‘They don’t know what I know’: why Cori Bush is poised to change politics | Democrats

August ninth was always going to be a difficult day to interview Cori Bush. Just five days before, Bush was propelled into the spotlight after winning her primary race in Missouri’s first congressional district, unseating the Democratic incumbent and ending a half-century family dynasty in Missouri.

In the days since, Bush has barely had a chance to catch her breath.

The win is the result of years of hard work and two unsuccessful campaigns – first for Senate in 2016 and again in 2018 for Congress. This time around, Bush’s team made almost half a million calls; signed up more than 2,000 volunteers; and knocked on 25,000 doors. Her grassroots campaign shunned corporate Pac money in favor of individual donations – and in the end, she both outraised the incumbent William Lacy Clay and outspent him on television advertisements.

But when we talk via Zoom on a Sunday afternoon, it’s not the exhaustion or the back-to-back interviews that are on Bush’s mind. August ninth is the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old who was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 – and Bush has just been at his memorial service.

“It’s hard looking at Michael Brown’s father and knowing that just last week he found out again that this officer won’t be charged,” she says, referencing the result of a five-month review that was decided last week.

“Just looking at him in his face, and seeing the other activists crying is tough. It has been six years and we keep coming back here every single year and we’re not seeing change,” she adds, fighting tears.

Following Brown’s death, Bush spent some 400 days campaigning on the streets of Ferguson. For her, six years marks the culmination of one of her areas of work – to get into politics – but not the other: to find justice for Black lives.

“Today is just a rough day, period, because it is when all of our lives changed,” she explains. “It changed and it went into such a dark, dark, unbelievable place for such a long time.”

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Just two months before Michael Brown’s death, Lacy Clay, then Missouri’s representative, voted against a Democratic amendment that would stop the military from providing police forces with heavy weapons and vehicles.

Then, on 10 August 2014, the Ferguson uprisings began.

A nurse and ordained pastor, Bush would often arrive at the protests still in her scrubs. People knew her by sight, calling her Mom or Pastor Cori. In the ensuing months, Bush walked so much she wore down two pairs of shoes – one was a brand-new pair of Nike Hi-Tops.

Bush and her fellow activists would sometimes have a moment’s respite, when they could break bread together, cranking up the volume on the speakers and dancing in the early evening while still on the frontlines. But those moments of joy only briefly punctuated the long battle against police, which featured teargas, armoured vehicles and violent clashes – and an incident in which Bush herself was assaulted.

“We were teargassed so heavily. Not being able to breathe and knowing other people couldn’t breathe, watching people laying on the ground, hurt or in pain … There were some pretty terrifying times out there,” she says.

The assault itself is a source of deep upset for Bush; she begins to tear up when I ask her about it. She still seems bewildered at how her body came to be lifted into the air by the same cops called on to protect people. When her body hit the ground moments later, she felt numerous officers’ steel boots on her face and wondered whether she would die.

“My face was pressed up against the ground and I [was] feeling all of these steel-toe boots stomping me and my body was going from side to side. And I was just thinking; who do I scream out to?” asks Bush.

Cori Bush is an American politician and activist from St. Louis, Missouri, who is the Democratic nominee for Missouri’s 1st congressional district
Cori Bush: years of hard work. Photograph: Joe Martinez/The Guardian

The fury of having to ask that question was what led her to return to the protests day after day, and it is what shapes her support for the growing movement calling for the police to be defunded. For her that means reallocating funds, drastically downsizing police budgets and investing in health services, social workers and hospitals instead of armed police.

“I know some people have said that the police don’t have enough money or officers, but we have plenty of money for teargas and Swat gear stockpiled in warehouses. Bear spray, pepper spray, skunk spray, rubber bullets – where does that money come from?” she asks.

Soon, she will move from being a political outsider to an insider and will be called to do her part to fix these problems. But Bush believes she is uniquely placed to have those conversations.

“I can talk to congresspeople now, and say: I know you read this, but this is what actually happened,” she explains.

After seeing the county’s first black prosecutor reach the same outcome as his predecessors – not to charge the officer who killed Brown – is she overwhelmed by the responsibility?

“No, I feel relief,” says Cori, and she smiles for a moment.

“Now we have some type of hope. I feel that little bit better knowing that I may be able to do something on a bigger scale for these families and these activists that have worked so hard for our community,” she says.

•••

If Bush wins Missouri in November (which she probably will – the seat has been blue since 1949, with Clay and his father in power since 1969) her life will change again, forever.

She will have to get used to not being able to always pick up the phone when her children call (her daughter, 19, and son, 20, both call during our interview – and Bush stops me for a second to make sure a member of her team answers).

She certainly won’t be able to drive her son home like she does nowwhen he is visiting her at her campaign office, out of fear that something bad will happen to him on the way back if she doesn’t.

“With the climate of our country and our world I worry about my children. My son is 20 years old, he is taller than me. He’s a black boy. I worry about [him], every single day. Every minute of the day. I’m not exaggerating,” she says.

Bush has never been inside the Capitol. “I’m kind of glad that I haven’t because, the first time I get to cross the threshold [might] be as the congresswoman,” she says. “I am excited for it to finally be the people’s house.”

Bush was backed by Justice Democrats, the group responsible for kickstarting the political careers of other outsiders such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. They won 11 of the 15 primary races they vied for this election cycle.

But while their candidates are characterized by an unwillingness to take corporate Pac money and backing a slate of progressive policies – a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All and a universal basic income of $2,000 a month – the party is still dominated by more moderate candidates.

Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, won’t back Medicare for All; meanwhile, during the presidential primary debates, racism, police reform and criminal justice reform were seldom mentioned.

Bush, who ran for Congress without insurance and has spent chunks of time living out of a car, knows her priorities. She is deeply committed to Medicare for All, as well as a $15 minimum wage: “Some of our essential workers were going to work for $9 an hour. But some of them lost their lives because they kept going to work – and then some of them contracted Covid,” she says.

“Medicare for All – I know that is really not one of Joe Biden’s priorities … but I am going to continue to fight for it because I believe that is right: you breathe, you deserve healthcare.”

When I ask Bush what she thinks of Biden, she can barely keep herself from laughing.

“I think … He is the nominee for Democratic president,” she replies, before shaking her head. She adds: “We have what we have, and we have to get Trump out of the seat.”

This could prove tricky. Bush will have to build support across the party if she wants any of her ideas to filter through. And if defunding the police is one of her cornerstone commitments, she may have to be ready to compromise. Does that concern her?

“No, not really,” she responds, looking defiant. “Maybe [in] other areas we might have to do things a little differently than what I planned, but in this area, no … We haven’t been strong enough in this area in this country and I feel that’s why we are here,” she says.

So she isn’t intimidated thinking about meeting her new colleagues on her first day on Capitol Hill, not even one bit?

“No. I feel like, they don’t know what I know. I may not be an attorney, I’m a nurse – but when it comes to activism and advocacy, there are a lot of things I can do that they cannot.”