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Cori Bush’s victory signals the return of the protester-politician

Bush is one of a growing number of Black progressives likely headed to Congress. 

Congressional candidate Cori Bush wears a mask while giving a speech from behind a podium. Campaign supporters stand behind and to the sides.
Missouri Democratic congressional candidate Cori Bush gives her victory speech at her campaign office on August 4, 2020, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Cori Bush’s stunning primary upset over Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. in Missouri’s First District underscored a generational split that has cracked through American electoral politics.

Over the last six years, the tension between the younger Black Lives Matter generation and the historic civil rights guard has been well documented as iconoclasts like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson clashed with younger activists over everything from movement objectives and speaking time to paying for protest permits and port-a-potties.

Bush, a 44-year-old single mother, nurse, and leader in the 2014 Ferguson uprising, ousted 64-year-old, 10-term incumbent Clay in the St. Louis-area district. The bout was a rematch of the 2018 race, which Clay won by a 20-point margin. Both candidates are Black. However, Bush’s candidacy this time spoke to the moment, with her connections to a movement sweeping the nation following the killing of George Floyd and the sustained protests since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a city in the district.

It’s tempting to paint Bush’s victory as solely about the candidates’ differing engagement with the Black Lives Matters movement. Ferguson activists describe Clay as absent from the local protests in recent years, and Clay has eschewed activists’ calls to “defund the police.” Beyond policing, however, Bush also represented an anti-corporate insurgency that has been brewing in the Democratic Party more broadly.

“In any primary challenge, you have to tell voters why the incumbent is out of touch,” said Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats, a national PAC that supported Bush and aims to challenge incumbent Democrats from the left in primaries. “Cori hit him on numerous vulnerabilities, which included that he opposed President Obama’s efforts on reining in predatory lending — Clay was taking money from the predatory lenders.”

Clay is in some ways firmly in the progressive camp, supporting Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal. But like many other Democrats and Congressional Black Caucus members, he has extensive connections to a cadre of corporate funders. Clay opposed the Obama administration’s efforts to fight the payday lending industry, and his fundraising traces deep connections to big banks like JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and lobbyists like the American Financial Services Association. Similarly, news accounts have linked the Congressional Black Caucus’s fundraising to companies including BP, General Motors, Philip Morris, and Coca-Cola.

Ahead of the election, Bush and her allies dug in on Clay’s corporate connections with an anti-monopoly group running ads billing Clay as part of the problem of corporate money “Corrupting American Democracy.” Shahid said this was part of the core message that helped put Bush over the top.

Bush is part of a growing number of Black progressives likely headed to Congress

Bush’s victory is of massive import due to her unabashed progressive politics (the Democratic Socialists of America celebrated her victory) and deep roots in racial justice activism. She joins candidates like Mondaire Jones and Jamaal Bowman as Black progressives who have toppled or replaced more establishment Democrats this year.

The Congressional Black Caucus includes some of the most liberal members of Congress, but some may not support certain progressive priorities, such as taking on corporate interests. Bush’s win over Clay may foreshadow potential challenges for other Black members who have held onto safe seats in deep blue Democratic districts for decades.

Clay has had a tenuous relationship with the demands of younger Black Lives Matter activists. As the Washington Post noted in 2014, he was among the Democrats who voted not to demilitarize the police. The 2014 amendment to a Department of Defense appropriations bill would have stopped the military from dispensing armored vehicles and heavy weapons like grenade launchers, silencers, and toxicological agents to local police forces. The bill failed by a wide margin, just two months before the Ferguson protests, when police tanks would roll through the city streets.

It’s a sharp contrast with the work of Bush, a front-liner in Ferguson’s fight to gain justice for Michael Brown. Rodney Brown, a community organizer with United Congregations of Metro-East, who also got his start after the Michael Brown killing, says that Bush is a fixture in local activism and that her victory is a watershed moment for the progressive causes they’ve been fighting for. Brown describes this election as a natural outgrowth of the last six years of activism and organizing over St. Louis campaigns for new prosecutors, bail relief, and jail closures.

“At this moment, we finally have the world’s attention, and we’re saying like, we’re here, Cori is in the house, and they’re going to have to listen. Cori had a lot of supporters, a lot of people who love her, and who are going to protect her. Cori has a lot of people who are ready to claim the dream that we’ve all been speaking about.”

Bush blends protest and politics in a historical sweet spot

Bush has pledged to meld her movement protest politics into her work as a legislative representative.

“Almost six years ago to this day, Mike Brown was murdered,” Bush said in her election night speech. “Murdered by the police in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. I was maced and beaten by those same police officers in those same streets. Six months from now, as the first Black congresswoman in the entire history of the state of Missouri. I’ll be holding every single one of them accountable.”

“We’ve been called radicals, terrorists,” she continued. “We’ve been dismissed as an impossible fringe movement — that’s what they called us. But now we are a multiracial, multiethnic, multigenerational, multi-faith mass movement, united in demanding change, in demanding accountability, in demanding that our police, our government, our country, recognize that Black lives matter.”

This movement-based mission, seeking the ideal combination of protest and politics, is aligned with a long struggle for Black freedom. Just last week at John Lewis’s funeral, former President Barack Obama lionized Lewis’s ability to straddle both worlds and urged more Americans to do the same.

“Like John, we don’t have to choose between protest and politics,” Obama said. “It is not an either-or situation; it is a both-and situation. We have to engage in protests where that is effective, but we also have to translate our passion and our causes into laws and institutional practices.”

Obama also underscored the need to fight political apathy and vote. “We have got to be honest with ourselves that too many of us choose not to exercise the franchise,” he said. “Too many of our citizens believe their vote won’t make a difference, or they buy into the cynicism that, by the way, is the central strategy of voter suppression, to make you discouraged, to stop believing in your own power.”

In many ways, Obama was echoing arguments made by Martin Luther King Jr., who favored using direct action in combination with traditional legislative activism. In Why We Can’t Wait, King argued that “bringing about passage of a new and broad law by a city council, state legislature or congress, or pleading cases before the courts of the land does not eliminate the necessity for bringing about the mass dramatization of injustice in front of city hall. Indeed, direct action and legal action complement one another; when skillfully employed, each becomes more effective.”

This idea of a balanced political strategy tempered by traditional legal action and direct action seeks to utilize the benefits of both forms of participation. However, from the end of the civil rights movement until the Ferguson protests, direct action tactics fell out of vogue in Black politics as strategies shifted to voting and lobbying.

City University of New York’s Frances Fox Piven describes this process by which Black advocacy organizations discontinued the use of nonviolent direct action and “were absorbed into the electoral and bureaucratic politics and became the ideological proponents of the shift ‘from protest to politics.’” Likewise, the Harvard-trained lawyer and civil rights activist Theodore Cross also charted the shift in The Black Power Imperative, explaining that “voting, of course, had brought to blacks a brand-new form of power. Now that they had access to the ballot, many black people believed that traditional pressure and direct strategies were no longer needed or necessary.”

After decades of political participation premised upon voting, though, many long-standing racial inequalities still remain. Citing this political stagnation, Black leftist critics have argued for a paradigm shift toward a public that is more premised on activism, making the case for candidates like Bush.

“After 40 years of this electoral strategy, Black elected officials’ inability to alter the poverty, unemployment, and housing and food insecurity their Black constituents face casts significant doubt on the existing electoral system as a viable vehicle for Black liberation,” Princeton’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in the book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. “Not only did the Ferguson rebellion expose the racism and brutality of American policing, but it also exposed Black elected officials’ inability to intervene effectively on behalf of poor and working-class African Americans.”

As just one member in the House of Representatives, Bush may not suddenly enact big change on these issues, but half a decade after the killing of Michael Brown and amid a new push of racial justice protest, Cori Bush’s political vision signals a real shift.

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