Point Austin: Congratulations on the Struggle

The Supreme Court decision rests upon political agitation

Point Austin

The relationship between grassroots activism and political progress is seldom direct, but it's a truism that without the activism, there would be very little progress. Consider last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned two of the most onerous provisions of the Texas omnibus law designed to make it as difficult as possible for women to access abortion care (see "One Court, Three Decisions," July 1). On Monday evening following the decision, there were celebrations of the Court's ruling and of the historic 2013 protest at the Capitol and Senate gallery, where hundreds of people – mostly women – came together to support the filibuster by then-Sen. Wendy Davis and to remind lawmakers of the millions of people affected by their actions.

The immediate fruit of that protest was uneven. Democratic senators and the assembled protesters succeeded both in delaying passage of the law, and in exposing the dishonest tactics of the Republican majority, which extended to an attempt to alter the clock that signaled the end of the legislative session. But in due course, Gov. Rick Perry called a special session, the bill in a different form was rammed through the Legislature, and while the appeals worked through the courts over the past three years, more than half of the state's abortion clinics were forced to close – the inevitable result of the law's sham claim of "protecting women's health."

That damage is serious, and reflects the institutional violence that can be inflicted by seemingly innocuous bureaucratic actions. Monday's decision – led not incidentally by women justices – confirmed that the state of Texas had placed unconstitutional obstacles in the way of women seeking health care. While the 2013 protest did not lead directly to that ruling, it's also true that this progress would not have been made without decades of hard work, agitation, and protest by women's groups and others, dedicated to reclaiming rights that reactionary politicians are determined to constrict.

Progress Requires Struggle

Describing his recent book, Engines of Liberty, Georgetown Law Professor David Cole writes, "I seek to show that the real movers of constitutional change are not the elite lawyers who argue before the Supreme Court, nor the Justices themselves – although both sets of actors of course play a part – but ordinary citizens, working together to make their own shared vision of constitutional ideals into constitutional law." Cole's examples do not include the fight over reproductive rights – instead marriage equality, gun rights, and "counter-terrorism" laws – but the principles are the same. Marriage equality, for example, took decades of outreach, education, organization, and public protest before the cultural ground was prepared to enable the state and federal judicial decisions that established constitutional equality. Without citizens "working together" to realize constitutional ideals, the courts will avoid or reject isolated attempts at change. "If there is no struggle," declared Frederick Douglass, "there is no progress."

I was reminded of those words after reading Ken Herman's odious June 27 rant in the Statesman, recalling and denouncing the 2013 Senate protest as "a low point in my more than 35 years of watching the Texas Legislature." Herman whined at the time that the protest was deplorable, and his response to the Supreme Court decision is to grudgingly acknowledge the victory, only to repeat, with venal condescension, "But we err if we in any way view this as vindication or justification for the childish protest mounted by folks who didn't seem to understand how our system works."

As Douglass also said, "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."

Seeing No Evil

As for "low points" – Herman is utterly and willfully blind to the blatant Republican abuse of Senate rules that finally triggered the open outcry from the gallery. More broadly, he seems to have entirely missed the recent decades of Texas Republican rule: the defunding of public schools and universities, the undermining of public health care, the commercial destruction of environmental regulations, the endless and pointless lawsuits against the federal government, and yes, the relentless effort to destroy reproductive health care. "Those with the most votes win," Herman insists – but over many, many years, he has studiously ignored or dismissed the ongoing GOP campaigns of extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression that have worked to deliver the "most votes" to a radical right minority.

None of these things have been sufficiently "low" for Herman's denunciation – only brief civil disobedience at the Capitol (and in the U.S. House last week) move him to outrage, and to complain of "fruitless protest." Herman's answer to official oppression? Sit down and shut up.

Luckily, judging from the online responses to his petulant ravings, very few readers are foolish enough to follow those instructions. Perhaps a few even recall the rather more trenchant words of Frederick Douglass: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

For more, check out our War on Women's Health page.

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abortion rights, HB 2, Wendy Davis, Engines of Liberty, David Cole, Frederick Douglass, Ken Herman, Statesman, Rick Perry

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