The People’s History: The Birth of the New Feminist Army in Texas

This article was originally published at RH Reality Check. Feature image by Daniel Cavazos 

by Rocío Villalobos, Yatzel Sabat, Rockie Gonzalez, Lisa Fithian and Hallie Boas

An entire year has passed since the shouts heard around the world reverberated throughout the Texas Capitol and forced the state legislature to come to a screeching halt. Rise Up/Levanta Texas formed in late June 2013 as a grassroots response to a growing awareness that our bodies, stories, and voices were being made invisible within the larger narrative surrounding reproductive rights and HB 2. The same pattern is playing out today as people continue to center straight, cisgender, white women in the retelling of the events that unfolded last summer and single out abortion as the only issue at hand. Several individuals and groups have published retrospectives that focus on Wendy Davis, women, and abortion, but their story of the struggle for reproductive justice in Texas is incomplete, and the reality of what happened is so much broader than what the public is being told.

Rise Up/Levanta Texas formed in late June 2013

Rise Up/Levanta Texas formed in late June 2013

The legislation has undoubtedly placed restrictions on people’s ability to access abortions. The provisions of HB 2 included the following: abortions were prohibited after 20 weeks of pregnancy; doctors performing abortions must have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic where abortions are performed; doctors must adhere to Food and Drug Administration-approved protocol when giving people medication abortion pills; and, by September 2014, all abortion clinics must meet ambulatory surgical center standards. However, many of the clinics that were targeted by HB 2 did more than just provide abortions. In huge spans of the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas, thousands of poor and working-class people also lost access to routine services such as mammograms, cervical cancer screenings, sexually transmitted infection testing, and contraception. At the end of the day, a pregnant person with access to financial resources will find a way to get an abortion, and it is unlikely that they would have utilized abortion clinics as their primary source of medical care. Rise Up/Levanta Texas thus interprets HB 2 as a manifestation of the apartheid that exists within the medical industrial complex in the state and in the country.

via Rise Up/Levanta Texas

via Rise Up/Levanta Texas

The “war on women” is being waged on a massive scale, however, in a way that too few people were talking about before Rise Up/Levanta Texas started to contribute to the shift in the narrative. We strove to center the war on the poor, the Black and the brown, the undocumented and queer people, and ways in which this bill serves as a weapon of the state in those prolonged wars against these particular communities. Yes, HB 2 actively sought to limit women’s ability to access abortions, but the struggle goes beyond this narrow focus on the “war on women.” Before and during the night of Wendy Davis’ filibuster, many people, including folks working with and for the Democratic Party, and other nonprofits, were aware of the desire and the need for civil disobedience as a means of resistance. There was a general level of preparedness and understanding around the subject when it came up in discussion. After the initial filibuster, however, as bodies began to regularly fill the capitol, groups associated with the Democratic Party and the other large coalitions, were quick to shift gears from amplifying voices of people suffering at the hands of the State, to analyzing how the energy that was being generated could be captured for votes and donors. In doing this, their perspective was no longer focused on the situation at hand. The Democratic Party and its allied organizations took self-assuming positions of power and were quick to criticize and police the actions of Rise Up/Levanta Texas instead of continuing a dialogue about how to use our collective strength to fight oppressive policies being enacted by the state. Discussions were shifted towards elections—people were told to “wait until November” (the 2014 midterm elections) to “fight back,” while far-right zealots spent each day at the capitol using all means possible to oppress and push people out of a public process.

Consider this document the collective testimony of Rise Up/Levanta Texas—our bearing witness to the events that transpired, the repression that supporters of reproductive justice experienced, and the violence that was unleashed on our bodies and spirit in an effort to kill the rebirth of the feminist movement in Texas. We do not claim to represent all of the voices of those who have been written out of this particular moment in history, nor do we claim to represent the voices of those who were tangentially involved in the events and actions that Rise Up/Levanta Texas coordinated last summer. However, we do intend for this to serve as a people’s history of sorts, one that centers those who are often relegated to the margins or made invisible due to the state’s fondness for revisionist history. The stories recounted below are a testament to our commitment to make the discussion of reproductive justice one that is intersectional and uncompromising in our belief that everyone has the right to bodily autonomy, self-determination, and dignity.

Texans Rise and Organize

While the new special session rectified the bill and sought to quell the massive uprising of dissent surrounding the capitol, those of us who were present at the capitol for the filibuster never could have imagined the outpouring of resistance to HB 2 that people in Texas demonstrated. Inspired by the sea of orange that flooded the capitol and came to represent the pro-choice movement, a group of long-time organizers and activists met a couple of days after the filibuster to discuss what a grassroots response to this right-wing attack on reproductive rights in Texas might look like. From the beginning we articulated the importance of nonhierarchical organizing, nonviolent direct action, and prioritizing the voices of those most impacted by the legislation.

Using an intersectional lens to analyze and discuss HB 2 was also at the core of our work. The group that would become Rise Up/Levanta Texas was comprised of people from different backgrounds with respect to race, gender, age, ability, class, and sexuality, among other factors. Our different lived experiences as people and organizers allowed us to connect what was being played out at the capitol to larger systems of oppression that affect us differently based on our identities. Our process manifested a very different story about power than the narrative espoused by “Stand With Texas Women” and allowed us to articulate the impact of HB 2 in a way that centered the experiences of those who were being left out of the conversation. We told the story that was being ignored: the story of those who would be most impacted. It was not just about cisgender women needing abortions, but about queer and trans people, people of color, people with disabilities, rural Texans, undocumented migrants who might be risking detention and deportation by being forced to drive hundreds of miles and through Border Patrol checkpoints, sex workers, and IV drug users needing access to basic health care. We are the people who were willing to put our bodies on the line to prevent an even greater injustice. We worked with intention to be collective, cooperative, creative, and collaborative with other groups working to defeat HB 2.

From the beginning, we strategically focused on where we might be able to make a difference. Each day we produced a list of legislative targets and key messages so we could creatively interrupt the process, generate media, and build momentum not just in Austin or Texas, but around the country as thousands of people watched on. We functioned horizontally, organizing in working and affinity groups, and in clusters to accommodate those who had come together to organize and carry out creative direct actions. We held regular spokes council meetings where our action plans emerged into an overall action framework that enabled many levels of participation. In an effort to model direct democracy, our decisions were made using a consensus based decision-making process. We trained hundreds of people in nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience building pressure along the way. We did this openly, publicly with no fear, despite the increasing police presence and its focus on us.

via Rise Up/Levanta Texas

via Rise Up/Levanta Texas

During our regular meetings we developed a roll-out plan with trainings, meetings, and actions. Each day we grew stronger with more and more people joining us on the ground. Rise Up/Levanta Texas became a force within the capitol that kept the momentum and media attention building. From creative testimony, from marches to sing-ins, from the parachute banner to gallery actions, from legislator office actions to eventually civil-disobedience, we showed up, spoke out, and refused to back down.

Early on we decided that a cleverly coordinated media campaign would be a central part of Rise Up/Levanta Texas’ efforts to change the narrative surrounding reproductive rights. Rather than wait for the mainstream news outlets to come to us, we sought out a combination of mainstream and alternative news outlets in order to proactively engage the media. We had late-night meetings to craft press releases, generate talking points, and designate media spokespersons. We tried to be mindful of who was doing the talking and prioritized having queer folks and people of color as points of contact to intentionally disrupt mainstream media’s messaging and images of who would be directly impacted by HB 2.

The Rise Up/Levanta Texas media team also posted updates, articles, photos, and videos through various social media platforms in both English and Spanish. We utilized a mass texting app to communicate with our supporters regarding when and where we were coordinating direct actions, trainings, and general assemblies. Our sense of humor and passion for what we were doing kept us going through the late nights and countless hours spent working. In the end we were successful in getting some of our perspectives and organizing efforts published through the New York Times, Real News Network, Truthout,and Common Dreams, to name a few. We were also able to gain the attention of local Spanish language media, which we considered a huge victory. Having outlets through which to tell this story proved to be more important than ever during the final days of the fight at the capitol as people were arrested during acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Lies and accusations were spread by legislators and by the state police in an attempt to have the public believe we were radical extremists acting from a place of hate rather than a place of concern for basic human rights and dignity.

Solidarity is a Beautiful Verb

During that time, the entire world was exploding with people out in the streets who were speaking out and fighting back against oppressive regimes of power. This reminded us that our organizing must take into account the places in this country and around the world that live with the implications our government’s aggressive policies have upon their/our daily lives. One of the more beautiful and inspiring elements of our organizing at the capitol appeared in the form of acts of solidarity from people all over the United States as well as some from people abroad. During the height of our organizing, we spent days and nights at the capitol without ready access to food and drinks. We were inspired, but we were also exhausted, hungry, and often dehydrated thanks to the overwhelming Texas heat and humidity. People quickly answered our calls for support by sending us pizza, snacks, water, and what soon become everyone’s favorite, pro-choice vegan donuts from Austin’s Red Rabbit Cooperative Bakery. While these actions may seem simple, they met one of our most basic needs and reminded us that we are connected to a much broader community that exists outside of Austin, Texas, and the State Capitol. We belong to a community of reproductive justice advocates and freedom fighters who believe that everyone should have the right to decide what happens to their bodies. We were and are outraged by the Texas legislature’s attacks on care and on people’s right to decide what is in their own best interest. Knowing that we had statewide, national, and international support; that thousands of eyes were watching us and cheering us on from all over the world boosted our morale and reminded us of what was at stake: our collective sense of self-determination.

via Rise Up/Levanta Texas

via Rise Up/Levanta Texas

Also missing from these retellings are mention of the 16 people who were arrested that summer—those who were arrested for explicitly protesting HB 2 and those who were arrested merely for associating too closely with “radical” protesters. Several others were ushered and at times carried out of the house and senate galleries as the bill approached a final vote. As the police forcibly arrested those whose voices expressed discontent with the process inside the legislature, several liberal women of color legislators on the floor clapped for those being carried away and for those who also stood up in protest that day. We realized in that moment that as limited as the party politicians were in what they could do and in what they could advocate, they still subscribe to a process that many of us have long since lost faith in. Maybe by clapping for us they were starting to recognize that they needed our help in the fight. Not the petition signing, voter registering, orange T-shirt wearing, Wendy Davis fan club-type help, but rather help from the radicals—from the limitless and unafraid. The politicians who were on the front lines and getting their asses handed to them were starting to get it anyway. The Democrats out on in the halls with us were still mostly being , but progress is progress, and we appreciated it.
When the final vote was taken and the bill passed, a sit-in of over 50 people took place outside of the gallery doors, where protesters were brutalized during Texas State Troopers’ attempts to disperse them. We were outraged by the use of unnecessary violence and force by the police, but proud of our friends and comrades for holding the space and power despite the brutality of the state.

You Can’t Legislate This: Growing the Resistance

The day the bill was signed into law, we knew the fight had only just begun and that we had our work cut out for us. We could no longer watch in silence as misogynistic, patriarchal, and conservative governmental forces continued to try and dominate our lives. As a result of HB 2, fewer than two dozen abortion clinics are currently operating in Texas. The southernmost clinic in operation is in San Antonio, meaning that people living in border areas have to drive hours in order to receive care. In West Texas, people can only obtain an abortion in their first trimester. Many clinics have attempted to challenge the provision in HB 2 regarding hospital admitting privileges, but only one clinic has been successful in its attempts. By the time HB 2 goes into full effect, only five abortion clinics that are also ambulatory surgical centers will remain in the cities of Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio.

Since last summer, Rise Up/Levanta Texas has been working on becoming a sustainable and fixed presence in Central Texas that consistently advocates and works towards reproductive justice. Our members have taken part in statewide and national convenings, conferences, and meetings aimed at addressing and challenging the terrifying reality that Texans will face when HB 2 goes into full effect in September of this year. We have spoken on panels and given presentations about our work, the obstacles we faced and continue to face, and what differed in our perspective and approach that made people pay attention to what we were doing. Just as important has been our ability to connect with other activist groups and individual organizers working around these issues in other red states that face similar, if not copycat, legislation to what we now have to contend with.

Before the filibuster, every day since, and after this election in November, no matter its result, marginalized communities will continue to be at the receiving ends of the adverse effects of an oppressive state. Rise Up/Levanta Texas does not see turning the state “blue” as part of our mission for the future; our collective efforts were not limited by these markers of time because achieving social justice compels constant pressure at the root of the problem. We will not be silent about what is happening in our state. We have not stopped the pressure. The struggle is not just about abortion or women’s rights or getting out the vote—this is about uncovering the truth with respect to ongoing attacks that are historically rooted in greed, racism, and hate. Enough is enough.

Ultimately, we do not see the passage of HB 2 as a total loss. On the contrary, we recognize that that moment was an opportunity and an opening. Since the summer of 2013, we’ve seen record participation and widespread support from people all across Texas whose vision differs from the draconian, anti-democratic, misogynistic political tricks we saw come out of the capitol. It became clear that last summer was only the beginning. In order to continue building the feminist army, we must support each other and keep the pressure on for access to comprehensive reproductive health care in our communities. We will continue to fight for access to reproductive health care and for reproductive autonomy that all Texans deserve. Will you join us?


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Rise Up/Levanta Texas

A broad based coalition defending the right of all people in Texas to equal & safe healthcare and reproductive options. Follow us on Twitter: @RiseUpTX

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  1. if no one votes, nothing else matters. The state government, packed to the gills with white male conservatives, caused this if they are not voted out, it will continue.

    I understand your reservations about the national Dem party coming and “corporatizing” the genuine energy, but, their efforts are very important.

  2. Your dedication to social justice and use of nonviolent protest are very inspiring. Thank you so much!

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