Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush in Missouri breezed to an election night victory to become the state’s first black congresswoman.
Cori Bush didn’t set out to become a politician, or even an activist, until events in her Missouri hometown shifted her perspective, compelling her to launch a campaign that ended with her election to the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I think I always had a little bit of activism in me. I just didn’t always realize what it was,” Bush, 44, tells PEOPLE from St. Louis, MO, where she was busy campaigning in the weeks before the Nov. 3 election.
Compelled to help people in some way, Bush — now the Democratic nominee for Missouri’s 1st congressional district — went to nursing school, then gave birth to two children, and eventually went on to work in ministry in her community.
“I was working with members of the un-housed population, working to fight human trafficking,” she said. “So that was my first real step into activism. I started doing some of that work as a nurse and some as an ordained pastor.”
On Aug. 9, 2014, a series of events unfolded that would forever shift her trajectory. First, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by police just six minutes from her home, in Ferguson, MO.
Accounts about Brown’s death soon began trickling out into the local community and eventually onto social media.
Long-simmering tensions between Ferguson’s majority-Black population and the local police, who were mostly white, came to a head, with protests and riots springing up overnight.
The events in Ferguson — a precursor to protests across the country in the years since — served to highlight the frayed relationships between racial minorities and the police in America. Bush knew she was witnessing history.
“At the time … I just felt [like], well I’m a nurse, I can go be a medic on the ground. I’m clergy, so I can go out and pray with people.” Bush said.
Upon her first arrival to the protests, she was met with a scene that she said was unlike any other she had ever witnessed.
“The hair salon was on one side of the street, the nail salon on the other. But in the middle of that, I’m seeing thousands of people in the street, police in riot gear, police with dogs — it was just … something I never thought that I would see.”
Her nursing job asked her to contribute her skills in their mobile crisis van, where she worked alongside therapists and medical doctors to assist those who had been injured and distribute food and toiletries to those in need.
“We pitched a tent right in the complex where Michael Brown was murdered, just a few feet from where his body was laying days before.”
This was where Brown would spend the next five weeks, working in the mobile unit Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
She would also pray with those who asked, though the prayers eventually turned to protest, and Bush found herself joining those demanding change even when she was off the clock.
“At night, I would leave the area, go home and make sure my kids had their homework done, go back to the street and protest,” she said. “Even on Saturday and Sunday when I didn’t have to work, that’s where I’d be.”
As she grew increasingly vocal, she made a name for herself as a local activist. By September 2015, other activists were urging her to run for office — something she said she had never even thought about before being asked.
“But then I thought, ‘How do we get the heart of these people on the street who have been protesting for more than 400 days?’ They lost jobs, they lost livelihoods, they lost so much fighting for someone they don’t even know.”
The only way to make change, she determined, was to run.
“I was thinking about my son and my daughter; what can I do to help to ensure they don’t become the next hashtag?”
In August, Bush effectively squashed a political dynasty, defeating longtime representative William Lacy Clay in Missouri’s Democratic primary. Clay, who was elected in 2000, had taken over the post from his father.
Bush’s victory signified that Missouri voters were growing tired of politics as usual, embracing progressive candidates in the vein of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley.
Bush, who has campaigned on issues such as a $15 minimum wage, the Green New Deal, tuition-free public college and Medicare for all, has earned plenty of comparisons to AOC, with whom she was featured in the 2019 Netflix documentary Knock Down the House.
She’s seen backlash, too, from those who argue she’s too progressive. Just days before the election, Republicans seized on a tweet in which Bush pushed to “defund the Pentagon.”
Claims that Bush is a radical are nothing new. In August, the McCloskeys — the St. Louis couple facing felony charges for pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters — referred to Bush as a “Marxist liberal activist leading [a] mob through [their] neighborhood” during an appearance at the Republican National Convention.
“When my opponents call me names and the McCloskeys call me names, I don’t care,” Bush told PEOPLE. “It won’t stop me.”
Instead, Bush, who said she refused to take corporate money throughout her campaign, plans on continuing her activism, even as a Congressperson.
“I’m walking into the halls of Congress as a politivist,” Bush said. “I am not going to take off the hat of being an activist, a protestor, a community organizer. I’m taking that in the doors with me.”
But for one last night, before officially being announced as the winner of her race, Bush will relish in the moment of how she came this far — watching results roll in from her outdoor watch party at her St. Louis campaign office.
While she’s aware that the hotly-contested presidential race might overshadow her own victory, she’s remaining focused on her next two years, and what happens beyond that.
“The president of the United States is a character. But while he’s a character, we’re fighters,” Bush said. “Characters get played out. There is an expiration date to his work. But for fighters, we’ll keep moving. And we’ll bring more people with us.”
Congratulations Ms. Bush