Messing With Texas
The Texas GOP very nearly stole a vote with 180,000 people watching. The Internet stopped it. Here’s what you didn’t see on TV.
It’s 4:39 a.m. and Christopher Dido’s UStream channel has only just gone dark. I don’t know him, but the Austin-based citizen journalist has been my after-hours window into the Texas state legislature since shortly after 1 a.m., or midnight, Central Time, when the official Texas legislature livestream concluded on YouTube. Before that, I and 180,000 others had been glued for hours to the drama unfolding in the bare-knuckled fight over SB5 — Senate Bill 5 — which would all but abolish abortion rights in the state.
What should have been a dry parliamentary proceeding — like watching paint dry on C-SPAN — was a riveting spectacle featuring a thirteen-hour filibuster, a grassroots uprising, a stolen vote, a Twitter revolt, umpteen points of parliamentary inquiry, a stunning 3 a.m. reversal and a new national feminist hero.
Texas state senator Wendy Davis announced the filibuster on Twitter, vowing to stand, literally, against “the most anti-woman, anti-family legislation that Texas has ever seen.” SB5 was what’s known as an omnibus bill — one which bundles a number of measures together — and combined, they stood to knock out all but five of the state’s 42 abortion clinics, wiping out access in poorer rural areas.
She showed up to the vote wearing pink tennis shoes, knowing that the parliamentary rules governing the session would require her to stand and speak on the topic straight through, without a break to sit down, use a bathroom, eat or drink, or even lean on the podium for support.
And so she did. She read testimony from abortion providers and personal accounts of Texan women and explained how the proposed law was harmful to her constituents and their communities, and then, to keep the momentum going, welcomed testimony from across the country. She stayed studiously on topic, lest she be challenged by the Republican opposition for raising topics that were not “germane.” She had to be careful because it was a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule.
Her first strike was for mentioning Planned Parenthood’s budget (ruled not germane, despite SB5 pointedly invoking expensive new demands on clinics). Her second strike was for a fellow Senator assisting her with her back brace. (Filibustering members must stand unassisted.) Her third strike, at about 10 p.m. CT, was mentioning sonograms — totally germane, since under Texas law sonograms are a prerequisite to obtaining an abortion — unless you’re Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who declared sonograms not germane to the matter at hand and moved to end the filibuster.
This is when all hell broke loose, parliamentary style.
A dull roar rose in the room. The galleries above the Senate chamber were packed with activists, supporters and concerned citizens — polls showed that Texans overwhelmingly opposed SB5 — and a chant arose of, “LET HER SPEAK! LET HER SPEAK!” Dewhurst tried to restore order. State troopers started clearing the gallery. Sen. Kirk Watson moved to appeal Dewhurt’s ruling. Sen. Judith Zaffirini objected to Dewhurt’s summary decision, saying that filibuster ended only with a vote by the Senate. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte asked for a debrief on what she’d missed since she’d come straight from her father’s funeral. The clock ran down.
Meanwhile, protesters gathered in the statehouse rotunda, angry at the sketchy way the filibuster had been shot down. They refused to leave.
All of this was unfolding on two screens: the Texas legislature livestream on YouTube, which had been growing steadily all day and by now had hit 180,000-plus; and Twitter, where #standwithwendy was the #1 trend in the U.S. As the clock hit 11 p.m. in Texas I checked the third screen — TV — once more, thinking that by now the cable news execs would have gotten wind of the story and broken into regularly-scheduled programming. No such luck: CNN was re-running Piers Morgan, MSNBC was re-running Rachel Maddow, and Fox was re-running Hannity.
There was one hour to go. Sen. Davis was still standing by her desk, in filibuster limbo.A Republican senator moved to table Sen. Watson’s motion to appeal, and they squabbled about whose motion was on the floor. Other Senators from both sides made other motions. Dewhurst swapped out with another Republican, Sen. Robert Duncan, while they debated his ruling. There were many points of order, followed by long silences on the livestream while the chairs scratched their heads and tried to remember which motion happened when. It was a little like Lord of the Flies, except no one could find the conch. The clock ran down.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the one who had come from her father’s funeral, kept trying to be recognized. It was 11:45 p.m. Finally she got the chair’s attention: “At what point does a female senator need to raise her hand and her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues in the room?”
The crowd went bonkers. The chair, Duncan, tried to restore order but there was no chance — it was a citizen filibuster. There was no way the GOP could wrap this up with a vote in 15 minutes, not with Watson’s motion still on the floor. Or could they?
Damned if I knew. The sound kept cutting in and out from the livestream and you couldn’t really tell what was going on, anyway. It seemed like some sort of roll call vote was being taken but for what was a mystery. Veteran newsman Mike Ward of the Austin American-Statesman, whose livetweets formed the backbone of any procedural clue I may have had, tweeted at 11:52 p.m. “No order in Senate. Chair can’t hear over jeering from gallery. Senators can’t vote. Never seen anything like this.” Chants of “WEN-DY! WEN-DY!” filled the hall, and my apartment where I was hunkered down to watch, sweltering. I had long ago turned off the A/C so I could hear.
The clock struck midnight. Victory! They had run out the clock! The chants continued. Twitter exploded. But that was weird, it seemed like that vague roll call was still going on. What, exactly, was going on in that huddle by the Chair?
This is what was going on: They were taking the vote. It was after midnight, and suddenly that strict adherence to rules didn’t seem so strict anymore. Whispers were trickling out, confirmed by the AP: SB5 had passed, 17-12.
Twitter was going bananas. I checked the networks again. CNN was re-running Anderson Cooper. MSNBC was re-running Lawrence O’Donnell. Fox was re-running Greta van Susteren. Journalist Lizzie O’Leary tweeted, “Interesting choice you made tonight, cable news executives.”
The Texas Senate legislative livestream had been dutifully trained on chambers as they slowly emptied out, while the action reverted to Twitter.
Journalist and Twitter-hound Anthony DeRosa posted a screenshot of the official Texas legislative record, which recorded the vote as taking place on June 26th, i.e. after midnight. Others were doing the same. This was nuts. Could they possibly be brazen enough to sail through that midnight deadline and think that would fly? Apparently not, because DeRosa posted another screenshot: the official record now recorded the vote as having occurred on June 25th.
If there is such a thing as a hive mind, then there must then be such a thing as a hive brain. And reader, it was at this point that the hive brain FUCKING EXPLODED.
Before an actual audience of hundreds and a virtual audience of thousands, the Texas GOP had falsified a record. Never mind that the filibuster had actually been honestly won, never mind that the clock had run out on its own course — this was fraud.
The senators squabbled over rules and timestamps in person while on the Internet screenshots whipped back and forth, multiplying. The protestors yelled shame.The senators retreated to chambers. Supporters tweeted mournfully. The cable networks ran reruns.
Somewhere in there, the livestream had ended. Vines had taken over, showing throngs of protesters in orange, shouting in unison. Someone tweeted a link to a new livestream — Christopher Dido, citizen journalist, who was set up in the rotunda amongst the protestors, waiting for the senators to emerge. The tweets leveled off. It was almost 2 a.m. CT. Most of the people who had been gripped by the livestream had gone to bed thinking that SB5 had passed.
I confess I dozed off. But soon, something woke me, loud enough to pull me back out of 3 a.m. sleep. It was applause. Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood and daughter of beloved former Texas Governor Ann Richards, had emerged with some news.
She asked them to hold their applause, and paused: “The Senate members have agreed that SB5 is dead.”
The room erupted. After all, it had been fifteen hours coming — plus one heart-dropping disappointment in between. “Tonight, we won,” said Richards. “And, most importantly, the women of Texas won.”
This woman of New York sort of felt like she’d won, too. Though by now I was in my sixth hour with my nose up to the glass and frankly, sort of felt Texan (particularly when Richards led the rotunda in “The Eyes of Texas”).
As Senator Wendy Davis finally walked out, elated, I felt elated for her, for everyone there, and for the women who would never know how close they came to losing the operative part of their fundamental right to choose.
That was it. Tomorrow was now today and the headline had changed. “Perhaps the Texas GOP’s biggest blunder tonight was forgetting that social media exists,” tweeted San Antonio mayor Julián Castro. It was no longer a victory for those who, as writer Roxane Gay said, “cheated, flagrantly, in plain sight, because they thought they could.”
Instead it was a victory for the collective who were willing to do something, stand for something, stand with something, #standwithwendy.
Rachel Sklar is a writer and the co-founder of TheLi.st. She still can’t believe that last night happened. If you want more information, the excellent Texas Tribune kept this detailed liveblog; Mike Ward from the Austin American-Statesman was an incredibly useful and detailed live-tweeter; and Tanya Tarr held it down on Twitter on behalf of those up in the Senate gallery. Don’t mess with Texas.