Texas progressives are fighting back against an onslaught of draconian legislation

Young women dressed as Quinceaneras perform and protest SB4, an anti-”sanctuary cities” bill, at the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas, Wednesday, July 19, 2017. The “sanctuary cities” ban, signed in May, lets police ask people during routine stops whether they’re in the U.S. legally. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

Bills targeting abortion, queer people, and immigrants are among the agenda items being considered during an ongoing special session of the Texas legislature, which kicked off Tuesday. But while lawmakers met behind doors in Austin this week, activists rallied outside — part of a new progressive coalition fighting back across the state.

Appalled by the agenda items laid out by Governor Greg Abbott (R), progressives have spent the week rallying for various causes. National news coverage has centered on SB6, the controversial “bathroom bill” targeting transgender Texans. But other proposals, including SB4, which introduces devastating crackdowns on cities refusing to comply with federal officers on immigration, and striding measures restricting abortion and targeting public schools are also alarming activists. Now, more than 30 organizations have come together to form One Texas Resistance, a joint effort aiming to unite issue activists across the state.

The coalition is one intended to show conservative politicians that progressives are ready to work together to fight back, said Carisa Lopez, Executive Director for the Travis County Democratic Party.

“The 2018 election is looming and Texans are watching,” Lopez told ThinkProgress. “They notice when their schools aren’t funded but their neighbors are targeted because of the color of their skin or their gender identity. They notice when they lose their healthcare and the decisions that their elected city officials make are overturned. Their actions will have electoral consequences.”

Uniting across causes is making a difference, said Jess Herbst, the Mayor of New Hope, Texas, and the state’s first openly transgender elected official.

“One thing that’s different this time is that we have a huge coalition across issues,” Herbst told ThinkProgress. “Getting our people up here, getting people to ready to speak….we have a pretty concerted effort going on here.”

Herbst and other transgender activists have been working with immigrant and abortion rights organizations, among others, in an effort to combat the special session. They’ve had to move quickly — the 30-day extension, which will cost taxpayers up to $800,000, was only announced two months ago.

“We all started working together maybe two months ago,” said Herbst. “Emails started flying between all the major progressive groups.” Within a short time, she said, the coalition was formed, and activists made plans to head to Austin.

But they’ve got an uphill battle ahead of them, especially because of the session’s complexity. At its center is “sunset” legislation — must-pass bills that didn’t make it to Abbott’s desk during the regular session. Texas’ legislature meets every two years, and the government’s most recent session ended in May. But a back-and-forth ensued in the spring between the House and Senate — with the House insisting it had completed a review process of several government agencies that the more conservative Senate insisted it had not. The dispute allowed the regular session to close before a handful of agencies, including the Texas Medical Board and the Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners, underwent review. That turn of events paved the way for the special session — and, House members argue, allowed controversial legislation not passed during the regular session to move forward.

This contentious lead-up has clouded the session, dividing conservatives. Among other things, it has pitted two of Texas’ most powerful Republicans against each other. The far-right Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick supports Abbott’s efforts, while the more moderate House Speaker Joe Straus has called the entire agenda “manure.”

Protesters dressed as characters from “The Handmaid’s Tale” chant in the Texas Capitol Rotunda under portraits of former Texas governors George W. Bush and Rick Perry in Austin, Texas, Tuesday, July 18, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

But progressives are less concerned with Republican infighting and more focused on combating the legislation lawmakers will be considering for the next few weeks. For now, protesters are spending their time demonstrating, a process that has become increasingly creative. A number of activists dressed as “handmaids” — a nod to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale — on Tuesday, appearing at the state house in protest of anti-abortion legislation, and part of a larger effort by NARAL Pro-Choice Texas.

“From access to abortion to LGBTQ rights to public education, the basic human rights of Texans are on the line,” said Alexa Garcia-Ditta, who serves as Communications and Policy Initiatives Director for the group, in an email to ThinkProgress. “NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and more than two dozen other organizations are working together to build power and resist the Governor’s sham special session agenda and fight for solutions that better the lives of all Texans, including access to abortion and reproductive health care.”

Others took a similarly visual approach. On Wednesday, teenage activists appeared in quinceañera dresses at the Capitol building, part of a protest against SB4, which disproportionately affects Latinx communities.

“SB4 makes simply being brown a crime,” said 17-year old protester Magdalena Juarez. “We will resist by celebrating our families and our culture. We will resist by standing in unity.”

Flying under the radar are other protests, including one staged Monday by hundreds of teachers opposing a range of education proposals. One measure would see funds redirected from public schools in an effort to help students with disabilities pay for private education — something activists argue would hurt public education. The intersectional nature of those protests has brought together educators and advocates for disability and neurodiversity rights.

“Private schools largely do not take kids with special needs,” said Lisa Flores during another rally on Tuesday. “I resent my child and other children like him being used as political pawns. Education is not a partisan issue.” Flores also called out legislation targeting transgender Texans, noting that one anti-transgender proposal, HB50, would directly impact schools.

That the protests have transcended any single issue is an indicator of how much is at stake — but it’s also a credit to Texas activists. Erin J. Walter, a Unitarian Universalist minister and an advisor to the Sanctuaries, an organization linking art and social justice, said she was excited by the creative and multifaceted nature of the demonstrations.

“I am thrilled to see an amplification of the arts in Texas justice organizing right now,” Walter told ThinkProgress. “They show people who cannot come to the halls of government due to their jobs, health issues or transportation costs, or because they are afraid that others are showing up for their rights.”

But uniting across movements isn’t the only notable component of the protests. Progressivism in Texas is frequently seen exclusively in the context of the more left-leaning capital Austin, rather than the larger state. That’s inaccurate, said Herbst, whose constituents make up a small town in Collin County.

“This is absolutely not an Austin vs. Texas thing,” she said. “People are here from the [Rio Grande] Valley, from Houston, from El Paso, from Dallas, Fort Worth, everywhere. [Abbott’s government] represents a very small minority, and they are trying to ram their agenda down the throats of the Texas people.”

While protesters have diversity and broad state representation on their side, many are aware they’re facing a tall order. Much of Abbott’s proposed legislation has support from conservative allies in the legislature, posing a daunting challenge to progressives.

But for some, the show of activism currently playing out is a sign that the future is bright, even if the immediate future is bleak.

“Teenage Latinas held a quinceñeara at the capitol…to celebrate the vibrant Latinx culture here in Texas while protesting SB4,” said Walter. “[T]he Resistance Choir of Central Texas sang in the rotunda and the Texas Handmaids held silent vigil as speakers rallied on the capitol steps about reproductive justice, health care, education, and more.” This display of intersectional defiance, she emphasized, is lifting hopes and spirits, centering joy during a trying time and empowering progressives to keep fighting.

“It is all connected,” she said, “and people of marginalized communities are showing incredible courage and leadership in organizing in Texas right now.”