Filibuster Fallout: The Gallery Arrests

After spending hours on crossword puzzles in the Senate gallery, an elderly woman gets cuffed

Martha Northington is handcuffed after being forced up the gallery steps by DPS troopers.
Martha Northington is handcuffed after being forced up the gallery steps by DPS troopers. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Among the most memorable and disturbing images of the events surrounding the June 25 Democratic filibuster of Senate Bill 5 were of Texas Depart­ment of Public Safe­ty officers forcibly escorting spectators out of the Senate gallery early Wednesday morning. Despite two arrests and some jarring footage of women being pulled forcefully from their seats, most interactions between DPS officers and what Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst dubbed the "unruly mob" were peaceful.

After a long day characterized by polite whispers and strained attention, the crowd first began to boo when Dewhurst sustained the third point of order against Sen. Wendy Davis, shutting down the filibuster. Dewhurst gave the order to clear the gallery, but there were not enough troops to make the sweep, and the gallery eventually quieted on its own after some spectators left voluntarily. A few minutes later, the gallery erupted again, this time with cheering and clapping over a pointed remark from Sen. Leticia Van de Putte – the noise of the gallery, amplified by the crowd outside in the rotunda, made it impossible for the Senate to conclude its vote before midnight, when time expired on the first special session.

The crowd was still cheering when additional DPS troops began to file into the gallery, just after midnight. With the special session having just ended and the Senate floor in chaos, officers began the slow work of herding spectators out in sections. While most spectators either left quietly or moved to a different section when they were approached, the noise and tension of the situation lent itself to confusion.

The most shocking incident of the night was the arrest of 74-year-old retiree Martha Northington. Several cell phones captured video of the elderly woman reaching for her purse, then yelling "You're hurting me!" as a DPS officer grabbed her by the arm. After a struggle in which it appeared Northington was being pulled up the stairs, she was handcuffed and taken to jail for the night. The trooper initially filed an affidavit claiming Northington slapped him and recommending she be brought up on felony charges for assaulting an officer. The presiding magistrate rejected the charges, instead filing a Class A misdemeanor for resisting arrest and Class C misdemeanor assault, charges tantamount to offensive or unwanted contact rather than violent assault.

Northington, who once worked for Hous­ton Councilwoman Eleanor Tinsley and recently moved to Austin to be closer to her children and grandchildren, seems an unlikely candidate for felony charges. Her lawyers say she sustained physical injuries from the rough handling and remains emotionally affected – she broke down in tears during a brief television interview the next day. "During most of the time she was sitting down doing crossword puzzles," says Sue Berkel, her lawyer. "Everybody else was hooting and hollering, and she was trying to get everybody quieted down."

Shortly after Northington's arrest, Jona­than "JD" Gins was arrested for disorderly conduct just outside the Senate gallery and spent the night with Northington in jail, where he was removed to the drunk tank after trying to speak to her. Gins, a former campaign manager for Mayor Lee Leffing­well who had been peacefully escorted out of the gallery, was approached by another spectator with video of North­ing­ton's arrest. "Somebody ran out and came up to me and said, 'Did you see this video?' She was sitting next to her in the gallery section."

Gins was arrested while attempting to take pictures through the closed door. "I wasn't trying to resist," he says. "But when I saw the footage I went back to the door to see if they were rustling up any other little old ladies." Although no other arrests were made at that time, another incident, also recorded on cell phone cameras, was occurring just across the gallery, involving 24-year-old writer and editor Hillary-Anne Crosby. Crosby had prepared herself for the sweep. "I was going to say, 'No, I'm sorry, I can't leave,' and that's all that I would say, because I understood they were doing their job." 

When she witnessed a trooper being rough with a woman in an adjacent seating area, however, Crosby changed her mind, deciding instead to gather her things and go quietly. "I put my bag on my shoulder and I had already turned that way, and he felt the need to still grab at me." Crosby jerked her arm away, and two other spectators grabbed onto her from behind, trying to tug her free of the officer's grip. Another officer intervened, allowing her to move temporarily to another section. Although Crosby's arm was bruised and in a sling for several days, she points out that all the other DPS officers were respectful and courteous. Some even seemed sympathetic. 

Later, an older woman who had seen the trooper grab Crosby's arm told her, "I went to my first rally in 1971; I'm too old to still be doing this." Crosby replied, "I'm 24 and I'm too young to have to be doing this."

Formal charges are pending for both Northington and Gins, and no court dates have been set.

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abortion rights, Martha Northington, Texas Department of Public Safety, DPS, Legislature, Senate Bill 5

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