda and the other wings like wildfire.
And together we yelled past midnight, thousands of us filling up the entirety of the capitol from the fourth floor to the depths of the basement. The legislators moved to vote after the yelling began, but they could not hear each other. Our voices were louder. Our voices were shaking the sunset red granite of the Texas state capitol, roaring down the hallways so loudly that people in the basement could hear us. The vote for the bill was not registered until 12:02am. It died.
But there was a second special session, and the bill was debated once more on the Senate floor. Thousands of Texans again showed up, with protesters on both sides of the issue. We chanted throughout the day and dropped banners on all sides of the rotunda. When it became clear that the vote was going to happen and the bill was to be passed, we once again got loud. DPS officers were trying to manage the rotunda, blocking many of us from getting in. I was told repeatedly to step back out of the rotunda as I tried to document the moment by taking pictures and video. Outside the Senate floor on the second floor, people gathered, pushing up against the barrier created by DPS, shouting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as loudly as they could while votes were cast. I believe it was then and there that DPS officers confronted, beat, and arrested some protesters.
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When I think about the time I spent this summer exploring the many parts of the Texas state capitol, of walking the same paths many times, and of physically taking over its space so we could raise our voices in protest, I try to remember that taking up space is a political act, however small that space may be. I try to remember that doing that specific political act with thousands of other people creates not an unruly mob, but a community of activists.
And more than anything, I remember that granite can shake.
Jessica Luther is a journalist, writer, and activist in Austin. Her writing has been published in the Texas Observer and at the Guardian, the Atlantic, Salon, Sports On Earth, Think Progress, and RH Reality Check. Until very recently, she was a PhD candidate in the history department at UT, but recently left to pursue her writing career. You can find her at jessicawluther.com and pwrfwd.net (her site on sports and culture). Also, she’s always on Twitter (@scATX).