As the special session of the Texas Legislature opened on Tuesday, lawmakers engaged in the posturing and positioning that will affect future debates on issues such as whether cities can regulate the removal of trees on private property or whether school districts will be allowed to accommodate the bathroom and changing room needs of transgender students without having to force them to use a facility of their birth gender. (Conservatives say teenage girls should not have to share a bathroom with someone who was born as a boy.) But around the building, there were citizens who were moved to come to the Capitol, mostly to show displeasure with these measures and continuing angst over Senate Bill 4, the sanctuary cities bill designed to punish local officials who do not fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities in deporting individuals charged with a crime, including misdemeanors. To get a better feel for the vox populi of these protestors, we dispatched to the Capitol the Texas Monthly summer interns: Amal Ahmed of Plano, Adam Iscoe of Austin, Omar Rodríguez Ortiz of Puerto Rico, Sutton Travis of Carthage, and Isabella Soto of McAllen. They tackled the task with enthusiasm and heart. Here is what they saw.
A group of school children in bright orange shirts lined up outside the Capitol on Tuesday morning, before the sweltering afternoon heat and the protests peaked. “We won’t be able to go into the galleries because the special session just started,” an apologetic tour guide told one of the parent volunteers. I asked another parent if she knew about the special session and the planned rallies— she looked back at me blankly for a second.
It was a quiet morning at the Capitol, and the halls of this historic, dimly lit building echoed with the soft footsteps of families and tour groups as they posed for photos in the rotunda. But outside one of the building’s bathrooms, Mike Hendrix lead a silent protest. Directing protesters in jeans and t-shirts with tape over their mouths, holding purple and yellow signs emblazoned with the words “Keep Austin Proud,” the energetic 38-year-old stood out in his trim grey suit. The silent demonstrators entered the Capitol in waves, stationed outside various bathrooms. That way, legislative staffers and perhaps legislators themselves would have to interact with them, their signs, and their silent yet powerful defiance.
“The sign on that door does mean a lot to different people,” Hendrix told me, gesturing towards the men’s room behind us. “We’re trying to put a face to the discrimination. I’m part of the LGBTQ community, and I’m very disturbed having to watch the discrimination that’s going on here in our state.” He was exhausted, he said, but hours later, I caught a glimpse of him still running around the building, meeting people and talking to the news media.
Meanwhile, a black, transgender woman — a sister, a friend, a mother and grandmother (“Still cute,” she quipped) — electrified the ralliers as she gave a speech from the front steps. Against the backdrop of a massive Texas flag, surrounded by dozens of people waving signs of support, she started off with a reminder: “We all understand that trans lives do matter. We understand that gay lives matter, lesbian lives matter, bisexual lives matter, gender non-conforming lives matter. More importantly, we understand every Texan’s life matters.”
Punctuated by cheers from the crowd, she slammed the bathroom bill as an invitation for hate crimes against trans people, and particularly trans people of color. “Let’s talk about public health,” she implored. “Texas is at the high end of HIV/AIDS. But we’re speaking about where I can go and relieve myself in private, and trying to take that right from me, when we could be adding more money to public policy, public testing and getting the word out about an epidemic that’s really causing us to die.”
At the rally on Tuesday afternoon, countless participants reveled in the intersectionality of the movements and coalitions represented today. In the crowds, a shirt might say “No SB4,” and a sign might read “Come and Take It” with a picture of a tree, but the protesters were doing more than just sweating together. Environmentalists, women’s health advocates and immigration activists all wanted to talk about the bathroom bill as one of the many issues they were here for. Even former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who I caught briefly, and unexpectedly, in the shade of the capital’s south entrance, wanted to talk about education funding but couldn’t do it without mentioning the work of the transgender advocates she’d met that day. “Their message is simple,” she told me. “Classrooms, not bathrooms. We are showing that we are one Texas, here to support each other regardless of our particular area of interest. We stand for equality for everyone and the right to be heard.”
It’s a simple sentiment, best encapsulated by the slogan on the ubiquitous bright red posters that citizens from across the state waved proudly as they proceeded into the Capitol itself: “Y’all Means All.”
Conservative lawmakers have dominated the state’s capitol and congressional delegation for the better part of two-decades, with no ready end in sight. But to call Texas a conservative state would be to ignore the five-hundred-or-so protesters gathered on the Capitol’s south lawn Tuesday afternoon. For many of the sign-toting teachers, tradesmen, students, retirees, union leaders, environmentalists, handmaidens, and the legislative aides and lawmakers that tend to avoid the reliable throb of such crowds, the afternoon’s demonstration was a familiar sight.
“We’re trying to teach these guys that history is made by those that show up and keep showing up,” Sera Bond told me, as her two sons shared a comic book atop one of several historic cannons on the Capitol grounds. “This is what we do now. We’re professional activists.”
Scores of activists like Ms. Bond and her sons, both professional and not, cheered as Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez greeted the crowd from the capitol steps. They chanted, “What do we do? Stand up, fight back!” As Wendy Davis led a group in the Capitol rotunda, tourists took their usual photographs and state troopers chatted idly over the noise. “This isn’t rowdy,” a Capitol security trooper told me, after he asked a protestor not to hang her flag over the rotunda’s third floor banister. “Come to a few more of these and you’ll see roudy. This is just loud!”
Many republican lawmakers and legislative staff, for their part, didn’t seem to mind, or even notice, the noise. That Governor Greg Abbott had delivered a warning about his political opponents earlier this week—“liberals are trying to mess with Texas!”—might have even seemed an odd remark to the hundreds of conservative staffers working in basement offices below the rotunda’s terrazzo floors. “What protest?” a Republican legislative aide asked me with a laugh from his subterranean perch. “When is there not a protest?” another staffer quipped.
For everyone at the capitol, protesters and legislators alike, the day felt like business as usual. Now, try and tell me this isn’t a crazy state.
People who willingly protests outside of the Texas State Capitol with the thermometer marking over 100 degrees Fahrenheit deserve to be heard. As journalists it’s easy to forget them when reporting on a hectic day like the first day of the Legislature’s special session because the focus usually is toward the elected politicians, their staff, and important speakers at the rally. Time is ticking; the story won’t write itself and pictures need to be taken, uploaded, and captions must be added. But aren’t regular people equally important? And, are we as journalists doing enough to share The People’s deepest concerns about the bills that might be enacted?
From regulating when is OK to chop down trees in private property to being a “sanctuary city,” Janet Kelso believes that it should be the decision of cities, not the state. “It’s funny that for years the Republicans screamed about state rights, state rights! Now they are taking the rights of the cities,” said Kelso of New Braunfels.
Others are worried about their family members being hurt or even killed if a bathroom bill passes restricting transgender people to the bathroom the coincides with the sex on their birth certificate. “There are people in my family and in my life that are not being protected right now. If the bathroom bill comes to pass I will have a family member who is a transgender woman who will be forced to go to a restroom with other men. It’s a law that will not protect any women that is not protected by an existing law but it will definitely put in danger transgender women,” said Carl Macburnett from Dallas. He said transgender women are likely to be attacked by bigots in men’s restroom.
Just as the outside rally was ending, people started lining up to enter the Capitol building for a second round of protests in the rotunda. A woman was standing a few feet from the south entrance dressed as Lady Liberty while raising a torch replica high and proud. “I love you and I love everyone and it’s time to stop being angry and hateful to each other,” said Peace Costanzo. She explained that her dress carries the names of 9/11 first responders. “They died because they love us; it’s time for us to start loving each other,” said Costanzo.
—Omar Rodríguez Ortiz
It was opening day of the legislature’s special session, but in the afternoon, at least, a visitor to the Texas Capitol was much more likely to bump shoulders with someone sporting a t-shirt or hoisting a sign with a pointed slogan than to catch a glimpse of a suited staffer, much less a legislator. The House and Senate might have both adjourned in the early afternoon, but the protests were just getting started.
By 2:15 p.m., nudging your way into the Capitol Rotunda rewarded you with quite a scene. While many protesters mingled in the center of the room, members of the Texas Handmaids lined the curved walls of the chamber, and, white-bonneted heads bowed under the portraits of past governors, began to chant “Shame. Shame. Shame.” An hour earlier, a knot of Handmaids gathered outside the Capitol had given me a bit of backstory on their recently birthed organization. Since mid-March, members of the Texas Handmaids have dressed in costumes similar to those of the handmaid characters in the Hulu TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” An offshoot of Naral Pro-Choice Texas, the Handmaids protest anti-abortion laws, or, more broadly, legislation they deem as anti-women.
“I’ve found that with each Handmaid action that I do, it kind of changes the temperature of the space,” Round Rock native Stephanie Martinez told me. “When you walk in, it’s unmistakable and iconic, and people know why you’re there without saying a word.”
Others were more vocal. Sporting turquoise t-shirts emblazoned, “The Impeaches,” members of the Resistance Choir of South Central Texas performed their song “A Constituent is a Person,” a parody of Sesame Street’s “The People in Your Neighborhood.” Another man, lofting his “Live Trees Matter” poster, confided to me that he was making an appearance “to support the trees.” One woman was at the Capitol because she has family members who work in the public school system, including a son who is a vice principal, and she thinks school financing has been on the legislature’s back burner for too long. Still others were speaking out against Senate Bill 4.
But all had a similar goal: to remind the legislators that over the next 30 days, Texans like them will have their eyes on the Capitol.
Nick DeRosa made his fourth trip from San Antonio to speak to representatives about how he would be personally affected by the anti-transgender Bathroom Bill. And Laura Oakley, President of the Grapevine Republican Club, woke up at 4 a.m. to make the drive to observe the first day of the special session. “I’m here as an individual taxpayer — we’re funding the joke here,” Oakley said. “I don’t get to go to work for an hour, call adjournment and still go home and get paid. I’m disappointed.”
Retired schoolteacher Annette Martinez is an Austin native who says this legislative session caused her to attend more rallies at the Capitol than she previously had in her entire life. She echoed Oakley’s disappointment. “It’s time to hold [the legislators] accountable and let them know that there are people out here that are watching,” Martinez said.
And indeed, yesterday, people were.
One of the handmade signs in the crowd yesterday spelled out in crooked, colorful marker: “Gov. Abbott: This is what democracy smells like.” If the sign was a literal reference to the atmosphere yesterday in the Capitol, democracy smells the way you would expect human bodies to when they’ve been crowded under the midday sun at the height of an Austin summer.
“We’re just trying to get what’s best for Texas,” Gilbert Ornelas, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who has always called Texas home, said earnestly. “We want to be proud of Texas again.”
An eerie calmness and a cool breeze swept through the outside of the Capitol in the morning hours of the 85th Texas Legislature’s Special Session. Early-bird activists and organizers were scattered across the Capitol lawn, ranging from a revolutionary acapella choir to Planned Parenthood volunteers staking out their spots for the afternoon’s events.
As the clock struck ten a.m. and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick banged the gavel to begin the senate’s business, the Senate gallery quickly grew stuffy with parliamentary procedure. Fellow journalists fired off live-tweets of the Senate’s dealings from their seats, meanwhile the crowd began to grow on the southern steps of the Capitol. Senator Kelly Hancock’s motion to suspend the “tag” rule and the debate and questions that ensued, including Senator José Rodriguez’s point of order that was later overruled by Patrick, constituted the special session’s opening day in the Senate, and as walked out of the Capitol when the Senate recessed at one hour and 15 minutes after it opened, the steps were being prepped for the afternoon’s rally.
Despite religion often being seen as justification for some of the legislation that gets passed in the Capitol’s chambers, and even some of the bills being considered during the special session, Pax Christi San Antonio brought a different religious perspective to the rally. With his long, gray hair, Anthony Blasi along with two other member of Pax Christi San Antonio, Karen Ball and Maria Tobin, have each spent at least ten years as members of Pax Christi. “We believe in Catholic social teaching. A living wage, immigration, healthcare as a human right — those are all Catholic principles,” Blasi said, the sun glinting off the white Pax Christi banner and into his eyes. They also openly discussed their pro-life stance with me, but extended that being pro-life to Pax Christi also means being anti-war and against the death penalty.
The heat and an extensive discussion on Catholicism’s belief in morality and having a social consciousness left me absolutely parched, so I gulped down a tepid water bottle and circled the south steps of the Capitol. An all-caps sign reading “FAYETTE COUNTY RURAL VOTER” caught my eye. The sign belonged to Amy Newland, a La Grange native and artist who wore a wide-brimmed straw hand and even wider round-framed glasses. She said she’s one of the few in her town that “come out [to protest] as individuals”, and Newland, who self-identifies as “middle-ground” but in the sense that she “listens to both sides”, recently started small Indivisible chapter, Central Texas 10 Indivisible, with the hopes of ousting current Republican U.S. Representative Michael McCaul.
Perhaps the people outside of the Capitol who captivated me the most were the young people, whose earnest excitement honest testimony tugged at the heartstrings of many, including my own.
Representing Wendy Davis’ Deeds Not Words, a non-profit started in 2016 as a “starting point for turning ideas about women’s equality into action”, were Ann Richards High School students Becca Alonso, 17, Aly Cerda, 17, Sierra Walton, 17, and Kai Bovik, whose fluorescent pink hair matched the pink on the transgender pride flag emblazoned on their poster. Bovik, 15, uses he/him and they/them pronouns has been involved in activism since he was 13 years old, but has become a frequent visitor of the Capitol for protests in light of Senate Bill 6, more popularly known as the Bathroom Bill. All the teens, however, credit Deeds Not Words for supporting them and motivating them to take action. “It helps us young people to get out, and they help train people for rallies,” says Alonso, her hands tightly and proudly gripping a sign that read “Girls Just Want to Have FUNdamental Rights”.
Speaking in front of 500-plus people is no easy feat, much less with the unforgiving Texas sun shining down on you and some of the most powerful people in the state of Texas convening in the building behind your back. Hours later I’m still absolutely floored by the testimony given by Wendy Milano, 9, on behalf of the Workers Defense Fund. Wearing a red t-shirt that read “Fight Back! No SB4”, Milano gripped the pages of her speech she read her family’s story and proudly testified against Senate Bill 4.
“We should be having fun this summer. Instead we had to come back,” said Milano to a cheering crowd of Texans. “Why don’t they pass laws that help families like mine and many others instead of trying to hurt us?”