“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.”

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

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