The Social Network Behind Wendy Davis

It had to be orange. Pink is overused, green is for environmentalists, and purple isn’t a Texas kind of color. But orange is Texas, it’s the color of the UT Longhorns, and it’s gender neutral. Months before the special session of the Texas legislature was called, the main organizers of the pro-choice protests had already decided that their t-shirts were going to be orange.

By the end of the special session of the Texas State Senate on June 25th, a sea of orange t-shirted pro-choice supporters in the capital’s rotunda were capping off Wendy Davis’ filibuster with fifteen minutes of raucous cheering.

Davis became an overnight sensation because of her singular feat of courage and stamina. But her effort was the last piece of tile fitted into a much larger mosaic of people and actions that brought Texas progressives back to life. The success of the effort hinged on not just the existence of outstanding grassroots organizing and social media activism, but their integration.

Grassroots organizations playing in the same sandbox often behave like rivalrous siblings clamoring for the same donors and public recognition for their efforts. But for the first time in recent memory, according to several activists I spoke with, the local pro-choice groups in Austin played nicely with one another. Their guess is that the threat to access to reproductive health was great enough to put aside their usual differences.

Even with the advanced planning, there weren’t enough orange-shirted protesters to make a difference when the special legislative session began in late May of this year. The protester’s efforts were listless. Something was missing. Every energetic protest effort needs a spark, something personal that makes ordinary people go extraordinary lengths to make their voices heard. The Texas House Committee on Public Affairs’ decision to cut off public testimony with over 700 people in attendance at 4 am on June 21st was the needed catalyst. Word spread locally and online that women were being muzzled on a critically important piece of legislation just four days before the special session was due to end.

But the reach of traditional organizations online tends to be limited to their current supporters. The protest needed more than the unusual suspects to grow significantly. And that’s where the secret ingredient came in: free agent activists. Free agents are individual activists who are savvy using social media and able to accelerate the spread of social protests and movements very quickly. Every successful protest movement over the past five years, from Wall Street to Cairo to Brazil, has had free agents stirring the social media waters and turning local events into national and international conversations.  

Jessica Luther is an individual activist, unaffiliated with any particular organization, but adept at using her multiple social media platforms as vehicles for communicating with and organizing large numbers of people, and in this case, many who had never been involved in Texas politics before. Organizations were asking her for help in spreading the word about the special session and Jessica was tweeting as fast as she could, Her followers on Twitter increased by over 3,000 people from around 5,000 followers before the special session to over 8,000 afterwards. 

Virginia Pickel was another critically important free agent. She lives in San Marcos, 30 minutes south of Austin, but the trip to the capital is often too much for her as she suffers from fibromyalgia. She posted contact information for reporters on her blog for other activists to use to send emails, Facebook messages and tweets. She also created a private Facebook group to orchestrate rides to the capital. Virginia administered the Facebook group but no one owned what happened on it or needed to take credit for organizing rides.

Moving large numbers of people to the capital, making sure they knew where to go and had food and water in the brutal heat required the online/on land nexus to work extremely well. And it did. The local ACLU created the hashtag #standwithwendy and others followed suit to create one narrative stream on Twitter and Facebook rather than multiple messages on multiple platforms. Facebook groups were created to organize rides, deliver foods and drinks to protesters and update people on the legislative process (critical with a Senate that does not have a formal schedule.)

The protest effort was like a fireman’s brigade, everyone pitching in and coordinating with one another in an emergency without asking for permission. This is in contrast to general grassroots organizing, when too many groups are rowing in different directions.

The final piece of the mosaic was Senator Wendy Davis. She fit the role perfectly with her pink running shoes, compelling personal story and incredible endurance. Again, the individual activists I spoke with said that they heard through the grapevine that Davis was going to filibuster beginning on Sunday afternoon, but there was no direct involvement between her efforts and the organizing efforts of the free agents and grassroots organizations. When she stood up on Tuesday morning for the first of her thirteen hours on her feet, she didn’t start a movement, she brought one home. 

Jessica Luther said in reflection of the events of the first special session, “I’ve always believed a lot that Texans want to be politically engaged but don’t know how because it feels so stacked against us.” It is difficult to sustain the level of energy and enthusiasm the filibuster created. The job of organizations is to fill the quieter times with more field building and relationship building online in order to turn once again into a well-organized crowd seemingly spontaneously again. 

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