One Day in Texas: The Worst and the Best and the Worst in American Politics

In a week that has seen President Obama’s speech on climate change, debunking of the so-called IRS “scandal,” and Supreme Court decisions on Affirmative Action, the Voting Rights Act and marriage equality, fans of politics have had a lot to talk about (and it’s only Wednesday, as of this writing).  But for all the action in Washington, the real show appeared to be in the state of Texas.

The Lone Star State was the setting for a chain of events that perfectly epitomizes the current state of American politics.  It was a roller coaster fueled by partisan debate, knee-jerk reactions, passionate citizens and a filibuster that birthed a new political celebrity.

Let’s begin with the Voting Rights Act (VRA).  Texas is among the many states and counties defined by the act as having a history of discriminatory voting laws.  It seems that prior to the Act’s passage in 1965, the state took actions that made it very difficult for minorities to register or cast their ballots.  Because of this, the VRA’s Article 5 declared that the state would have to seek approval from the federal government before enacted any new voting laws.  However, this did not keep the state, and specifically its Republican legislators, from attempting to enact strict voter ID laws that would have disenfranchised thousands of minority voters.  They also sought to alter their electoral districts in an attempt to limit the influence of those that somehow would maintain the right to vote.  However, this attempt was thwarted after State Senator Wendy Davis, whose district would have been redrawn, challenged the redistricting, saying it violated Article 5 of the VRA.

So, after Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling gutted the VRA and ended the requirement for Texas to seek approval from the Department of Justice, the state wasted no time enacting the legislation that had previously been shot down.  Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a statement a mere two hours after the ruling:

“With today’s decision, the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately.  Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.”

This means that Davis will likely find herself without a district when the next election rolls around, and Republicans will have effectively silenced a powerful contrarian voice.  And though this is a sneaky way to limit dissent, it is not illegal.  It is just cowardly, as is the voter ID law that will keep thousands of people—mostly Democrat voters, not coincidentally—from voting.  Rather than win a rational debate on the issues, Republicans prefer to subvert the democratic process by preventing the opposition from participating.  It appears the new GOP motto should be, “If you can’t beat them, cheat them.”

Davis, however, was nowhere near done fighting.  While she may not have any control over the Voting Rights Act and its impact on her seat in the Senate, she could certainly impact their ability to push through strict abortion legislation that would have been devastating to women in Texas.  It would have closed nearly all the state’s abortion providers, leaving only five in a state with 26 million people, as well as preventing any abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

This bill was defeated in its first pass through the Texas legislature, but Republicans are a determined bunch.  Governor Rick Perry called a special session of Congress to give the abortion bill (and a few other pet issues) a second shot.  These special sessions required a lower vote threshold for approving a bill, giving them a much better chance at passage.  However, this 30-day session was nearly at an end and the time to put the abortion bill up for a vote was running out.  If no vote was held by midnight Tuesday, the bill would be defeated.

So, Davis took it upon herself to stand up for the women of Texas.  And stand she did.  She filibustered the bill in the Senate for 11 hours, speaking continuously, not allowed to eat, drink, or even lean on the podium.  If she could speak until midnight, there would be no time for a vote.

But, Republicans were not willing to concede defeat.  Because of the lower threshold, they had the votes to pass the bill, if only they could end Davis’s filibuster.  So, they repeatedly challenged her, using Texas’s very strict filibuster rules to try to trip her up.  Finally, after three dubious violations, they succeeded.  Davis was stopped, just minutes short of midnight.  She was like a marathon runner who trips and falls with the finish line in sight.  Of course, in this case, she was like a runner clubbed in the leg with a lead pipe wielded by Republicans determined not to let a woman stop them from telling the rest of the women in Texas what to do.

Yet, as remarkable as Davis’s effort had been, something even more remarkable happened next.  The assembled spectators, inspired by the filibuster, raised their own voices, creating enough noise and chaos to drown out the Republican attempts to call for a vote before the deadline.

But, Republicans are a determined lot, and there is no shortage of dirty tricks in their playbook.  They called for a vote anyway, even though it was after midnight.  But, the continued uproar from the crowd finally forced them to admit defeat.

However, the celebration by Democrats and pro-choice supporters was short-lived.  On Wednesday, Gov. Perry called for a second special session of Congress to try for a third time to pass the abortion bill.  And, because Republicans will have 30 days to call for a vote, it will almost certainly pass.  The Texas GOP will impose their will on the women of Texas, no matter what it takes.

Of course, Perry claims that he is acting on behalf of the people of Texas, saying they “want to protect women and the unborn,” though the proposed abortion bill would do exactly the opposite, depriving many women of needed health care.  It is also not what Texans want, with recent polling showing that 74 percent of registered voters saying abortion decisions should be made by women and their doctors, not by politicians.

In his statement, Perry also said that, “Texans value life.”  This is especially infuriating given something else that happened today.  For the 500th time since the state resumed using the death penalty in 1982, a Texan was executed.  The fact that the person put to death was black female, Kimberly McCarthy, only adds to the perception that the GOP is fighting a war against women and minorities.  Nearly 40 percent of all executions in the US have taken place in Texas, and Perry has presided over more executions than any governor in US history.

If this hypocrisy did not involve human lives, it would be almost humorous.  Instead, it is tragic.  While claiming to value life, he is taking lives and destroying the health care for the women of his state.

But, there is some light at the end of this tunnel of death, deception and dirty tricks.  Rick Perry will run for another term as governor next year.  And, he might see a familiar face as his opponent.  There is already talk that Wendy Davis should throw her hat in the ring.  And, after her surge in popularity after yesterday’s filibuster, she would have a surprisingly good chance in a state that is not especially friendly to Democrats.  That would be the ultimate victory for a woman who literally stands up for the people of her state.  But, it might be too late to stop the damage done by the GOP.

Santa Monica College and the Leaky Pipe Theory of Gun Violence

In a country plagued by scandals, both real and imagined, our collective focus can easily be drawn to each shiny new outrage du jour, with our dwindling attention spans unable to linger too long on the horrors of yesterday.  Then, a fresh new tragedy brings our focus back just before it can fade away.

Such was the case with the mass shooting in Santa Monica, California on Friday.  Though the specifics may have differed, this seemed to be on the surface much like any of the other in the parade of recent slaughters—multiple victims, a cache of weapons and ammunition, questions of mental health and a trail of blood and bodies.  But, it is this very similarity that is so noteworthy.  If it all seemed familiar, it is because it is.  We have seen this before.  And we apparently have resigned ourselves to the reality that we will see it again.  And we will if we do nothing to stop it.

First, a brief recap.  On Friday morning, a 23-year old man shot and killed his father and brother in their home before setting the house on fire.  He then hijacked a car and forced a woman to drive him to nearby Santa Monica College, but not before shooting at another woman driver near the house as well as numerous pedestrians and a city bus, leaving four people injured.  Once at the college, he shot and killed a groundskeeper and his daughter (the man died on the scene and his daughter died Sunday morning in a local hospital).  He shot another woman on the campus before entering the school’s library, where he fired 70 rounds at the students there before being shot and killed himself by police.

In all, five innocent people and the shooter lost their lives and many others were injured.  And, beyond that, a college campus and an entire city were terrified.  But nationally, this was little more than a five-minute segment on the news, quickly forgotten for sexier scandals.

For the sake of disclosure, let me say that I was in Santa Monica at the time of the shooting.  I work mere blocks from the college where the shooting spree ended.  Though I did not hear the gunshots, I definitely heard the sirens of responders and the deafening whir of the helicopters that rushed to the scene.  I was close enough to see the roadblocks and the police tape that crossed all the streets surrounding the school.  And I was certainly close enough to wonder what I would do if I was staring down the barrel of a gun held by a man determined to kill me.

But none of that scared me as much as the photos released by the Santa Monica Police, because while it may be easy to dismiss the actions of a shooter with alleged mental health issues as an aberration (though these sorts of aberrations seem to be happening more and more often), it is far harder to ignore the equipment with which he carried out his plan.

Look at this picture:


This is a man with bad intentions.  He is a civilian, but he wears protective gear associated with police SWAT teams or the military.  Yet, no flags were raised when he acquired it.

Now, look at this picture:


This is just some of the cache of weapons and ammunition assembled by the shooter.  The AP reports that he carried an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle, a .44 revolver and more than 1,300 rounds of ammunition in several cartridges.  The revolver, though potentially deadly, is the least worrying of the bunch, as it is slow and difficult to reload (at least in comparison to the rifle).

Much more troubling are the rifle and the ammunition.  The shooter (for the record, he has been identified, but I have no interest in using his name, as it is his actions and not his identity that concern me) possessed a weapon capable of firing a very large amount of bullets in a very short amount of time, as well as enough bullets to kill more than a thousand people.  Of course, that assumes that every bullet found its target, which is highly unlikely.  But, the weapon he used has proven popular in recent mass shootings including those at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater and the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school specifically because it is so easy to fire quickly and accurately.  And again, he was apparently able to acquire all of it without raising any suspicions.

Recent federal gun proposals would have banned the type of gun he used, as well as the extended magazines he carried.  And, background checks would have prevented someone with his history of mental illness from legally purchasing a weapon or ammunition.  But, that doesn’t matter because gun advocates fought to defeat the proposals.

But, in California, we do have stricter gun laws that should make it impossible for a shooter like this to do what he did.  Yet, he did it.

So, what does this mean?  Are gun laws ineffective?  Or, can they prevent shootings like this from happening?

The truth is that the gun laws currently in place fail because they are inconsistent, both in their content and their enforcement.  Someone who is unable to buy guns from a licensed dealer here in California can easily go to Nevada or a private seller at a gun show or on the internet.  Or, he can steal them or buy them from someone who has stolen them.  This is possible because the same rules don’t apply to everyone, and the rules in place don’t do enough to track guns and who owns them.  And, until they do, the gun violence problem will continue.

But the future of gun legislation is cloudy.  While states like California, Maryland, Connecticut, and Colorado have made progress in strengthening their gun laws, federal attempts to do the same have stalled.  Even Joe Manchin, the congressman who co-sponsored the recent gun legislation proposal puts the chances of getting that legislation passed at 50/50.  That is far from encouraging.

And this doesn’t even mention the fact that proper mental health care is severely lacking (and getting worse) and that gun advocates have blocked attempts to research the causes of gun violence, hoping that ignoring the problem will make it go away or pretending that no problem even exists.

Further, for every group that tries to get guns off the street, there is another seeking to arm as many people as possible.

If we can’t agree that guns are a problem, how can we agree on a solution?  How can we convince people to see that events like this are not aberrations but a pattern of violence that is escalating?  How do we make them care?  How do we make them see?

Think of gun violence as a leaky pipe—a crude analogy, of course.  But, just like an unchecked leak can cause a foundation to rot, so can gun violence rot the very foundation of American civilization.  Each drop of blood that is spilled brings us one step closer to collapse.  We are destroying ourselves and we are doing nothing to stop it.

That must change.