How Texas Republicans are using the pandemic to fortify their power

by | May 10, 2021 | Coronavirus, Politics

We’ve all seen the images. Crowds of impassioned protesters and activists streaming into the Texas State Capitol to fight, scream, and implore lawmakers to not just hear them out, but acknowledge their humanity. Many of us have personally been in those throngs of political will, an experience that, under the right circumstances, feels nothing short of intoxicating. And while self-empowerment is certainly part of the draw, mass mobilizations have a storied legacy in Texas for a single reason: they work.

For many people, the most prominent example that comes to mind is Wendy Davis’ filibuster. The then-state senator’s actions on June 25, 2013 — standing for nearly 11 hours straight while delivering a passionate speech against a bill seeking to severely restriction abortion access — remain a fabled act of heroism for lone star progressives. What can’t be unmarried from Davis’ persistence, though, is the fact that thousands of orange-clad protesters had descended upon the Capitol in solidarity. Many of them were in the senate chamber that night, unleashing cheers, applaus, and chants of “Kill the bill!” and “Wendy!” as her conservative peers sought to strike her filibuster down. 

We all know what happened next. Paired with Davis’ savvy and those pink running shoes, the activists there that day imposed their political will. Republicans eventually got their way thanks to Gov. Rick Perry’s calling of a second special session, but that acclaimed June night served as a reminder that the people will hold Texas lawmakers accountable by whatever means necessary. 

There are far less clamorous ways for advocates to get their voices heard, too. During 2017’s legislative session, which was centered around Dan Patrick’s infamous “bathroom bill,” lawmakers were bombarded with hours of testimony from parents, children, experts, and others within Texas’ transgender community. These arguments, these pleas for compassion and understanding, ultimately worked to defeat the legislation. In the process, they served as the latest reminder of the importance (and effectiveness) of speaking directly to legislators and ensuring they’re painfully aware of how unpopular restrictive, right-wing laws are.

But that’s what makes the 2021 session so unpredictable and, ultimately, beneficial to Republicans. With the COVID-19 pandemic still very much a concern throughout the spring, advocates like Ash Hall say this year has presented new challenges to mass organizing. Even with vaccines being distributed throughout the state, people have been less likely to brave the safety hazards posed by traveling to Austin and delivering in-person testimonies at the Capitol. The fact that the Texas House — where Rep. John Ramey (R – District 14) recently contracted the virus despite being vaccinated — no longer requires face masks to be worn indoors has only exacerbated these fears. 

As a result, Texas legislators have faced far less in-person testimonies than they normally would. That doesn’t mean advocates and concerned citizens can’t voice their opinions through avenues like written declarations and virtual platforms like Zoom (when available), of course. But it doesn’t take a veteran activist to know that these paths of protest, which are both impersonal and indirect, don’t carry the same weight as a speech, discourse, or demonstration delivered straight to a lawmaker’s face.

The timing of this couldn’t be more dangerous. Unharrassed and insulated from public opinion like never before, conservative lawmakers have continued to push through the most extreme right-wing agenda in Texas legislative history. Indeed, they’ve found it easier than ever to pursue legislation that strips minority voters of their rights at the ballot box, further weakens women’s healthcare offerings, targets transgender youth, and makes it legal to openly carry a firearm without a permit. 

Much of this was expected after Texas Democrats’ crushing losses in last November’s elections. But as this session has progressed, it has become increasingly clear that, while immeasurable, the impact of Republicans’ ability to avoid in-person accountability for their actions is a real thing. And it’s happening across the country. In Georgia, state Rep. Park Cannon was arrested for knocking on Gov. Brian Kemp’s office door as he enacted an anti-democratic voting law. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis only allowed Fox News reporters to cover his signing of a similarly vile election bill. Based on reporting by the Texas Tribune, it looks like Republicans are seeking to do the same thing here, too, by rewriting its own voting restriction bill behind closed doors

Despite these circumstances, advocates are finding different ways to make their voices heard. Last month, youth activists unleashed hundreds of thousands of rose petals into the Capitol’s rotunda to symbolize the masses of Texans of color who become eligible to vote every year. Protesters have also gathered outside the building to express support for bills like the George Floyd Act. 

Nonetheless, the implications of this trend couldn’t be more harrowing. Republicans have long fortified their political power by suppressing marginalized communities — but the current conditions have given them a distinct level of disconnect from everyday Texans at a critical juncture. 

Photo: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP via Getty Images

Contributing Writer/Podcaster | + posts
Based in his hometown of Austin, David is a political reporter and feature writer whose work has appeared in the likes of The Washington Post, the Texas Observer, and Public Health Watch. He’s also a graduate of the University of Texas, where he studied government and wrote for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Texan. In addition to providing a blend of reported pieces and opinion columns for the Texas Signal, David is a frequent guest on the outlet’s signature podcasts. You can find him playing basketball or hanging out poolside in his free time.

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