“This Is What I Do”: Cori Bush on Her Journey from the Streets of Ferguson to Capitol Hill

Natalie Shure

Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

In the summer of 2014, Cori Bush — then a pastor and nurse — joined street protests against the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., not far from her home in St. Louis. Bush wanted to be of use, and she quickly became a fixture in the protests that wound up continuing for months.

I felt like, I’m a nurse, so I can be a medic,” Bush says. And I’m clergy, so I can go to the streets and pray with people. And I just ended up staying out there, because of the things I saw in my own community … I met so many wonderful people. Those same people have watched me get brutalized; I watched them get treated like terrorists in our own country.”

The more solidarity Bush built with her fellow protesters, she explains, the more she began to realize that elected officials weren’t actually showing up; they were either ignoring the uprising or just stopping by for a photo op. The regular everyday people’ — we were the ones on the ground, building a movement we didn’t have a clue that we were building,” Bush says.

Now, Bush is set to become the first grassroots Black Lives Matter activist elected to Congress. After two unsuccessful runs in Democratic primaries — for Senate in 2016 and the House in 2018 — Bush beat longtime incumbent Rep. Lacy Clay by 3 points in August, after launching a rematch campaign for the House this year. Bush entered the race with far greater name recognition than she had in 2018 thanks to her previous campaigns, her role in the Netflix documentary Knock Down the House and her work as a presidential campaign surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Bush is running on a robust left platform calling for a Green New Deal and Medicare for All—a demand, Bush says, that has been made all the more urgent because of Covid-19: Bush was briefly hospitalized with the virus during her campaign.

Bush is also poised to enter Congress with arguably the strongest ties to movement politics of any House representative. She rejects insiders’ notions that her movement politics are incompatible with public office. You know, people were like, Oh, you shouldn’t be out protesting — you’re a congressional candidate,’” Bush says. And I’m like, this is what I do. People saw what I’ve been doing in my community. They know me. I’ve been doing it since 2014.”

In 2021, Bush will focus on how to translate disruptive activist energy into institutional power. When you start a new job and have a vision, you pay attention to how things operate and figure out a way to work within that system,” Bush says. My ears aren’t closed … we have to have the tough conversations. But what they will not get is me going in and feeling like I have to submit to how this usually works and all of that. I won’t. I’m not going to do that at all. I’m going to be Cori.”

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Natalie Shure is a Los Angeles-based writer and researcher whose work focuses on history, health, and politics.
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