Update: It's official — Cori Bush is going to Congress, joining other newly elected progressives including New York's Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones, and Illinois' Marie Newman.
This story was originally published on November 2, 2020.
Cori Bush never planned on getting involved in politics, but after police killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the nurse and pastor became an activist and organizer. After seeing firsthand the police brutality against Black Lives Matter protestors, Bush was inspired to run for office. Though she lost her first two campaigns — for U.S. Senate in Missouri in 2016, and U.S. House in 2018, the latter of which was documented in the film Knock Down the House — this year, she’s poised to win big.
Bush’s defeat of longtime U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay in Missouri’s August Democratic primary meant that she effectively toppled a political dynasty: Clay was elected to represent Missouri’s First District in 2000, after his father Bill Clay stepped down after serving for 32 years. It also means that, in her heavily Democratic St. Louis district, Bush is undoubtedly headed to Congress.
Bush’s message is essential amid a global pandemic and widespread police violence, and her policy priorities are based on her lived experiences: She has lived in her car with her two children, been assaulted and tear-gassed by police, and went through a difficult bout of COVID earlier this year. Bush and other newly elected progressive lawmakers, like New York’s Jamaal Bowman, plan to form an expanded “Squad 2.0” in Congress, joining Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. Bush’s top goals include additional COVID relief, an eviction moratorium, Medicare for All, and an end to qualified immunity for police officers.
Ahead, we spoke with Bush about bringing her fight to Congress, what justice means to her, getting self-care advice from the Squad, and more.
What worries you the most when it comes to the presidential election? What are you seeing on the ground in St. Louis?
“I am concerned about what could happen on November 4, even as early as late the night of November 3. People around my district have expressed concerns of what’s going to happen to them. People have talked about staying in their houses, stocking up on food.
“But the people that want to cause a civil war or a war against Black folks and immigrants and the LGBTQ community, there’s another side to that. There are people like us who’ve been fighting a war that they’ve never fought. Playing in the backyard, shooting off rifles and all of that stuff, some deer, okay — but have you actually been in a fight where you couldn’t go home because you were being harassed, or heavily surveilled, or you had death threats and death attempts? You have not had that fight. So they need to think about that. We won’t just lay down. We’ve been fighting. We’re strong. We’ve been fighting machines and power, fighting systems that have oppressed our people for hundreds of years.”
How are you going to bring that fight to Congress and persuade lawmakers to back progressive policies? What do you hope to change while there?
“My voice remains my voice. I’ve had this same voice the entire time I’ve been running and before I ever decided to run for office. And even though people may feel like that’s been my problem, that I didn’t win my first or second race because of my voice, I won the third race. Sometimes it takes diligence and not changing your voice, not compromising on every single [thing], and not looking to what’s going to be easy and popular. I don’t care about any of that. I care about what St. Louis needs.
“I’m going to approach it from a place of, ‘You can’t take my story from me.’ And I have this story because some [lawmakers] didn’t do the work to make sure that things were in place so that I didn’t have to end up low-wage, so that I didn’t have to end up unhoused, so that I didn’t have to go through what I went through with sexual abuse and domestic violence, so that I didn’t have to go through what I went through being uninsured and fighting to pay student loans, or even fighting to go to school. If you had done the work, then I wouldn’t have been in that place. But since you didn’t do the work, I now have it as my mission to make sure those things stay on the forefront. And as my sister Rep. Ayanna Pressley always says, those closest to the pain should be closest to the power. They’re going to get who I am, and who I am at the core is [someone who] loves humanity. So what you won’t get is a mean-spirited person that just wants to be nasty to people and ‘I have to get my way.’ I’m not Donald Trump. I’m going in with a heart to change history and help change our country. And I understand that that also means building relationships and working with my colleagues, doing that as well.”
If Joe Biden, whose politics have been largely centrist and who doesn’t support things like defunding the police, is elected, how will you work with the administration and keep them accountable?
“The same way. I’m not going to change that I fully support defund the police. This gives us an opportunity to get closer to that, and, sometimes, if you have to blaze the trail, then blaze the trail. And there are other people who are like-minded, so I’m not doing this alone. There are people in Congress, activists, people at nonprofits, and business leaders all over our country that believe the same thing. There are some police officers that are friends of mine that believe the same thing! So that’s how. Because I want to bring the straight truth. Because the other thing is, I come from a place Joe Biden does not come from. I’ve lived experiences he will never know anything about, and will never understand. And it’s up to me and other people like me to make sure that that message is there, because sometimes it’s about people hearing you, it’s about them being exposed. So I’m just going to keep doing the work.”
What does justice look like to you? For example, in the case of Breonna Taylor’s killers, there was a call for them to be arrested and charged. But while people talk about defunding and abolishing the police, it seems like calls for arrest and imprisonment are buying into the same system. How can those two concepts live together, in your view?
“That’s a really good question. Some places are already doing the work to abolish, while others are trying to figure it out, and others are just saying flat-out no. So I feel like it’s already happening because we have movement. When we talk about what justice looks like, it’s when somebody that looks like me, a Black or Brown or trans person, when a white person or a police officer sees us, they don’t have a physical reaction in their body. That’s first.
“Second, justice looks like not only our police officers being held accountable, but our prosecutors and judges, too, and you got to change the laws. So we have to make sure that we are doing the work to vote and for the right people who have the community’s best interests in their hearts. Breonna Taylor didn’t get justice because of the way the laws are written, and we have allowed that all across our country. Missouri is notorious for that; we have some of the worst laws that protect the police in ways that should not be.
“And this is one more thing that I’ve said, and I know some people don’t like it, but it’s the truth and I mean it from my soul: I tell police officers when we’re protesting and they’re in the line, I pick up a bullhorn and I’ll say to them, before they start pulling out the shields and beating people with batons, ‘Whatever you do to us, may [it happen] upon your children when you are not around.’ Because then maybe they’ll think, Am I doing this right? So that’s what justice looks like to me.”
How do you take care of yourself amid all this, especially since you had COVID earlier this year?
“Honestly, I have a team that is very helpful, because I can do a bunch of other things well, but self-care is the one thing I haven’t mastered yet. One thing that is self-care to me, though, is recognizing that I don’t do it well, so I ask other people for help, like politician friends of mine. I talk to the Squad and I ask them, ‘Hey, how do you do this?’ And my team will ask, ‘Cori, have you eaten?’ Or they’ll just get food for me. Tea. I drink tea A LOT. Because that’s something that helps calm me down and keeps me in a really good mood. Also when I’m able to, I’ll watch a movie that is so stupid and has absolutely no storyline, or read the worst book, just because I don’t have to think. And there’s ice cream. Give me buffalo wings, ice cream, and a movie.”
You mentioned you ask the Squad for advice. What do you ask them about and what advice do they give you?
“About self-care. Because sometimes, it’s just a lot. After I won, it was a lot of media, a lot of requests to speak, a lot of meetings. So I reached out to them and asked them, ‘How did you handle that transition period?’ They were helpful. They do different things, but basically it was just, ‘Remember yourself. Remember that you matter.’”