This is a blog post done jointly by Douglas and Sarah.
For Southern progressives, this has been a thrilling week. The main reason for that was the citizens’ defeat of Senate Bill 5 in the Texas State Senate. For those of you who live under what has to be a fairly comfortable rock, the Republicans that dominate Texas state government sought to push through a piece of legislation that would effectively shutter most of the abortion clinics in the state. Anyone who has been to Texas knows at least one thing: it is really big. The distance from Booker, in the Panhandle, to Brownsville in South Texas is 827 miles; from El Paso in the west to Orange in the east in 856 miles. Given that there are already communities in the Texas Panhandle or the colonias in Presidio County that require a 200+ mile drive to the nearest abortion clinic (and that is if you need an abortion early in the pregnancy; it can be over 300 miles if you need an abortion later in your term), it would severely curtail access to reproductive healthcare for Texas’ poorest women.
Texas women knew this, and they did not sit back quietly while their rights were legislated away. They organized, they rallied, and they made their voices heard throughout the entire process. The first notable action was the “citizen’s filibuster”, where hundreds of women filled the State Capitol and testified against this bill for over 10 hours. When that process was shut down, the State House voted to pass on the legislation to the State Senate. When it became clear that the Senate vote would be the last stand for Texas women, State Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) stated her intention to filibuster the bill. Women and progressive activists filled the Capitol, while Sen. Davis gave it her all for over 13 hours. When the Republican presiding officer ended the filibuster on very dubious technicalities, other Democratic state senators stood in the gap, using parliamentary procedure to point out that the Republican majority was essentially trying to subvert democratic processes by ignoring certain senators, and abusing the parliamentary procedure. That is when the other hero of the night, State Sen. Leticia Van De Putte (D-San Antonio, who attended a funeral for her father earlier that day), did a mic drop for the ages:
“At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”
The rest was history. The crowd outside burst into a spontaneous roar that took up the remaining time left in the special session. While the Republicans attempted to say that the final bill was passed before midnight (even going to the extent of changing the times of the bill passage in the official ledger), the large social media presence surrounding the proceedings called them on their shenanigans. Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had to do something that so few Republicans in the South ever have to do: admit defeat. They were not gracious about it, of course, but the victory over them was in hand.
A great moment! Something worth celebrating! Surely, this rare victory for Southern progressivism was being lauded in real time by the major networks and news outlets, right?!
You would be wrong. Progressive struggles in the South are often fought in the shadows, and nowhere has that been made more plain than in the aftermath of the recently completed special session of the Texas legislature.
Chris Hayes was the only MSNBC broadcaster to mention the grassroots battle that was occurring on Tuesday night, and only briefly. Anderson Cooper thought that an anti-sagging law in rural Georgia was more worthy of mention than the women fighting for reproductive freedom in Texas. Piers Morgan talked about the amount of calories in a blueberry muffin. Even when news organizations finally decided that the story was worth covering, they got it wrong, as evidenced by Texas activist Jessica Luther’s reaction to a Washington Post story from Friday morning:https://twitter.com/jetpack/status/350460511869091840
The worst offender in my mind, however, was MSNBC’s Up with Steve Kornacki. In addition to having no one from Texas on the panel devoted to the SB5 battle (Battleground Texas’ Jeremy Bird grew up in Missouri and went to college in Illinois and Massachusetts), the activities that occurred earlier this week were discussed for only a couple of minutes before non-Texas panel descended into the familiar discussions that dominate political roundtables: “Will Wendy Davis run for Governor in 2014?” “How will this affect the Presidential race in 2016?” “Is this a prelude to the South going blue?”
Imagine what that panel would have discussed if Luther, Andrea Grimes, and other Texas activists who were organizing their families, their friends, and their communities had been up there. Maybe the discussion about progressive change in Texas, as well as across the South, would have focused on building power. Maybe the discussion would have talked about the hard reality that we are a long way from a politically competitive South, even as we celebrate the sort of victories that will light the way forward. Maybe the discussion would have also mentioned the names of Kirk Watson, Royce West, and the other state senators who stepped in to push the special session towards its climactic end. The frustrations of Luther are palpable, and understandable:https://twitter.com/jetpack/status/350460611852902400
But the media are not the only offenders. As evidenced by Texas, national organizations show up after much of the heavy lifting has been completed. After the local activists rally to the capitol, which takes quite a bit of organizing work by local people with relationships in their communities, then come the national organizations who have sent their “regional field organizer” (who likely lives outside of the region they are organizing). This serves a few purposes for the organization. First, it makes them appear relevant to a campaign that they may have had nothing to do with. The photos snapped with locals play out very nicely in the organizational newsletter and magically make the national mandate of having a presence in 50 states appear from thin air. Second, national organizations often have a better fundraising mechanism (a-la a large national database), so letting members across the country know that something atrocious happened in the South and that their organization is crucial to fixing it is a quick and easy thing. The partnerships between national and local organizations might remain unnamed. Money flows into national organizations, national organizations retreat back to headquarters after the low-hanging fruit has been harvested, and grassroots organizations are left empty handed.
We are not saying that national organizations don’t have a place in grassroots organizing; to the contrary. The larger point is that current tactics are hurting progressivism and social justice efforts in the South. The financial stability of many national organizations depends upon the South and other marginalized regions and communities being easily stereotyped as horrible human beings. Exactly as horrible as wealthy donors have heard! Painting a truer picture of a more complicated and diverse South doesn’t raise as much money or visibility as beating up on a trope of sad ole’ Mississip. (Side note: poor planning was the cause of the march being cancelled; the organizer did not file for the standard permit in time, but the lightning is a nice, misleading touch). This happened with Initiative 26 in Mississippi, with the Feminist Majority Foundation sending temporary organizers and national emails but not having a meaningful role in defeating an initiative that many outside observers were certain would pass with ease. These organizations were, in turn, remarkably invisible when Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and the Republican dominated legislature passed TRAP legislation aimed at shutting down the one abortion clinic left in Mississippi (the Jackson Women’s Clinic). National organizations seem to always leave once a battle is done with name recognition and more resources, leaving the cash-strapped local activists to fight the war alone. It goes without saying that this is a mighty ineffective method for progressive change in the South.
When the media and national progressive organizations descend on the South it is usually for things like this. Or this. Or this. Or this. The only story that ever gets told is the same one that has always been told: the South as conservative, white, oppressive, and backwards. But the South is more than that. It is home to more GLBTQ couples raising children than any other part of the country. It is home to Black people who, their ancestors having been uprooted because of unremitting racial violence and economic oppression, return to a South that is growing faster than any other part of the country, and boasts more Black legislators than ever before. It is home to a growing Latino community that is swiftly becoming an important part of any governing coalition in the South. And it is home to the some of the most innovative progressive activists in the country, as evidenced by the events this week. National organizations are telling an exaggerated version of our communities, and believe that one-week road trips constitute meaningful work in a state or region. Our stories are not being told by a media that only seems to see Southern progressive victories as a time filler in between discussions of more “pressing matters”: