Cori Bush's first term as a U.S. Representative began with the January 6 Capitol riot. She has higher hopes for the second one.
"I walked into Congress feeling like people won't understand why I am the way I am," Bush says in an interview, recalling her first week in office. "Whether it's criminal justice reform, or other issues, I was like, 'I'm here.' I'm going to be the activist in Congress, and I'm going to push these things — and then the insurrection happens."
For Bush, the insurrection was a crystalizing moment:
"I have to work alongside these folks that are trying to cover it up, trying to tell me that it's not what it really was," she says. "I see my role a lot clearer, because I feel like they drew an even a bigger wedge, on party lines; I think that that wedge has grown even since the insurrection."
Of course, there's no shortage of wedges in American politics, and, as a member of "The Squad," Bush has found herself in the crosshairs of partisan drama. Even before her election win in 2020, her tweet about funding social services by defunding the Pentagon made national news and drew irate criticism, not just from conservatives, but even the editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which complained that her tweet aided the re-election hopes of then-President Donald Trump.
Of course, Trump didn't win, and, instead, Democrats took the White House and Senate. And while Bush acknowledges that slogans about "defunding the police" have become a target, she notes that multiple cities, including St. Louis, are indeed finding ways of using the resources sunk in police departments to expand the community-facing scope of public safety — and in ways that aren't just about buying officers new armored trucks and riot gear.
"Society has been 'defunding' education for a long time, has that changed?" Bush notes. "No, we just keep taking from it."
The backlash doesn't faze Bush. From her calls to end the country's reliance on fossil fuels, to her support for defunding the police, she says she refuses to let her positions be defined by those who don't see the reality experienced by people like her and her St. Louis constituents.
That sense of personal involvement has run through the biggest moments of Bush's first term: When it appeared that both Republicans and Democratic would allow the country's eviction moratorium to expire, Bush, who has experienced the trauma of eviction herself, staged a protest by sleeping on the steps of the Capitol for three days, her acts eventually leading to an extension of the moratorium and widespread praise from Democratic leaders.
These accomplishments, she says now, are "sneak peeks" of what she has in mind for her second term.
"We took this first year to get out the gate," she says. "Now, I believe we're going to go into this next year to legislate, to be able to bring those deliverables home, and to do some things so people are able to really see the difference that this office brings."
On Monday, President Joe Biden signed the infrastructure bill into law. For Bush, the fight to finish the work, and to pass the Build Back Better Act, is a matter of living up to the promise of her first campaign.
That promise won't be easy to keep. With Democrats' political power resting on a narrow edge of two Senators, the force of Republican backlash continues to push policy debates into the terms of the culture war. While some Republicans joined their votes in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the heart of that party is still set on (among other things) restricting rights for LGBTQ Americans, denying the country's history of racism and enshrining a Q-Anon mythology over the 2020 election.
In some ways, for Bush, it's still January 6, with a portion of the country unable to see the reality in front of their faces. Whether it's the insurrection, defunding the police, or confronting white supremacy, this is still the America that Bush has known, and protested, for her entire life.
And there's still work to be done.
"I'm ready and I'm equipped to go into this next chapter," she says. "The only way that I fail is if I stop."
Support Local Journalism. Join the Riverfront Times Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.