Last week, thousands of Texans flocked to Austin to respond to the Legislature's abortion bill, and the Capitol teemed with crowds in orange and blue. But another group dressed in tan also made their presence known: Texas Department of Public Safety officers.
Although DPS officers are normally assigned to police Texas highways throughout the state, about 300 officers patrolled the Capitol on the last day of Senate debate. In the weeks leading up to the bill's passage, several pro-choice protestors were arrested for nonviolent demonstrations, and at least one woman, Sarah Slamen, was ejected from the building simply because committee members disagreed with her powerful testimony. Nonetheless, most of the officers remained peaceful, even helping protestors find overflow rooms, testimony registration kiosks, and power outlets.
But on Friday, Texas DPS regulations became increasingly aggressive and occasionally downright bizarre. So far, the DPS media office has not provided candid or reliable information, and we have a few unanswered questions.
Read more after the jump.Why confiscate tampons and pads?
According to the DPS press release, the department “received information that individuals planned to use a variety of items or props to disrupt legislative proceedings.” Who was the source, and what made them credible enough to confiscate women's private property? Next time, which “possible projectiles” will be banned from the Senate and House galleries: bras? hearing aids? wheelchairs? According to one woman's report, an officer claimed, “If you don't like it, you can get out of the Capitol.” Who has the discretionary authority to determine what citizens must tolerate in order to participate in the political process?
And where did those tampons and pads go? I know of several shelters for victims of domestic abuse that would have put such a donation to good use. But since 95% of DPS law enforcers have never menstruated, I doubt there was any push to take the hygiene products anywhere except the dumpster.
Were there really jars of feces?
The DPS press release claimed that officers found “one jar suspected to contain urine [and]18 jars suspected to contain feces” from individuals who were then admitted to the gallery. Why were no officers at the Senate gallery entrance able to corroborate those claims? Why were there no eyewitness accounts or photographs of officers collecting containers of waste? Did the officers really allow the protestors entry into the gallery after collecting the feces, as the statement suggested?
And if the reports were untrue, why were they published for national syndication on the Texas Department of Public Services website?
What standards of behavior did the DPS use to determine actions that warranted ejection from the Capitol?
On Friday evening, I was forcibly removed from the gallery line and escorted out of the building by several officers. I had rejoined the line after going to the restroom and finding a water fountain, and a crowd of anti-choice protestors notified Lieutenant Shipley. When I refused to give up my place, several DPS officers dragged me to my feet and took me outside, where they searched my bag without consent and threatened me with trespassing charges if I remained on Capitol grounds.
About an hour before anti-choice activists convinced police to kick me out for a trip to the bathroom, a man in a blue shirt physically accosted a pro-choice woman passing out free tampons. According to eyewitness reports, when the man attempted to hit her, she blocked the blow with her bag and sustained minor injuries. Although DPS officers were alerted, they refused to apprehend the attacker.
So were instructions given to officers to ignore certain aggressive offenders? Does the department not mandate that their employees to execute justice equally?
When do peaceful demonstrators become such a threat that they must be physically harmed?
After the abortion restrictions passed late Friday night, nonviolent protestors sat in front of the Senate gallery doors to express “solidarity with those who will suffer the devastating consequences of this legislation,” according to Rocío Villalobos of Rise Up/Levanta Texas. Their civil disobedience was met with a ferocious exhibit of unchecked brutality. Who ordered that sit-in participants be brutally hauled off the floor, tasered, and assaulted, and why? What “public safety” is a peaceable activist endangering?
We appreciate the Texas officers who have worked in the past few weeks to protect our right to petition our government for redress of grievances. Still, after Friday many of us feel compelled to ask: if peaceful appeals are criminalized by the DPS and the Republican Legislature, what options for dissent do we have?
Photo courtesy of Jay Janner and the Austin American-Statesman