After Tampongate, We Have Some Questions for Texas DPS

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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

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About Author

Natalie San Luis

Natalie is a native Texan, a feminist, and a writer, focusing on reproductive justice, race, and pop culture. When she's not writing (and sometimes when she is), she's brewing beer, drinking beer, and reading stuff on the Internet. Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, xoJane, The Billfold, Culturemap, and E3W Review of Books. She tweets from @nsanluis.

5 Comments

  1. Disparity in ejections from the gallery:

    The disparity in who was ejected from the gallery and what constituted an “outburst” during the second special session also warrants further investigation.

    During the first special session, opponents of the abortion bills report being ejected from the gallery, threatened with arrest, or reprimanded by officers and staff for disruptions as subdued as “jazz hands.”

    On Tuesday, July 9, during the House floor hearing on HB 2, I personally witnessed the majority of the bill's supporters stand, clap, and cheer at one point. Speaker Strauss waited 15 seconds or so before picking up the gavel to call order, and the only consequence was that staff came around to some sections afterward and remind everyone to stay seated. Not ten minutes later, a woman in orange was ejected for brief clapping. The gallery was predominately blue shirts at that time, with perhaps two dozen orange-shirted opponents mixed in.

    Around the same time, there was a gentleman in a blue shirt next to me who talked on his cell phone for almost 5 minutes, which has always been prohibited in the gallery.

    Reports indicated that this kind of behavior continued throughout the day. I suspect DPS officers were instructed to focus on quieting the bill's opponents.

  2. Facebook comments
    I have been bothered by this – on Thurs. 7/11, Corey WIlliams started a FB thread that drew over 300 comments.  I'm posting the link below.  Among the comments were suggestions to throw jars of “menstrual blood”, pads, etc.  Several Austin Dems hinted that the people calling for radical action think twice.   The next day when  tampongate erupted, I was convinced that DPS had been informed of the thread and the comments.  I guess I'm not surprised they were reading Facebook posts.  But I do think the whole thing started on this FB thread:

    https://www.facebook.com/event

  3. I can also confirm many anecdotes of biased DPS treatment
    Although my experiences with DPS for the HB2 and SB1 committee hearings were mostly positive, I agree that DPS seemed to become increasingly biased over last week leading in to Friday.

    I was also present for the HB2 reading/debate on Tuesday and witnessed several people in orange being repimanded for minor offenses (jazz hands, etc.) After a sustained outburst of applause from people in blue shirts (and including several Republican representatives on the floor) went completely without reprimand, one woman in orange next to me said aloud, “That's a double standard.” Her comment was barely audible to the gallery around her and certainly not audible to the floor, yet a DPS officer came over and threated her to be quiet or leave.

    I am shocked to hear that the author of this article was ejected FROM THE BUILDING for returning to the line after using the restroom and then SEARCHED. Around 2:00 pm, a group of about 4 men in blue blatantly cut into line near the front. (I've heard that this happened elsewhere, but I witnessed this incident myself.) DPS officers were called over and several witnesses confirmed that this was the case, yet these men were allowed to remain in line with NO consequence and CERTAINLY were not asked to be searched.

    Lastly, and most offensively, I was in the gallery on Friday from the beginning of the proceedings until 11:50 pm. I did not in any way break the rules of decorum that entire time. However, after the second major outbreak of protests from the gallery, I was suddenly and unexpetedly asked by DPS to get up and step outside, along with about 3 other people dressed in orange. When I asked why I was being removed, I was told that I would be informed after we got outside. One person, when protesting that he had a right to watch the proceedings, was told that he could come out now or be ejected. Once outside, we were commanded to to be searched or to leave. We were asked to lift our shirts (and in some women's case, skirts) to see if we had any paint packs or (I guess) handcuffs, etc. So I was targeted for search for a THIRD time since coming to the Capitol.

    When we were allowed to return, we were treated as if our complaints were no big deal, being told, “You saw what happened,” and “See, that wasn't so bad.” I was very upset and shook up afterwards.

    I did not personally see or hear of any people in blue shirts being subjected to additional, unwaranted searches OR threats of ejection.  

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