Posted on August 27, 2021

Cori Bush Tests the Bounds of What an Activist Turned Lawmaker Can Accomplish

Marianna Sotomayor, Washington Post, August 18, 2021

Democratic Rep. Cori Bush is not going to apologize for using the politically fraught slogan “Defund the Police.”

Not because Republicans keep attacking her over it and not because it makes so many of her Democratic colleagues uncomfortable.

To hear her tell it, the controversy over the phrase is less about whether it accurately conveys the policing policies she and her allies are pursuing and more about creating a distraction from the inaction over police violence against communities of color.

“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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.