Cori Bush doesn’t often take the time to rest. During the 400 days of protests that erupted in Ferguson in 2014, where Bush rose to prominence as an organizer, she rarely missed a day, often arriving still in her nursing scrubs and sneakers. Earlier this year, just days after being hospitalized with what she suspected was covid-19, Bush was back on the streets to protest the killing of Breonna Taylor. And on a recent Sunday morning, she brought that same energy to a different form of political activism—registering people to vote and stumping for Joe Biden. For Bush, the 44-year-old nurse, pastor, activist, and soon-to-be member of Congress, her political career has emerged from that seemingly ceaseless energy that she’s carried with her ever since those days of protest in Ferguson. Her primary victory this summer over the long-time Democratic incumbent William Lacy Clay means that an activist forged in the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement is headed to Congress.
Bush hasn’t stopped moving ever since that primary win, hitting the road to get her future constituents to fill out the Census one day and then leading a protest against police violence the next. That combination of protest and electoral politics—Bush often describes herself a “politivist”—is the welcome, much-needed energy Bush will bring to Congress, and what she considers a necessary shift in how political progress happens. “We have to have both,” Bush told me, on her way back home after a morning spent registering voters, of street protest and electoral politics. “We need protests, because we need protests to pressure, we need the activism for momentum and drive and visibility.”
And she won’t be alone—joining her are Mondaire Jones and Jamaal Bowman, two insurgent candidates whose victories in their Congressional primaries, as well as Bush’s, have shown that a growing number of voters are hungry for a massive sea change on the left. The Squad is growing. “I’m already part of the Squad!” Bush told me, when I asked whether she plans on joining the group of leftist women that have transformed the face of the Democratic Party and symbolize its future. “People are looking for a champion,” Bush said. “People are tired of just going along to get along. People want to see somebody active that’s working, that has come from where they come from.”
Frustrated by the lack of change after 400 days of taking to the streets in Ferguson, Bush ran for Senate in 2016 as a protest candidate; two years later, she ran to replace Clay and lost. But this year, with a more focused campaign and the headwinds of change brought about by a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, Bush did something unexpected. She won.
Among even the Squad, three of whom spent time in either state legislatures or on city council before Congress, Bush stands out—let alone among her future colleagues, where it’s more common to be a millionaire than someone who’s ever worried about how to pay their cell phone bill. Bush—who for a time lived in her car with her two children when they were young, who knows what it’s like to try to survive on minimum wage, who has experienced how predatory loan companies take advantage of people waiting for a paycheck, who was saddled with what she called a “hefty” bill after recovering from what she suspected was covid-19, who knows firsthand what it feels like for a cop to teargas a crowd of protesters calling for accountability—knows keenly what it feels like for people in power to ignore the needs of the working poor.
“When I was on the ground in Ferguson, I remember feeling like, why won’t things change?” Bush recalled. In Ferguson, there was incredible energy on the streets, but it didn’t translate to substantive policy change, she told me. The issue, she said, was the lack of allies in positions of power that had, as she put it, “the power of the pen” and that would champion the legislation activists were calling for. “We can protest all day long, but if that person isn’t on your team, then nothing else happens.” That experience could have soured her on politics, but instead it made her realize she could be, and should be, that person in power.
While the right has tried to paint her as some sort of Antifa-loving Marxist, Bush comes off as a pragmatic progressive, someone who keenly believes that government can improve the reality of people’s lives. Bush supports Medicare for All and was a surrogate for Bernie Sanders, but she has thrown her energy into getting out the vote for Joe Biden. “I’m not going to shame anyone into voting,” she told me, but she recognizes the stakes. When I asked Bush what the response has been as she’s been speaking with voters, she emitted a small sigh. “It’s really been shocking, some of the things I’ve heard,” she told me.
When she encounters voters who tell her they’re so turned off by the Democratic Party that they plan on voting for Donald Trump—a small minority out of the people she talks to, but enough to worry her—she reminds them, as she put it, “how much more could be taken from us.” “How many more social programs and other things we need to better our communities, how much more of that will be taken away?” she said. “We can’t afford that.” She brought up an analogy—politics is like baseball, she said. Activists are the ones who toss the ball, elected officials are the ones who either let that ball fly past them or try to hit it out of the park. Not voting, she said, is akin to saying, “I’m gonna make sure nobody is there to hit the ball.” She added, “And what’s going to happen is, the other team is going to show up.”
Bush’s ultimate goal is to fight despair and restore people’s hope—in Congress, in politics, in the idea that people run for office because they genuinely care about the people they represent. “I have felt despair over the last several years,” she said. “What has kept me going is knowing that things change if we stay diligent and persistent, and if we keep our message clear, and if our heart is right for the community.” The 400 days of protest in Ferguson had showed her that, and ballot box victories like her own as well as the passage of Medicaid expansion in Missouri this year reaffirmed it, as did the ongoing season of protest. “Change may not have happened locally like we wanted to see it, but change did happen not only across the country—it affected the world.”