But as police began pummeling activists with their batons, it was Bush’s training as a registered nurse that sprang to the forefront. Seeing one of her comrades taking a beating from an officer, she jumped into the scrum to pull him out and provide emergency medical treatment.
Before she could reach him, an officer sprayed tear gas directly in her face and at her upper body. Cleansing fluids that normally relieve the burning effect from pepper spray were useless, forcing her to endure stinging pain for 24 hours afterward.
(The Florissant Police Department referred HuffPost to public statements in which the law enforcement body maintained that it ordered the crowd, which had approaching the police headquarters, to disperse. It only began forcibly dispersing the crowd once protesters refused to leave and began damaging police property.)
For most people, the experience would have been harrowing. For Bush, it was just another day on the congressional campaign trail. A month later, she would shock the country with an upset primary election win, unseating Rep. William Lacy Clay, the Democrat who has represented Missouri’s 1st Congressional District since 2001.
Bush won her race for an overwhelmingly Democratic St. Louis-area seat and is all but assured of victory in the general election. She is set to become the first Black Lives Matter activist forged in the fires of Ferguson to grace the marble halls of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Bush’s ascent comes as the country, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, undergoes a long-overdue reckoning on policing and racial justice. The work of Ferguson movement veterans such as Bush laid the foundation of the broader racial justice movement.
Missouri state Rep. Rasheen Aldridge (D), a young Ferguson activist who became one of the first protesters to carve a path from activism to government service, said Bush’s experience on the front lines will help the Black Lives Matter movement gain a voice in federal politics. He was there last month when Bush jumped into nurse mode to aid demonstrators after police used tear gas and batons on a protest group in Florissant, and he remembers being pepper-sprayed with Bush during a 2017 protest in downtown St. Louis.
“This isn’t anything new for her,” Aldridge said, recalling that Bush would hop out of a protest to do a campaign Zoom call and then get right back out on the streets.
“We have somebody who is like a John Lewis, who has been through the streets and moved now into a position of power,” Aldridge said. “That’s what we’re getting again: a female version of John Lewis. Somebody who understands the need of protests, the need of civil disobedience, and will not ever talk down to a movement or say they need to strategize different.”
“One of the first memories I have of Cori is of her in her scrubs at a protest, and it was early. It was in August of 2014,” said Kayla Reed, a Ferguson protester and racial justice activist who now serves as executive director of Action St. Louis. “If someone was, like, ‘Who is a Ferguson protester?’ Cori Bush’s name is on that list.”
Now Bush has a chance to translate the passion that inspired her activism into results for the district that is likely to elect her. She told HuffPost on Wednesday that she plans to take a pragmatic approach to advance progressive goals ― stand apart from colleagues when necessary, but work with them whenever possible.
My door’s not going to be closed to working with anyone, but I’m not going to be someone who goes along to get along either. Cori Bush
“This is about me building St. Louis in a way we haven’t seen ― especially in quite a while,” Bush said. “My door’s not going to be closed to working with anyone, but I’m not going to be someone who goes along to get along either.”
Aldridge, who was just 20 when he hit the streets of Ferguson in 2014, said the people in positions of power in law enforcement in St. Louis “should be nervous” about Bush’s new role because she’s not going to let them get away with what they’ve gotten away with in the past.
St. Louis leaders “should be on their tippy-toes” because Bush won’t be afraid to call out wrongdoing, even as she works with the departments she faced down at protests, he said.
“That’s just Cori. She’s going to be willing to still work with those same police departments and officers that, you know, harassed her or arrested her or maced her or laughed at her for protesting the right way,” Aldridge said. “She’s going to work with them, but she’s also going to hold them accountable.”
As a member of Congress, Bush won’t have a direct oversight role over local police, whose actions are largely (often very loosely) regulated at the state and local levels. But being a member of Congress comes with a lot of power of the pulpit, and St. Louis police departments would be unwise to blow off the requests of a sitting congresswoman.
Hours after her surprising primary win, Bush was still working out her vision for what kind of member of Congress she wants to be. She said she wants to serve on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which is charged with supervising the executive branch.
Bush could support legislation such as the Breathe Act, a proposal backed by the Movement for Black Lives coalition and introduced by two members of the so-called squad, Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), said Reed, whose group knocked doors in support of Bush’s election.
Bush could also bring attention to structural issues — such as housing, health care and over-incarceration and how they manifest on the local level — and facilitate a national conversation on how to bring about change, Reed added.
What is clear is that Bush represents a new stage in the political development of a contemporary civil rights movement born in Ferguson. Veterans of the Ferguson protests ― and of demonstrations that broke out after police killings in major cities in subsequent years ― now occupy city councils, state legislatures and even prosecutors’ offices. Soon, one of their own will be on Capitol Hill.
Bush did not always regard the police with a mixture of fear and suspicion. Her father, Errol Bush, is an alderman in the St. Louis suburb of Northwoods, and police officers would come in and out of her home on official business.
As Bush got older, she started seeing her father pulled over frequently when he ventured out of the family’s neighborhood and saw the same thing happen to her friends. That’s when she began to view law enforcement as an agent of a racist social order.
Then, in August 2014, a white police officer shot and killed unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown. His death radicalized Bush, who was tired of what she saw as unaccountable police violence, as were so many other Black St. Louis-area residents.
“I just couldn’t believe what was happening in my community,” she recalled. “So I went to the streets just thinking I could be a medic because I’m a nurse, help out, pray with people because I’m clergy. And I just saw something that I would have never expected and ended up staying ― just coming back day after day.”
During the day, Bush attended the protests in a professional capacity. The community mental health clinic where she worked sent her to help protesters coping with grief and trauma. At night, she would return as a demonstrator.
The violent suppression of police protests only hardened her belief that the country’s politics were in need of radical transformation. In an incident that closely resembled the tear-gassing she endured in early July, Bush found herself hurled to the ground and stomped on by police officers when she ran to help a woman experiencing what looked like a heart attack.
Bush brought a complaint about the officers’ conduct to the Ferguson police chief, but he pointed a finger instead at members of the National Guard and officers from other departments who had come to help quell the unrest. His officers were protecting the town’s firehouse and were not in the street that night, the chief argued.
Bush did not pursue the complaint further. “I left it alone from there because I felt like I wasn’t going to get anywhere,” she said. (She was almost certainly right: St. Louis law enforcement agencies stymied internal affairs complaints, and a federal investigation found that departments that responded to the Ferguson unrest “made it difficult or impossible to lodge complaints.”)
Instead, Bush channeled her passion into a career in electoral politics. She ran first for U.S. Senate in 2016, nabbing 13% of the vote against the winner and party favorite, Jason Kander.
People saw that I’ve been consistent. Cori Bush
Two years later, Bush set her sights on the more modest goal of winning a House seat. She was the first candidate recruited by Justice Democrats, a left-wing group founded by alumni of independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid. In a four-candidate field, Bush earned a respectable 37%, losing to Clay by just under 20 percentage points.
The initial run raised Bush’s name recognition in the district and won her a starring role in the popular Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House,” laying the foundation of her successful rematch in 2020. The renewed energy behind the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor gave her critical momentum in the final weeks of the primary race.
Bush recalls seeing people wearing her campaign T-shirts and other swag to protests against police racism in St. Louis.
“People saw that I’ve been consistent, and I’ve been leading and fighting for Black lives and so many other issues that concern us for a long time,” she said.
As her profile rises, Bush’s rhetoric around Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown is bound to draw scrutiny and make a lot of people uncomfortable.
In her acceptance speech, she said that Brown was “murdered by the police in the streets of Ferguson.” A federal investigation released by the Justice Department in 2015 found the evidence did not support the initial claims that Wilson had his hands up when he was fatally shot, and a progressive prosecutor elected in St. Louis County in the wake of the Ferguson unrest recently announced that he couldn’t make the case against former officer Darren Wilson. (A finding Wilson couldn’t face charges under current law, of course, does not mean that Brown’s death was unavoidable.)
Bush has also been vocal about her worries about her life and the threats she’s received as a prominent voice in the Ferguson movement. She described being followed and shot at, wondering at times if she was targeted by white supremacists or other right-wing extremists. Bush posted worries online that she’ll be killed and her death covered up as an accident or a suicide.
The Associated Press quoted Bush last year in its controversial story about the Ferguson activist community’s concerns that the deaths of several people tied to the movement were part of a broader plot against demonstrators. “Something is happening,” Bush told the news agency at the time.
Bush stood by her suspicions in an interview Wednesday with HuffPost. “I do have questions about the circumstances of those deaths,” she said.
Bush’s characterization of Brown’s death and her skepticism about the official cause of protester deaths may understandably raise eyebrows. But it is critical to view her suspicions in a broader context. Law enforcement officers in many departments in the St. Louis region lie so routinely that community members struggle to believe anything they say.
Agencies that responded to the Ferguson unrest regularly released information to the media that was plainly untrue. An investigation of the St. Louis County Police Department identified a “pattern of light discipline in investigations involving ethical failings and untruthfulness,” while an investigation of the Ferguson Police Department found that untruthfulness didn’t even always result in a formal investigation (let alone serious consequences), which sent a message that officers could “behave as they like, regardless of law or policy, and even if caught, that punishment will be light.”
It is also undeniable that Ferguson activists such as Bush have been subjected to terrifying campaigns of racist harassment and that law enforcement officers in the St. Louis region have engaged in criminal conspiracies to brutalize protesters. Aldridge said he, too, received death threats and racist messages. One caller threatened to kill Aldridge if he walked down the caller’s street. Someone else mailed him a razor blade.
Several St. Louis officers pleaded guilty in a conspiracy to brutalize an undercover officer they thought was a protester, an investigation that revealed that officers exchanged texts about how it would be “fun” to start “beating the hell out of these shitheads once the sun goes down.”
HuffPost reached out to the Ferguson Police Department and the St. Louis County Police Department for comment on this story.
There’s always going to be a violent response to those who are trying to change systems. Kayla Reed, Action St. Louis
“There’s always going to be a violent response to those who are trying to change systems,” Reed said. “We’ve seen people be followed. We’ve seen people be stalked and harassed online and receive death threats. We’ve seen Black elected officials in St. Louis deal with the kind of good-old-boy politics that often turns into white terror threats when they’re angry enough. And so I think people need to understand that white supremacy is violence, and in a lot of ways, those who are the most visible take the brunt of that violence and the threat of that violence. It shouldn’t be dismissed lightly as a conspiracy theory.”
Beyond issues of policing, Bush’s life experience will shape the role she plays in Congress. Bush experienced unstable housing. She worked in low-wage jobs, and she’s been unemployed. When Clay’s campaign sent out mailers pointing out that Bush had been evicted, supporters saw Clay as out of touch with the needs of a place in which a quarter of the city of St. Louis lives under the poverty line.
“Right now, during the pandemic, thousands of people are going to be evicted, and to use that as some sort of leverage against her, that came out as classist. It came out as out of touch. It came off completely detached from the lived experiences of constituents that make up Congressional District 1,” Reed said.
Bush’s election was “a really loud rejection” of establishment politics in St. Louis, Reed said. Supporters such as Reed saw Bush’s rhetoric as authentic, reflecting a shared struggle for justice and equality. They’re eager to watch Bush bring the power of her voice to Washington.
“They now finally have a representative that they know is not just going to be in Congress all the time but if things get bad will be willing to be in the streets,” Aldridge said. “To have someone who’s also going to be unapologetic, not buying into the status quo, and is just going to be speaking straight truth to power, it’s gonna be different. It’s gonna be different and good for the state of Missouri but also for the whole country.”