Cori Bush: “I’m Coming With the Whole Activist Community, Not Just By Myself”

Earlier this month, Cori Bush ousted a ten-time incumbent to become Democratic nominee for Missouri’s 1st congressional district. She told Jacobin how her experience as a BLM and public housing activist shaped her campaign — and how she’s planning to bring the movements’ demands into Congress.

On August 4, Cori Bush defeated ten-time incumbent William Lacy Clay to become Democratic nominee for Missouri’s 1st congressional district.

On August 4, Cori Bush defeated ten-time incumbent William Lacy Clay to become Democratic nominee for Missouri’s 1st congressional district. Her victory in this November’s general election is all but a shoo-in, in a heavily Democratic area covering parts of St. Louis County and St. Louis city.

Marking the end of fifty years’ control by Clay and his father before him, Bush’s win sets her up to become the first black woman to represent the district. She achieved this after playing an active role in the multiple uprisings associated with St. Louis’s Black Lives Matter movement, following the murder of Michael Brown in 2014 and the 2017 non-indictment of officer Jason Stockley for the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith.

Alongside Bush’s win, other results in St. Louis confirmed a shift in its politics, with the reelection of circuit attorney Kim Gardner and treasurer Tishaura Jones. All three are black women regarded as progressives; all three defeated more establishment Democrats despite the odds being stacked against them, from super PAC financing to media smears and racist and sexist slurs. Further signaling this sea change, it’s been just two years since Bush ran and lost to Clay by a 20-point margin, in a campaign featured in the Netflix documentary Knock Down the House alongside her soon-to-be colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Bush is proud of her activist record: “I’m someone who, like so many in my city, has just been out in the streets now for years,” she told Jacobin in a video call, “putting our bodies, our jobs, and our livelihoods on the line, day after day. And we had someone representing us who had not been alongside us in those fights.”

“It was 1968 when the incumbent’s father was elected,” Bush said. “And he was seen as a civil rights activist and person on the streets. He was the kind of champion people wanted at that time, but it’s been a different story ever since.” Lacy Clay had been criticized for his connections to big bank donors such asJPMorgan Chase and Citibank; for his links to lobbyists like the American Financial Services Association, Anheuser-Busch, and Boeing; and for voting to deregulate banks.

Clay’s final attempt at maligning Bush was to cast her as anti-Israel for her support of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions). But Bush’s campaign responded, saying she “stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people, just as they have stood in solidarity with Black Americans fighting for their own lives.” Her response is a hopeful sign that she’ll bring movements’ demands into the electoral arena — rather than cede to pressure from establishment Democrats to curtail them.

The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party

The race between Clay — himself something of a progressive, relative to the Democratic establishment, at least — and the activist Cori Bush was in many ways emblematic of the fork in the road facing the Democratic Party. On the two most controversial proposals in Democratic ranks in recent years — Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — both Bush and Clay voiced their support. But thereafter, the deeper conflicts of progressive politics are clear.

While Clay opposed Obama-era attempts at containing the payday loan industry, Bush was personally caught up on the other side of that industry’s treadmill of predatory, interest-accruing payments. As Clay was working through piecemeal reforms as chairman to the Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development and Insurance, Bush was herself experiencing the precarity of multiple evictions and stints of homelessness.

Just two months before Michael Brown was murdered on August 9, 2014, Clay voted against curtailing military transfers to local police departments: those same weapons (LRADs, MRAPs, M4 carbines, tear gas, and more) were then used to brutalize Bush and many others in the Ferguson uprising. Following that revolt — and the criticism Clay faced over his vote — he did acknowledge the problem of police racism, but he portrayed it only in terms of a lack of diversity among police officers. Bush, on the other hand, supported a host of measures aimed at curtailing the carceral state, from defunding the police to immediately closing all private prisons and ending cash bail.

In short, Bush’s politics were forged in the fire — literal and otherwise — of lived hardship and grassroots protest. And they seem to have found their match in these times of civil unrest and desperation. “Now,” Bush said, “with these protests, the demand for someone who’s been on the streets is back.” But the journey was an uphill one.

“People saw me win and called it all ‘Black Girl Magic,’” Bush said, “Look: it was hard, is what it was.” Bush continued, “The braids I wore, the size of my hips, those became bigger issues than the policies I was pushing. We aren’t talking enough about what is happening to Black women, to minority women, Muslim women, trans women when we decide to run for office . . . I was still working full time while running a campaign for office. We really go through a lot to do all of this — but regular people need to be represented in Congress.”

Progressives and the Pandemic

When it comes to the issues, Bush is a strong progressive insurgent. As she told Jacobin, “After COVID-19 arrived, everyone could see how I’ve been supporting Medicare for All since 2016, and now we understand why.”

Bush had her own battle with the coronavirus in the midst of her campaign — putting her down for two months. “But three days after I recovered, we were on the streets protesting the murder of Breonna Taylor. If people didn’t understand why I was involved with the movement in 2014, they can see the persistence, the longevity of the commitment now.” The progressive opinion is, through waves, becoming the majority one: this is especially true for issues like police brutality and access to health care.

Bush’s election platform highlights, among other things, stronger social safety nets, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and housing as a universal human right. This especially means support for low-income black and brown legacy residents, rent controls, and more public housing. In tandem with this, Bush vowed to fight predatory lending practices, strengthen unions, and implement a federally funded public banking system, a $15-per-hour minimum wage, and comprehensive criminal-justice and public-safety reform.

For now, however, Bush said her first push, once elected, will be the next pandemic relief package. She told Jacobin, “We want $2,000 a month UBI [universal basic income] that’s retroactive to the time of the $1,200 stimulus check and goes until this subsides; we want to extend the moratorium on evictions for another year; and we need to invest in public schools so that children, regardless of their learning environment, are able to be successful.” Bush continued, “We will be told we have to pick between money toward social programs and money in the form of stimulus checks. We don’t — we can have both.”

Given this kind of stance, Bush’s victory has been compared to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s success in the New York primaries in 2018. Both women were embedded in and emerged from social movements, have working-class backgrounds, and, through their victories, unseated dynastic centrist Democrats.

Along with Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and a host of other women of color, Cori Bush now looks set to join an expanding bastion of progressive members of Congress. The list, as of this year, now includes Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones — both of New York.

This new wave has been widely associated with the consciousness-raising by social movements such as Occupy Wall Street since the 2008 financial crash. More recently, the successes of progressive black candidates at all levels of government has been linked to the various forms of advocacy, education, and transformations in public discourse driven by the BLM movement since 2013.

This is also the context in which groups like the Electoral Justice Project, Black Youth Project 100, and their ongoing abolitionist campaigns have flourished. “She’s being buoyed by this movement,” Justice Democrats spokesperson Waleed Shahid said of Bush, “and the movement’s origin is in Ferguson.”

Following the uprising, Bush played a pivotal role in the Fight for 15 campaigns, cofounded the Truth Telling Project in 2015, worked with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and unions to defeat the right-to-work bill in Missouri, marched on the streets with environmental protesters, and supported closing the St. Louis debtors’ prison: the Workhouse. It was after this that she turned to the electoral arena.

Following Bernie Sanders’ defeat in 2016, Justice Democrats was set up in order to scout and support progressive candidates for public office — and in 2017, Cori Bush was their first candidate. After the results came in this August 4, she took the microphone to shout out their support, while also thanking the Sunrise Movement, the DSA, Our Revolution, and Bernie Sanders — who ultimately raised around $100,000 for her campaign.

What Bush’s Victory Could Mean — And Already Does

It’s been less than a month since Bush’s primary win, and despite her almost certain victory against Republican Anthony Rogers, she hasn’t stopped her work of pushing her progressive agenda, especially in St. Louis.

In late July, St. Louis alderpersons voted to close the debtors’ prison commonly known as the Workhouse. Some corporate Democrats attempted a bait and switch, with a bill to privatize the St. Louis Lambert International Airport. But Bush has opposed the privatization, like most other progressives and unions in the area. She intends to use her platform as a representative to Congress to highlight local issues such as these.

St. Louis DSA cochair Chris Ottolino agrees: “Since Cori has won, we have already seen her trying to draw that parallel — what they are trying to do with the airport in St. Louis is very similar to what they are trying to do with the postal service at the national level.” Since her victory, Bush has already endorsed several other progressives running for office — including Adrienne Bell for Texas’s 14th District.

Even if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris do defeat Donald Trump in November, the ability of a handful of progressives to effect the far-reaching change being sought by movements like Black Lives Matter seems limited — in the short term, at least. This is especially true for Missouri’s 1st District, which has often propelled African American representatives to Congress off the back of black-led social movements.

“The unspoken promise of racial representation is that social, economic, and political dynamics can change when someone from a marginalized group is at the helm. Too often, however, in Black politics, symbolism has stood in for making a meaningful difference in the lives of Black people,” wrote Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor in the New Yorker.

Earlier this month, Kamala Harris was nominated as Biden’s running mate. Widely criticized for her record in deepening the crisis of incarceration in California, she had also backed Clay against Bush for Missouri’s 1st District. This chasm at the heart of the Democratic Party is likely to deepen with a strengthened left wing in Congress.

The idea that elected representatives are responsible for the most disadvantaged among their constituents — or that they should be — has been one of the successes of recent social movements. But given the structure of Congress and the entanglements ahead, the demand for real accountability may seem almost impossible to fulfill. Amid rising unemployment and the brutal effects of the pandemic on the most marginalized communities across the United States, one thing is clear: a minority representation of progressives in Congress will not be enough.

Bush insists that once elected, she will use her platform as congresswoman while maintaining solid ties to her comrades. “I have my mouth,” she told us, “and that’s what I intend on using for a long time. And y’all gotta remember, I come with the whole activist community, I don’t just come by myself.” In this sense, Bush does not see electoral representation as being separate from activism: “I’m going to Congress as a politivist — I’m still connected. If something happens in my district, and they are on the ground, well, I guess I’m coming back to march with my people, and I’ll get in the street. I don’t have to be on the sidewalk watching, like they say. Just because I’m in Congress doesn’t mean I have to put that on the shelf and leave — I’m still here.”