Who could resist images of smiling children gathered under an ancient oak tree on the grounds of the Texas Capitol, transfixed by Democrat and Republican lawmakers doing a tag-team recitation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax?
Apparently not the good folks of Texas.
A broad coalition of environmental activists employed just such a strategy during a special session of the Texas Legislature this summer as a way of stealing the spotlight and defeating a bill meant to strip municipalities of their power to protect historic trees.
And while the “heritage trees” law did eventually pass, it had been so defanged of its ability to interfere with local regulations that the environmental advocates declared victory. “This isn’t about liberal overreach; this is about the purest values that we have amongst us,” explained Andrew Dobbs, program director at Texas Campaign for the Environment, a group that is a key organizer of the Defend Texas Trees coalition.
What Defend Texas Trees did and how they did it during a 30-day Special Session of the Texas Legislature offers a window into how progressive movements – often with disparate and unrelated interests – are increasingly joining forces and harnessing the power of their numbers to attack conservative agendas.
Another such intersectional movement, One Texas Resistance – a partnership of LGBTQIA and abortion rights groups as well as grassroots protest movements like Indivisible – used cross-movement collaboration, grassroots lobbying and in-your-face actions to successfully fight back a barrage of attacks on their constituents.
By combining their efforts, these coalition members shared information about upcoming legislation and pooled resources and people power – illuminating links between seemingly disparate issues and forging ties that organizers hope will last beyond the legislative sessions.
These kinds of intersectional movements aren’t new. They exist across the country in many forms, including the Moral Mondays movement, which deliberately seeks to connect a host of interrelated social justice issues to build collective power.
And as more state legislatures have come under control of Republicans, who seem poised to attack vulnerable populations, strategies such as the ones used in Texas offer tangible lessons and insight for resisting conservative agendas in other states, coordinators say.
The dramatic reading of The Lorax wasn’t just a media-friendly photo op. Dobbs’ group took children and their parents to key legislative offices, handing out copies of the classic children’s book to lawmakers. The group brought in other stakeholders as well, including arborists and even military officials who testified to the importance of trees in training exercises.
The bill was just one point in Texas’ Gov. Greg Abbott’s 20-point agenda, ranging from abortion restrictions to a version of the infamous anti-transgender “bathroom bill.” Abbott had hoped to pass them all in just 30 days.
In Texas, the legislature meets for 140 days every other year, a tight window for the state to conduct two years’ worth of business. The state Constitution allows the governor to call an unlimited number of special 30-day sessions, intended for emergency situations.
When it became clear that the bathroom bill wouldn’t pass during the 2017 regular session, Republican leadership orchestrated an “emergency” by making sure that a crucial budget bill didn’t pass, thus triggering the need for a special session.
Supportive Democratic lawmakers attacked his agenda from the inside with amendments and delaying tactics. That gave activists time to pressure Republican lawmakers, who – fed up with the open hostility among their leadership – were unusually receptive to the left.
And so the activists went to work.
One Texas Resistance was born from a previous collaboration betweenACLU of Texas and reproductive access organizations like Texas Equal Access (TEA) Fund and Afiya Center, and expanded to include members such as Equality Texas. Equality Texas led the fight against the transgender bathroom bill, along with diverse groups like Voto Latino and the Workers Defense Action Fund.
One Texas was inspired by Sister Song, an organization led by Southern women of color that seeks to link abortion access with other issues such as poverty and police brutality. They call it the “Reproductive Justice” movement.
With power in numbers, they combined social media and online activism with old-fashioned lobbying in legislators’ offices and phone banking that generated thousands of calls. They enlisted corporations to put financial pressure on the state.
Hundreds of the groups’ members showed up on the first day of the special session for a massive One Texas Resistance rally outside the Capitol, even as temperatures that July day crept toward the triple digits.
And they kept coming back, day after day, from all across the state, showing that the issues mattered to constituents outside the Capitol, which the conservative governor sometimes derisively refers to as “the People’s Republic of Austin.”
Like Defend Texas Trees, opponents of the bathroom bill used storytelling to get their messages across. Children, clergy, and police officers came out in support of transgender rights. “Most of Texas didn’t want this,” said Jess Herbst, mayor of New Hope, Texas, and the state’s first transgender mayor.
In a dramatic sign of activists’ success at reframing the issues, Rep. Joe Straus, the Republican Speaker of the House, told the media that he wouldn’t allow the Texas House to support the bathroom bill because he didn’t want to feel responsible for the suicide of transgender youth. Transgender people of all ages are especially vulnerable to self-harm and suicide attempts, but Republican legislators don’t usually express sensitivity to this risk.
“Those talking points came from grassroots organizations and advocates and parents of transgender children,” said Ash Hall, who worked as a government relations manager during the regular session and as a Democratic policy analyst during the special session. “When people put on the pressure, it does change the way that elected officials are talking about these issues,” she added.
Helping lawmakers and other Texans outside the urban centers see transgender people as their neighbors and co-workers was vital to winning them over. And as opposition to the bathroom bill spread to more Texans outside the LGBTQIA community, support plummeted in the Legislature.
“The transgender community didn’t roll over and play dead or hide like we were expected to,” Herbst said. “We showed up each and every time in force, and we told our stories over and over again.”
In addition to defeating the bathroom bill, activists also derailed an attack on Planned Parenthood, a bill that would have drastically restricted cities’ ability to collect the property taxes they use to fund social services, and an attack on the right of public workers’ unions to collect dues.
But not all issues received the same level of intersectional attention. While supporters of abortion access rallied for transgender rights and in support of public workers’ unions, fewer people came out in defense of abortion.
And in one of the worst losses of the session, a bill passed prohibiting most standard insurance plans, including those under the Affordable Care Act, from covering abortions. The law provides no exceptions for rape, incest, or fetal abnormalities, and opponents have said it effectively forces women to buy rape insurance.
“Abortion stigma is still alive and well even on the left and in progressive spaces,” said Nan Little Kirkpatrick, the executive director of TEA Fund, which provides financial assistance to low-income people who want but can’t afford abortions. “People don’t show up for those fights the way they show up for other fights.”
Still, intersectional movements such as One Texas Resistance help Kirkpatrick and her allies show others how abortion access ties to other social justice issues – from the rights of people of color and undocumented immigrants to LGBTQIA freedom. “It’s not about taking support from anything else, it’s about wanting to have support for abortion access that’s on par with other issues,” she said.
This work requires a focus on long-term change rather than short-term gains, she said. And she believes that over time, this can build the kind of positive cultural change that will lead to the left gaining ground again, instead of simply fighting defensively. “We’re going to continue working outside of the legislative session to build those coalitions,” Kirkpatrick said.