“I’m not going to shy away from ‘defund the police.’ Listen to the message of what we’re saying. I’m going to keep pushing you until you deal with the fact that we are dying. I don’t care if you don’t like the words. How much more should you not like the fact that Black folks in this community are dying at the rates that we’re dying at the hands of police?” she said while giving a reporter a tour of her district. “No one is dealing with it. So, because they left that piece for me, this is still there, I have to attack it as hard and as fast as I can.”
For the record, she says the point of the “defund the police” movement she supports is not to zero out law enforcement budgets, but to move some funds to social services programs that supporters argue would do more to help poor communities reduce crime than having more officers or tactical equipment.
“You call 911, they will still be the same as what it is now,” said Bush (Mo.), a freshman lawmaker. “If you have violence happening and you call the police, they will still show up.”
Republicans have been thrilled by her continued defense of the phrase, including earlier this month during a round of interviews to discuss her effort to extend a moratorium on evictions. And many of her Democratic colleagues who believe the slogan was effectively weaponized against them in the 2020 election worry it could be again as the party faces the uphill challenge of maintaining control of the House in 2022.
“‘Defund police’ is a phrase that I wish had never been uttered. But we’ve got to, we’ve got to do a better job of talking about what we do want to do,” Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who oversaw the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2020 election, said earlier this year amid another political dust-up over the slogan.
The controversy over the defunding movement encapsulates the challenge facing Bush, 45, as she attempts to bring her activist background and style to the legislative realm in service of poor communities, like those found in her St. Louis-based district, which she says Congress has long neglected or actively discriminated against for decades.
When should an activist’s zeal give way to a legislator’s finesse or the search for compromise and the best deal possible?
Her recent protest from the Capitol steps of the Biden administration’s decision to allow a pandemic-era eviction moratorium to expire is credited with pressuring the White House to reverse itself and keep the order in place, and it garnered her national attention.
In coming weeks, Bush and a group of her like-minded colleagues who joined Congress in the past two elections — often referred to as “the Squad” — will be tested on whether they can make their mark legislatively by wielding the leverage Democrats’ thin majority gives them on issues such as expanding the social safety [net], putting restrictions on policing, homelessness and domestic violence.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), who has represented Missouri’s 5th Congressional District for almost 20 years, said he grew up in politics at a time when politicians could choose to be an “agitator” activist or a legislator.
He said he’s not sure that’s the case anymore with the rise of politicians like Bush, but that it’s also not that simple a choice.
“She may be able to challenge the axiom that I have been laying out for several decades when teaching young aspiring politicians that you can’t do both, so maybe she’s going to change all of that,” he said in an interview. “But the thing you have to be cautious about is when you are an activist, you’re going to irritate probably a lot of people with whom you need to negotiate to get something done politically. So it is a tight rope to be able to do the agitating, then come inside and negotiate.”
When the House returns to session on Monday, Democrats will begin hammering out the next phase of their agenda by adopting a budget that would clear the way for a package made up of trillions of dollars in new spending for education, day care, health programs and combating climate change. But moderates in the party are already raising concerns about the plan’s price tag, while calling to immediately hold a vote on a Senate-passed infrastructure package that liberals will only support if it is coupled with the social spending package.
While Bush said she is focusing on this potential showdown over the party’s agenda, she is also hoping to advance policies on which her personal story and background as an activist could make her a persuasive messenger.
Days before the eviction moratorium expired, Bush introduced the Unhoused Bill of Rights that proposes curbing homelessness by redirecting $20 billion from the defense budget to fixing dilapidated homes for public housing, creating 24-hour services for the homeless and prioritizing funding for women facing violence or suffering from mental health problems.
She is also hoping to play a role in getting the Violence Against Women Act reauthorized. The once-bipartisan law has drawn objection from Republicans in recent years over policies such as a provision that would prevent abusive partners from obtaining a gun.
Homelessness and domestic violence are issues Bush knows firsthand.
On a hot August day earlier this month, Bush toured her district to build support for her homeless legislation and visited the streets were she slept when she didn’t have a roof over her head and the spots where she was evicted from at three different points in her life.
The first time Bush was evicted was in 1999, one of several times she was homeless. Living in her first apartment and paying rent on time, Bush also found herself staying with a very “abusive” partner. Standing outside rows of two-story brick buildings that she now finds unrecognizable, Bush recalled neighbors hearing her cries through the walls and threatening to call the police if her partner refused to leave her alone.
Looking up to the second-floor window on the left, she recalled being pinned in a chokehold on the room’s floor and seeing her partner’s veins bulging from his facebefore she first lost her hearing and then passed out. After she changed the locks to the apartment, her partner smashed all the windows around the building. Her landlord evicted her.
It was the first time she put her belongings in a trash bag and the first time she realized that evictions cost as much as $2,000 in court and legal fees, which set her back financially.
“Sometimes evictions are because of domestic violence situations,” she said. “I know people get uncomfortable if we’re talking about evictions, but they need to understand the totality of the issue and that we sometimes push women into more abusive situations through evicting them.”
Bush said she has been talking to White House officials about her interest in being involved in the effort to get the Violence Against Women Act reauthorized and described them as receptive to her input.
“They’ve been listening and they do welcome, even though I’m coming from a different place because I’m speaking out of direct experience, they have been very, very receptive — regardless of what the issue is — they’ve been very receptive to why I am taking the stand that I’m taking,” she said.
Sitting outside a McDonald’s at the intersection of Natural Bridge and Kingshighway, Bush recalled another bout of homelessness and how she would often go into the fast-food restaurant to freshen up and clean her two babies’ bottles — the restrooms did not require a key — before heading into work at a day-care center.
Years later, after finding a safe place to live, she decided to pursue a degree in nursing to make more money than she was at her job in day care. But once accepted into a program, Bush said, she had to end her lease early to find cheaper housing to pay for schooling and daily expenses.
Her landlord said the only way she could break her lease was if she signed paperwork to evict herself. She incurred another round of legal fees and moving costs, but she eventually found more affordable housing.
It was these experiences that motivated her to sit in front of the Capitol steps in a lawn chair for four nights and five days at the beginning of the month. Braving some cooler Washington nights, she said, was nothing compared with knowing that 11 million Americans would face eviction and potentially join the roughly 553,750 homeless nationwide unless the moratorium was extended.
“You don’t have to have a big name and a big title. You don’t have to have big money,” Bush said soon after the extension of the moratorium was announced. “But big courage takes you a long way. Big purpose takes you a long way.”
However, she soon found herself in the middle of another controversy when, during a round of interviews about the eviction moratorium, she defended her use of “defund the police” while paying $70,000 on private security she said is needed because of threats made against her.
“Police for me, but none for thee!” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) tweeted. “Dems hypocrisy knows no bounds.”
Bush said she’s having none of it, and that the threats against her are a result of the criticism directed her way by Republicans and conservative media figures.
“Me having private security is a result of their attacks. Can they stop with their rhetoric and their disinformation and all the misogyny? If they stop with all of that and they denounce it, then maybe I wouldn’t need the protection that I have. So this is on them,” she said as two security agents trailed her along the tour through St. Louis.
Bush got involved in politics in 2014, when she became a leader in protests over the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., that become one of many flash points in recent years over the use of force against Black people by law enforcement. She was evicted for a third time a year after Brown’s death because she said her neighbors feared that she would bring the protests home with her after they spotted her taking part in a local television interview.
She said she started thinking about whether her representatives were truly representing her community’s interests, which led her to unsuccessfully run for U.S. Senate and then a failed primary challenge against Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who represented the 1st Congressional District for 20 years after his father did for three decades. She ran again in 2020, defeating Clay in a primary that took place three months after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, which had painful echoes of Brown’s killing.
Many community leaders and voters in her district said they see the upside to Bush’s outspoken approach after years of Clay’s more traditional political style in Washington.
“It seems somewhat shocking when someone such as Congresswoman Bush speaks out in full force about how do we address numerous crises in the country,” said Yusef Scoggin, director of the Office of Family and Community Services for St. Louis County that helps the unhoused. “To the degree that her voice brings consciousness about the unspoken plight of many, I think, is extremely helpful. It’s almost therapeutic, I think, for many in St. Louis who seem to believe that their representatives have not always spoken on their behalf.”