Let’s just start here, y’all.
In case you’ve managed to not hear about it yet, a monumental thing happened in the Senate Chamber at the Texas State Capitol last Tuesday night. Not hearing about it wouldn’t have been as impossible as you may think, considering not one of the major cable news networks had its eyes trained on Austin. It’s not a big deal, you know. The orange we were wearing in support of women’s rights isn’t the most photogenic color, perhaps. And I love blueberry muffins as much as anyone.
Were you on social media, though, you may have been tuned in to Senator Wendy Davis, who was old-fashioned filibustering a terrible abortion bill on its way through the Texas State Senate—a bill that would cut the number of clinics legally authorized to perform abortions from forty-two to five, in a state of twenty-six million people and thirteen million women. Wendy couldn’t sit, lean, drink water, eat, pee, yield the floor, or stop talking about the bill for 13 hours in order to run out the clock on the special session and kill the bill. It didn’t quite, let’s say, go as planned.
There are many great recaps around the Internet, and if you haven’t read all about this already, I suggest you acquaint yourself with the totally unprecedented circumstances of this filibuster. There are almost as many recaps as there were women there to support Wendy in her effort. And there were many, many supporters.
At the end of the night, after Davis’s heroic and solo filibuster had descended into Inception-like layers of procedural madness, when the crowd outside the chamber was pounding on the walls and seemed to be actually shaking the building, when it seemed there was absolutely nothing left to do, the crowd in the gallery rose and began to scream.
I was in the gallery for most of the filibuster on Tuesday. I got to the Capitol around 1 pm and stayed in the gallery for around three hours, but spectators weren’t allowed food or water bottles, so around 4:30, I took a break to eat and charge my phone in the hall. I headed back in an hour later and stayed until 11:57, when my section of the gallery was cleared by DPS Troopers. I stood immediately outside the doors to the gallery until about 12:05 am, when I found my way to the mass of supporters in the Rotunda and stuck around until 1:30, when there was still no news.
So I feel qualified to tell you that the gut-wrenching, knee-weakening, heartsick roar of Wendy Davis’s supporters at the end of the night has not been overstated. Nor has the spectacle, the riveting political theater, of the filibuster and ensuing breakdown of legislative procedure. Nor has the big, simple thing of it: a woman standing up (and standing up, and then standing up), and speaking (and speaking, and then speaking), and not yielding (not yielding, and then not yielding) in the name of women’s rights.
It was an experience unlike any I’ve had—a moment when my voice and my body made a real, physical difference for something I believed in. It was electrifying and beautiful and visceral and sad, and, ultimately, successful. The bill didn’t pass.
And then, less than twenty-four hours later, Texas executed its 500th prisoner. A grisly, grisly milestone if there ever was one. Kimberly McCarthy was killed by lethal injection for the 1997 Dallas murder of Dorothy Booth, a retired psychology professor. It was a gruesome, drug-fueled murder that happened a long time ago, and McCarthy was killed for it on Wednesday by the state of Texas, under a draconian law supported by the same people who waited, hawklike, for something with which to take Wendy Davis off the senate floor. And there is so much to say about this execution, about race and rehabilitation and the value of life, but I admit I’m not as educated about this execution as I could be. Dorothy Booth also happened to be my dad’s favorite aunt, and her murder one of the darkest and most defining occurrences of my childhood in Texas. I really can’t read anything about it.
I mention this because the execution stands in such pointed contrast to Wendy Davis, and because, well, I’ve found myself in a particularly odd situation.
What happened at the Capitol on Tuesday felt monumental and intensely personal. Wendy Davis read testimony from dozens of Texans on the floor of the senate, and most women around me were there with their own testimony, too. And now that it’s made it into national headlines and onto Rachel Maddow, I think it feels personal for many more people. In her examination of the power of social media at Salon, Roxane Gay talks about watching the livestream of the proceedings at the climax of the night, and she says of the collective scream: “It awoke something in me I hadn’t realized had gone dormant.” It awoke something in me I hadn’t realized even existed.
But I felt some distance, too. I don’t have an abortion story. I didn’t have personal testimony to send to Wendy Davis. I live near one of the five abortion clinics that would remain open were this terrible bill to pass. I believe very strongly that women are in charge of their own bodies—and god, I believe that the fact that this is still up for debate is disgusting, disrespectful, backwards, and terrifying. But I wouldn’t consider myself an activist, and I haven’t been fighting this bill for weeks like some incredible women here—among them Jessica Luther, my friend Amy Gentry, and countless others. The moment of victory was surreal and thrilling, but walking away an hour and a half later, I felt more like a witness than an activist, and more like an ally than a participant.
On the other hand, I just happen to have a very personal relationship with this 500th execution. To the rest of the country, it is an impenetrably dark thing, too—a terrible, but perhaps impersonal, record; a condemnable governmental act; and, honestly, a predictable moment in Texas history. This seems to be where most everyone else feels like a witness or an ally, and I can’t find easy room for my personal relationship to the event.
I’m struggling hard to reconcile Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon. I’m struggling to sort out my role here, to start to understand that this past week has signaled a change in the way I conceive of Texas—what it is, and what it can be. I’m struggling to piece together a narrative, and to find a way to condense that narrative, to simplify it. I don’t feel like I’ve gotten very far yet.
In laying this all out, I’m surprised at where I’ve ended up, and that’s with a simple, and very difficult, plea.
I shouldn’t be alone in this struggle just because I’m here and involved. We should all be chewing on the events of last week in Texas, even if it is a little gristly. On Tuesday night, I read Facebook statuses and tweets from people across the country who were looking and listening to Texans, and who saw something they weren’t expecting. And on Wednesday, they saw perhaps exactly what they expected.
There’s cognitive dissonance here. What’s happening in Texas isn’t simple. There’s so much to figure out: how to sustain momentum, how to fight the abortion bill going forward, how to stop ending lives, how to fight laws and change people who are deeply, deeply rooted in an unforgiving and unhappy past. I guess what I’m asking you to do is recognize that it’s not simple, and continue to care anyway. What I’m asking is that you sit in this confusing place with me. What I’m asking is that going forward, you try not to forget Wendy Davis (in Texas we like to, um, remember).
What I’m asking is that you do not yield to a simple narrative about Texas again: that it is only a big, ugly, prideful, backward, unmovable place. This is an easy story to tell, but it’s one that intelligent, attentive people all over the world tell anyway. What I’m asking is that you do not yield to the truly ugly things about Texas—Kimberly McCarthy’s execution, whatever Rick Perry says today, these inconceivable abortion measures that will pass anyway, the deep red of our electoral map, the fact that the happiest news of the week, the overturn of DOMA, doesn’t completely reach down here—to the extent that they fool you into forgetting the other things, the things that should now be evident. Wendy Davis, the sound of those women, the reemergence of a visible, fevered Texas Democratic party, the very real concerns of 26 million people who have been here all along.
I’m asking that you try to let this week convince you to stop writing off Texas because it’s easy to mock. I’m asking you to step in and struggle with the complexity. It matters to us, and it matters to you. (Just ask Erica Grieder.) That passion you heard shaking the Capitol building on the livestream, or on MSNBC the next day—let that broaden your consideration. That is here, too. That is battling, trying to make a difference, even from the muck and despair of years and years of right-wing rule, even while we are also executing prisoners and electing old, angry, white men. Forgetting any of this, ignoring it, or engaging in lazy caricatures of Texas and its people—this does us a disservice. The more acceptable this becomes in the rest of the country, the less what happens down here is held accountable. The more engaged, progressive people who let Texas scare them away, the fewer people here to enact any change.
This week I was many things at once. (Multitudes, or something.) On Tuesday, I was a woman. I was a body. At 11:50 pm, I was a set of vocal cords. On Wednesday, I was a daughter. I was a nine-year-old again, eavesdropping on the terrifying details of a murder I couldn’t understand from my great-uncle’s living room. This week I’ve been scared, bored, queer, ecstatic, and exhausted. In all of it, though, I think I’ve determined that for better or worse, I am really, deeply, truly, just Texan. Might you be a little Texan, too?
Continue to pay attention. Don’t consider our fights lost causes. And even though I can hear Austinites shrieking as I type this: move here. (Without a car, preferably.) If you’re already here, stay.
The new special session has started. If you’re interested, we’re here with sweltering heat and very good tacos, with Wendy Davis and open arms.
Photo by Anne Harkness.