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“We Have to Expand the Squad”: Cori Bush on Her Upset Primary Win, Defunding Police & Kamala Harris

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We speak with Cori Bush, a nurse and single mother who was formerly homeless, who joins the growing number of young Black progressives likely headed to Congress this November, after she won a stunning primary upset over 10-term incumbent Congressmember William Lacy Clay Jr. in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District in the St. Louis area. Bush says her campaign’s victory was a result of a grassroots effort from across her district and beyond. “We believed that it’s time for a change, it’s time for an active leader, someone who knows the streets, someone who knows the struggle of what’s happening in our country, especially with COVID-19 and how that’s devastated communities,” she says. The Black Lives Matter activist says she supports defunding the police and that she’s looking forward to working with other progressive women in Congress. “We have to expand the Squad,” she says, referring to Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! We are breaking with convention. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to one of the growing number of young Black progressives likely headed to Congress this November. Cori Bush won a stunning primary upset earlier this month over 10-term incumbent Congressmember William Lacy Clay, whose family has represented the St. Louis-area congressional district for more than 50 years.

Cori Bush is a single mother and a nurse. She was formerly homeless, was a leader in the 2014 Ferguson uprising over the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Just two months before Michael Brown’s death, her primary opponent, Congressman Lacy Clay, then Missouri’s representative, voted against a Democratic amendment that would stop the military from providing police forces with heavy weapons and vehicles. She was endorsed by the Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement. Senator Bernie Sanders was the only member of Congress to endorse her ahead of the election, and her grassroots campaign shunned corporate PAC money in favor of individual donations. But she had an army of supporters who made half a million calls and knocked on 25,000 doors.

This is Cori Bush addressing supporters after her primary victory August 5th.

CORI BUSH: Almost six years ago to this day, Mike Brown was murdered, 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 Missouri, I will be holding every single one of them accountable. … This summer, after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop and so many more were taken from us, millions of people have taken to the streets around the world to join us, to join those who have said, for years, starting in this place, that Black lives matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that’s Cori Bush speaking through her purple face mask — she is a nurse, after all — on primary night, and joining us now from St. Louis.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Cori Bush. It’s great to have you with us. Can you talk about this incredible upset? You had challenged Congressmember Clay in 2018. You narrowly lost, but you were back at it again and won.

CORI BUSH: Yes. I mean, for — thank you for having me on. Look, this thing was an effort from people all across our district, across the state of Missouri and across the country. You know, we believed that it’s time for a change, it’s time for an active leader, someone who knows the streets, someone who knows the struggle of what’s happening in our country, especially with COVID-19 and how this devastated communities. And then, with the protests, you know, with me being a nurse and me being someone who has come out of the protest movement, you know, it’s time for that voice.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you for defunding the police? And what does that mean to you?

CORI BUSH: I am for defunding the police. And for me, it’s a reallocation of funds; doesn’t mean the police won’t have money to pay their bills and to pay their salaries. It doesn’t mean that they won’t be funded. What it means is that there won’t be areas of overfunding while we have areas of underfunding in other places, such as making sure that there is money for human services in our community, money for social programs, money for health and hospitals. When COVID-19 hit our community, you know, our unhoused population, they weren’t in a position to be able to really be cared for properly.

And then, also, what about — why do our police officers have to be social workers, instead of paying social workers? We have people that go to school for that type of work. Why don’t we have more social workers? And we don’t need money for tear gas. We don’t need money for rubber bullets and bear mace and all of that. We don’t need to stockpile SWAT gear. We need to make sure that people have their needs met. And so, that’s one way of doing it.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about all the militarization of the police. We certainly saw that in Ferguson, which was seminal —


AMY GOODMAN: — in your rise as an activist. Can you talk about that? I mean, you live right near where Michael Brown was gunned down.

CORI BUSH: Yes. And you know what? This is — the thing is, you know, I had seen — I grew up watching civil rights footage, and it was kind of like this thing is over with, like, you know, like you’re free now, do whatever you want, you know? But then, the reality was, that wasn’t true. And when we saw this 18-year-old — my son is 20. When we saw this — so I’m calling Michael Brown a baby. When we saw this 18-year-old baby lying in the street for four-and-a-half hours in the hot St. Louis sun uncovered, you know, and just the idea that he deserved justice, and we couldn’t get it? You know, so, yeah, we took to the streets.

And there was no playbook before that said, “Hey, this is what you do if this happens in your community during your time.” You know, we showed up, and we reacted. And we wanted — we kept that thing going. We protested more than 400 days. Look, people were beaten. You know, like I said before, tear gas, mace, rubber bullets, real bullets were flying. But we kept coming back. I myself was assaulted by police during that time, not being a violent person. You know, me personally, I’m nonviolent. I’m not peaceful, but I’m not violent. But violent came back at me. But, you know, we stood.

And we stood in 2017 after the verdict from Jason Stockley after the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith in St. Louis, and then also again for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many others. We continue to stand because Black lives have to matter in this country. And the only way that that shows — one way that that shows is when we have equity and when we have our police treating Black people the same way that other people in this country are treated. We deserve respect and dignity.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the Democratic ticket. Briahna Joy Gray, the former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders 2020, tweeted last week, “We are in the midst of the largest protest movement in American history, the subject of which is excessive policing, and the Democratic Party chose a 'top cop' and the author of the Joe Biden crime bill to save us from Trump. The contempt for the base is, wow.” Your thoughts both on Senator Harris being chosen to be the VP nominee and Joe Biden himself, Cori Bush?

CORI BUSH: Yeah, so, you know, that was, Joe Biden had the — you know, it was his pick, and he chose her. Now, what I’ve said before, I’m not going to tear down another woman of color. You know, I won’t be party to that. But I can’t overlook her past. And, you know, she has evolved in some ways, and so I applaud her for that. But we can’t forget about the people that were hurt along the way, people that — so, our incarcerated community, our Latinx community. And, you know, what about our single parents and our unhoused communities, that have gone through so many things because of decisions that she has made? So, I can’t just overlook that, because I’m one of those people. I may not have been under — you know, living in California, but I’ve gone through so many of those things myself, so I can’t — you know, you can’t just leave us bleeding in the street, and now everything is great because somebody else has figured it out, you know? So what do we do for those people? So I’m standing with those people. I do applaud her, though, for her success. You know, all the young girls and all our elder women that are looking, saying, “Finally we have somebody that could possibly be going into the VP spot,” you know, we honor that. But we won’t leave behind people that needed that voice at that time, so I’m going to be here for them.

And as far as Joe Biden, you know, that’s the person who became the Democratic nominee, the presumptive nominee, so that’s who we’re going to rock with. And I’m saying “rock with.” You know, we have to get Donald Trump out. And the thing is, is all of those people that — those different groups that I just named, we’re also groups of people that will be hurt more under a Trump administration of another four years, because he’s been wiling out. He’s been doing whatever he wanted to do, basically, for the last four years. So, what can we expect with four more? It’ll be worse.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the unhoused population. You yourself were homeless. You also came down with COVID-19, not once, but twice? Quickly tell us about what brought you here, how you got here, your history.

CORI BUSH: Yeah. So, I grew up in a household that my father’s been in politics for most of my life — love my dad, you know. But I saw so many things, so much corruption and things just coming at him as he was trying to serve the community. So I said I would never do politics; went into ministry, and went through so many things just personally — sexual assault, domestic violence, being a low-wage worker. Being a low-wage worker, I was also uninsured, had times when I was unhoused. At one point I was unhoused with two babies, you know, mixing formula in a fast-food restaurant bathroom.

But I kept going. There was somebody who said, “Cori, this is a way. This is a way to help. What can I do?” And so I was able to come out of some of those situations. And so I want to be able to give that back and help other people, because there was somebody that helped me. But it was not our congressperson. It was not the work necessarily that was being done that I felt could have been done through legislation. It was just people reaching out.

And so, now I’m here to say, “Look, somebody helped me, so let me be that someone to help someone else.” But I will not sit by and be quiet while we have these systems of injustice going on in our communities. And so, if people want me to tear something down, I’ll tear down corruption and greed and injustice and racial — racist systems.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you want to hear, Cori Bush, from your party’s convention this week, that begins tonight?

CORI BUSH: First of all, I wish I was hearing that we had — you know, I wish Medicare for All was on the platform. It’s sad that it’s not, because my patients died —

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been without health insurance when you were running for Congress?

CORI BUSH: I’m without health insurance right now, and even when I went through my COVID-19 situation. You know, that lasted me two months. I was hospitalized twice, you know, and my bills are stacking up right now. And so, we have to do better for our people. You know, we can’t — when 33% of people can’t get the resources that they need for healthcare, when we know that 60,000 people could die a year not having healthcare, that’s important. And it’s important to me. And how do we build equity, how do we build racial equity, without addressing that and addressing it properly? So I would have loved to hear that.

But I would also love to hear, “You know what? We may not have it all together right now, but let us get into the seat, and we’re going to start having these conversations and doing some things differently. We hear you.” That’s what I want to hear: “We hear you.” We’ve made some changes as far as the climate crisis in that platform. We’ve made some changes in other places. Yes, we want to make sure that we stand with the Voting Rights Act and all of that. Absolutely, I do stand with those things. But we cannot allow people to die.

AMY GOODMAN: Cori Bush, I want to thank you so much for being with us, a nurse, Black Lives Matter activist, who defeated 10-term Congressmember Lacy Clay in the Democratic primary earlier this month in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District. Clay and his father Bill Clay have been congressmembers representing that area since 1969. Cori Bush is a formerly unhoused woman who helped lead protests in Ferguson after the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, her story featured in the award-winning Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, along with AOC. And as we go to the next segment, very quickly, Cori, I wanted to ask you — you’ve said you want to expand the Squad?

CORI BUSH: Yes, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: The Squad being, of course, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar — both of them were just reelected in their primaries — AOC, of course, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley, who’s facing a primary in Massachusetts.

CORI BUSH: Yes, we have to expand the Squad. We’re bringing a different flavor. We’re bringing our progressive values. And we’re standing on what we believe. And we’re bringing our experiences. We’re not so far removed from the things that the rest of the people in our districts are facing, and it’s happening all around the country. I remember what it was like to have a shutoff, just a year ago, you know, utility shutoff. I remember what it’s like to be evicted. Those things are very close to me, and so I’m going to fight. And that’s why we have to expand the Squad. We have been in these situations that so many people have faced recently. It’s time.

AMY GOODMAN: Cori Bush, thanks so much. And we’re going to be checking back with you.

CORI BUSH: Thank you. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Next, we go to Honduras, where five Afro-Indigenous Garífuna land defenders were kidnapped last month, haven’t been seen since. Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for land and environmental defenders. Stay with us.

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We Are in Danger Daily: Honduran Afro-Indigenous Garífuna Demand Return of Kidnapped Land Defenders

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