Bush was living six minutes from Ferguson in 2014, working as a registered nurse and pastor, when 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by a White police officer. She joined the explosive, tear-gas-filled protests on the second night. “I’m like, ‘I’m a nurse, so I could be a medic. I’m clergy so I can pray with people,’ ” she said. And she kept showing up, becoming a standout grass-roots organizer among her fellow protesters, as the protests continued for more than 400 days after that. And six years after that.
“We never stopped protesting because it’s always somebody else getting murdered,” she said. She’s grieved half a dozen of her fellow Ferguson activists, dead of suspected murders, suicides and a drug overdose — deaths that some in the community (though not the police) view as being connected, given the threats some involved with BLM have faced. Late one night, back in the summer, someone shot Bush’s car, putting bullets through a tire and a door handle.
Bush, 44, got sick of asking public officials to make sweeping changes, particularly regarding criminal justice. So she ran for Congress, winning on her third try. On Jan. 3, she will be sworn in at the Capitol — not just as the first Black woman to represent Missouri in her state’s 200-year history, but also as the first day-in-and-day-out BLM protester to earn a seat in those hallowed halls. Last week, she was appointed to the powerful House Judiciary Committee, which she had been lobbying for ever since winning her primary.
What she brings, in this era of generational clashes in the Democratic Party, is a wealth of lived experiences that many of her colleagues lack. She will be one of the few people in that legislative body filled with millionaires who, as Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) said, “understands deeply the scale and scope of the hurt that so many are experiencing right now.”
She’ll also be one of Congress’s most visible incoming freshmen — part of a second generation of the wave of progressive women of color such as Reps. Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who came in challenging Democratic leadership, and facing brutal attacks from President Trump and Republicans. As part of her party’s left flank, she’ll find herself in an intramural fight over such ideas as “defund the police” and “Medicare-for-all” — activist slogans that Democratic leaders worry contributed to the party’s down-ballot losses in the November election.
On the first day of her two-week freshman orientation on Capitol Hill last month, Bush showed up wearing a face mask with “Breonna Taylor” written on it, a tribute to the Black woman (a health-care worker, like Bush) who was shot to death by police during a botched raid of her Louisville home. By day’s end, Bush tweeted, several of her new Republican colleagues had addressed her as “Breonna,” thinking that was her name. “Once I explained who she was, it stopped,” she said, but the error stung — because the lawmakers hadn’t recognized Taylor’s name.
“It hurts,” Bush said, “that . . . people who want to be leaders of this country don’t know the struggles that are happening to Black people in this country.”
She knows about struggle. Bush has been uninsured, unemployed and unhoused, forced to live in a car with her then-husband and two babies when she couldn’t pay rent. She described running from a violent abuser: “One day I remember hearing bullets whiz by my head and . . . wondering, ‘How do I make it out of this life?’” She raised her daughter Angel, 19, and son Zion, 20, largely on her own. She’s entering office with medical debt from a suspected bout with covid-19. She understands that justice is not synonymous with law enforcement; she said she was “stomped” and “kicked like a rag doll” one night in 2014 by six to eight police officers while trying to help a woman who appeared to be having a heart attack.
“Cori is not a person who is seeking out leadership because of the title,” said Tlaib. “She is someone that sought it out because she was tired and exhausted, as she would say, of watching people do nothing to help those that are hurting the most.”
“There are very few of us who came from activist backgrounds in Congress, and I think the biggest transition is that you have to take a vote on whatever the issue is. You can’t just advocate for something and say, ‘This is what we want,’ and keep advocating,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who fought for immigration rights for 20 years before taking office. “You actually have to press a green or red button on the legislation at the end of the day.”
"Seriously, I thought the world was ending and then you won and it restored my hope in humanity. I hear you speaking for people who don't always have a voice and in a world like this and — I mean, I cried all night long when you were elected," Claire Holohan, a 27-year-old White schoolteacher told Bush.
It was September. Bush was registering new voters outside the St. Louis Zoo. She already had won the Democratic primary weeks earlier, making her the presumptive victor in the general in this heavily Democratic district.
Still, she was tireless, going around the city in her purple-sequined face mask. “Oh, I am the queen of sparkle,” said Bush, who says her entire fashion sense was solidified the second she saw “Grease 2” when she was little. Driving around the city she mused about whether House rules will let her hang sparkly drapes in her office.
“Please know that not all politicians are bad. We just need help,” Bush told Angelita Lipsey, a 37-year-old Black nurse assistant who said she only voted once, for Bill Clinton when she was 18, because she thinks all politicians are just in it for the money.
Bush, too, was once skeptical about making change through traditional political channels. Her dad, Errol Bush, is an alderman and a former mayor of Northwoods, a small city in St. Louis County. She watched him run for office every one or two years and “take a lot of hits,” she said.
“My dad was giving so much of himself and not getting much in return, and up against all this corruption, ” Bush said. “I didn’t want any part of it.”
She relented in 2016, when the late BLM activist Muhiyidin Moye asked her to run in an effort to get more Black women in the U.S. Senate. Her son, Zion, was a little younger than Michael Brown when he was killed, and in the end, she said, she ran “just to save his life.” She lost badly, earning 13 percent in the Democratic primary.
Bush rarely talks about the personal crisis she endured just a few weeks after her Senate loss. She went to meet a man she knew to see an apartment he said was available to rent. When she got there, she said, he violently raped her.
What followed were four months of frustration and anguish. While in the hospital, Bush identified the man to police. He was arrested but then released after he claimed that it was just rough sex. Her rape kit languished on a shelf for four months, delaying prosecution. She had to take a break from her nursing job at a community health center because of the trauma. She went to court four times to get a restraining order, but her attacker evaded getting served each time. (A private agency Bush hired said they’d never seen a situation this bad and gave her money back.) “I just lost it one day in court because I was just so frustrated that I was still going through this and nothing was happening,” she said. The circuit attorney told her that, though the doctors said there was evidence of rape, it wasn’t enough to prosecute.
At the end of those four months, she announced she was running for the House in 2018, this time taking on Rep. William Lacy Clay, a Black Democrat who’d represented Missouri’s 1st District for 20 years, and whose father, Bill Clay, had held the seat for 32 years before that. She also caught the eye of a crew shooting the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House,” about progressive women teaming up with Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, two new grass-roots organizations recruiting working-class women and people of color to run in the midterm.
Black people in the district, which is more than 50 percent African American, were not as keen on Bush’s ambition. She was criticized for trying to displace Clay, a Black man who’d accrued decades of power in Washington. “There was a lot of pushback, like, ‘Why would you do that? You’re a traitor!’ Blah, blah, blah,” Bush said. “I spent a lot of time trying to get people to understand why I was running against a Black man.” She lost by 20 points.
Going into her second attempt to unseat Clay, the landscape had changed. “Knock Down the House” became popular due to a featured young candidate who did win: Ocasio-Cortez. “People would say, ‘I didn’t vote for you last time, but after seeing the movie now I feel like I know you, so this time I’m gonna vote for you,’ ” says Bush.
She was able to raise far more money than in 2018, which meant she could afford to put her face on her billboards and campaign postcards (exit polls in 2018 suggested that many voters thought she was a White man related to George W. Bush). This time, Bernie Sanders endorsed her and invited her to stump for him during the primaries. People in her district came to her corner.
On March 24, Bush started feeling sick. She tested negative for the coronavirus but had to stop campaigning for two months and went to the hospital twice — without health insurance, because she'd quit her nursing job to run for office. She now has tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt, by her estimate. "The bills just started rolling in," she said, "and I stopped looking."
Bush understands how small derailments can add up quickly. Being unhoused (she prefers the term to “homeless”) snuck up on her, as it does for so many people.
“The one thing I know,” she said, “is that rock bottom isn’t as far as you think it is.”
It was 2001. Bush, then in her mid-20s, had a full-time, low-wage job at a child-care company but had to quit when she was pregnant with Zion. He was born at five months, weighing a little over a pound, and required constant care, both for four months at the hospital and for the next year after that. By the time she brought him home, Bush was pregnant with Angel. She went back to work at the child-care company, but the bills added up. One day, rent came due and there was nothing left.
So they moved into their car. She and her then-husband slept in the front seats with the babies in the back for three months, sometimes crashing with friends or staying in a squalid extended-stay hotel. Bush would stay late at work so she could wash her hair in the bathroom sink after everyone left. Eventually her boss found the family a place to live — and furnished it, too.
Bush knows not everyone is lucky enough to benefit from that kind of private generosity. “I always say, ‘Somebody helped me, so I have to return that because that’s what helped us get out,’ ” she says. She’s come to believe that any solution to homelessness has to start with empathy. “You can’t just throw money at it, or try to get everybody a job,” she said. “You have to address dignity with people first. Do they have clean socks? When was the last time they had a shower. When was the last time they had a full meal and a full bowel movement?”
Her journey out took a decade. She became a single mother after her marriage ended. When her kids were grown enough, she applied to nursing school and got her training in ministry, then pastorship so she could start her own church. It lasted a couple of years, fizzling out when Bush dedicated herself to the Ferguson protests.
Bush’s unconfirmed bout with covid was a setback for her 2020 campaign, but her return to the streets this summer, in the protests of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, put her at the forefront of the most explosive story in her district, and the world. When she campaigned on Medicare-for-all, she was able to cite difficulties both she and her patients have had paying bills in this pandemic that has hit the Black community harder than most.
“She was the right person at the right time,” says Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats.
The primary against Lacy came in August, and this time Bush won.
"Dang it! I. Need. My. Bull. Horn!" Bush said in September, laughing while going hoarse from shouting over the clang of shopping carts in the mini-mall parking lot of a Save a Lot supermarket a few miles from Ferguson.
“That’s what they took!” said a volunteer.
“That’s what they stole!” said Bush.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had just died. The presidential race was screaming around the final bend. A few weeks earlier, at the Republican National Convention, Bush had been singled out by a pair of her future constituents, a married couple, Mark and Patricia McCloskey. They had become conservative icons after brandishing guns at a crowd of Black Lives Matter marchers that Bush had led past their St. Louis mansion. In their video for the RNC, the McCloskeys showed Bush’s picture (with her bullhorn!) and warned America about the “Marxist liberal activist” their city was sending to Washington.
Outside the Save a Lot, Bush was on a small-d democratic housekeeping mission: trying to get people to make sure their voices, their existence, wouldn’t be ignored.
“For every census that’s not completed we lose $1,300!” shouted Bush. “That’s $1,300 per person for the next 10 years that does not come into our community!”
Bush still hasn’t replaced her bullhorn. She needs to order the right kind, she says, one that “doesn’t make it sound like you’re talking through water.” But she won’t hesitate to put it to use if she feels like the slow process of pushing red and green buttons in Washington is endangering lives in St. Louis. “I don’t plan to be in Congress for the rest of my life,” she said. She hopes instead to be a politician/activist: “a politivist — I’m coining that!” Someone who never stops her work on the ground, but who also can deftly navigate the system of government we have (rather than blowing it up) to enact police reform and give protection to protesters.
She’s using all her skills as an organizer to come in peace rather than coming in hot. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, headed by Jayapal, appointed her deputy whip. Clay, her soon-to-be predecessor, spent a day introducing her around at the Capitol. Bush has met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. “She made a good impression on me, the way that she indicated that she wants to be a part of this family,” said Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), who considers Clay a dear friend. “We loved Lacy Clay. That doesn’t mean we can’t get to know and love Cori Bush.”
Maybe when she has time, after she’s found sparkly curtains for her D.C. office and ordered that new bullhorn, she’ll go see the yellow letters of Black Lives Matter Plaza opposite the White House. But she’s no tourist in such spaces.
“We’ve painted the streets so, so many times,” she said. “St. Louis is my Black Lives Matter Plaza.”