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Rep. Cori Bush on Being Raped, Her Abortions, Police Brutality & Her Journey from Activism to Congress

StoryOctober 19, 2022
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As President Biden vows to codify abortion rights if Democrats can control Congress after the midterms, we speak with Democratic Congressmember Cori Bush, who faces reelection this November as a first-term Democrat in Missouri, where abortion was banned after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. She just wrapped up a “Roe the Vote: Reproductive Freedom Tour.” She discusses her experiences with abortion and much more in her new memoir, “The Forerunner: A Story of Pain and Perseverance in America,” which traces her journey as a registered nurse who took part in Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson to running for the House of Representatives. “It was not easy” becoming a Black woman politician in a state and country where “true equity or equality” has not yet been achieved, says Bush.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

On Tuesday, President Biden vowed to enshrine access to abortion into law if Democrats can expand their narrow majorities in Congress in the upcoming midterm, now less than three weeks away.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Here’s the promise I make to you and the American people: The first bill that I will send to the Congress will be to codify Roe v. Wade. And when Congress passes it, I’ll sign it in January, 50 years after Roe was first decided the law of the land.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden spoke at a Democratic National Committee event as many Democratic candidates hope to harness voter outrage over the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson last year that struck down the constitutional right to an abortion after almost 50 years and left it up to the states. Abortion rights were a key issue at Tuesday night’s debate in Florida between Republican Senator Marco Rubio and his Democratic challenger, Congressmember Val Demings.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: I’m 100% pro-life. … That said, every bill I’ve ever sponsored on abortion, every bill I’ve ever voted for, has exceptions.

REP. VAL DEMINGS: Senator, how gullible do you really think Florida voters are? Number one, you have been clear that you support no exceptions, even including rape and incest.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we spend the rest of the hour with Congressmember Cori Bush. She herself faces reelection this November as a first-term Democrat in Missouri, where abortion was banned after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. She just wrapped up a “Roe the Vote: Reproductive Freedom Tour” across her state and was one of 17 congressmembers arrested in a pro-abortion rights protest outside the Supreme Court in July. She first publicly discussed her own abortions as a witness at a congressional hearing last year and has featured her story in campaign ads like this one.

REP. CORI BUSH: At 17, I was raped and became pregnant. That’s the start of my abortion story. Millions more have their own. Let me be clear: Forced pregnancy is a crime against humanity. When an extremist court dictates what we can do with our bodies, that’s violence. But together, St. Louis, we’re powerful. Together, we’ll reclaim our rights. We will not let up. We will not yield until abortion is legal everywhere and everyone has reproductive freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Cori Bush has just published her memoir. It’s called The Forerunner: A Story of Pain and Perseverance in America. She’s joining us today to discuss it, as she talks about her experiences with abortion, her work as a community activist. She was a registered nurse and ordained pastor. She was unhoused, and so much more.

Congressmember Bush, welcome back to Democracy Now!

REP. CORI BUSH: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Your book is riveting. Why don’t we start by you talking about abortion? You openly talk about it in Congress. But you’re not just talking about one; you’re talking about having had several abortions. And you take on a very sensitive issue. It’s the issue of choice, when you have a choice to have an abortion or not. And you can talk about what happened in your life.

REP. CORI BUSH: Yeah. You know, the decision should belong to the person who has to walk out that journey. It shouldn’t be our government making that decision for anyone. And I look at it the same as, you know, you choose whether to go to a provider if you are a diabetic. You make the choice: Do I want to go to this particular doctor or that one? You know, for those who are insured and for those who are underinsured or uninsured, there is a different choice that they have to make. Well, when we’re talking about our physical body, we’re talking about our mental health, that should be the sole decision of the person that walks that out.

So, I’ve been upfront and very public about the two abortions that I’ve had, and, you know, the first one being very difficult. I didn’t even understand what was happening at the time. I didn’t understand how I got pregnant. Even when I — I just — the whole thing, I just was not prepared for. But being able to, at 17, go to this book — you know, at that time, we still had the big fat yellow pages. I remember I went to that, to the yellow pages, and went to the name of a clinic that I had heard my friends talk about. I opened the yellow pages. There was the phone number. I called, made an appointment. And it was just that simple to be able to be on the road to receiving services. It was just like calling my dentist to say I needed — you know, I had a toothache.

But I think about what happens when the services that we need for our bodies, if you take those services away. Right now we’re fighting. We’ve been fighting for such a long time just to make sure that each and every person has access in actual healthcare. We’ve been fighting for a long time to make sure that there was reproductive justice, not just reproductive freedom. And now that has been rolled back to where our rights are being stripped away. If you don’t want an abortion, don’t have one. But to say that no one in this country should have that type of access, that, to me, to strip away those rights, should not be the job of the government.

And, you know, prior to Roe v. Wade being law, we know that one of the, like, major causes of death for Black women in this country was the sepsis that went along with unsafe — that came from unsafe abortions. Why do we want to go back there, when we know that there are so many disparities in Black maternal health, disparities just across the board? We haven’t fixed those problems. We can’t go backwards.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Congressmember, I wanted to ask you — you begin your book with an ode to your beloved hometown, St. Louis, Missouri. You write, quote, “Despite [this] richness of culture, the truth is that we live in a lethal environment in St. Louis, and we’re dying.” And you go on to say, quote, “The legacies of slavery and de jure segregation affect every aspect of society here.” Could you elaborate?

REP. CORI BUSH: Sure. I mean, St. Louis, we’ve been — you know, we’re known for leading in homicides across the country per capita, you know, year after year. We’re known for even leading in the murder of children. We are known for leading in police murder, year after year. So, we live in this lethal environment, but also environmental justice is something that we have not — like, we have not achieved environmental justice.

Just right now we have this issue in our community. We’ve been fighting this battle for years to clean up Cold Water Creek and West Lake Landfill. We have a school that’s been in the news over the past couple of days, an elementary school, where there are — where a study just came out saying that there’s radioactive waste within the school. And just yesterday, the school board had to make the decision — the school board made the decision to close the school and go virtual. We’re talking about an environment where people should be able to live and thrive and grow, but we’re fighting just to survive.

And as much as I love my community, I love St. Louis, you know, we have to talk about those things and address them. We have to address poverty head on. We have to — you know, I think about how we drive up and down the streets of St. Louis, and there are certain areas where the auction blocks used to be. When you bring up — brought up slavery, a lot of people don’t know that Missouri was a slave state. Even though we are not the South, we are the Midwest, we were still a slave state. And I think about the case of Dred Scott, and Dred and Harriet Scott. I think about how that we still feel — we are still up under, like, that cloud of the segregation, that cloud of slavery, that divided this state long ago. And we have not — we just haven’t gotten to the point to where there is true equity and equality in the state or in the country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your book also talks about your family history. Your paternal great-grandparents came to St. Louis from Mississippi as part of the Great Migration. And you talk a lot about your father, Errol Bush, who was a giant in your life. Could you talk about him and what he taught you?

REP. CORI BUSH: Yeah. So, my dad, he’s very much so, like, involved in making sure that we understand our family history, that we know who we are. He started that when we were kids. He made sure that I knew that, you know, I am enough, that my Black is beautiful. You know, we went through a lot. You know, like, colorism is a real thing, but my father made sure — colorism and racism are real things. My father made sure that we understood that, you know, the safety that you have here inside this home is different once you walk outside of these doors. So he built us up, you know, to know that you can go as far as you want to go; you can have all of the things you want to have; it’s up to you if you allow other people to stop you. And so, he made sure we understood, like, responsibility and leadership, accountability. That was his mantra every single morning before we walked out of the doors to go to school.

My dad has been in politics for most of my life, so more than 30 years. But I remember, as a child, when he first got into politics, he started with the PTA and then moved on to, like, the city council and then became a mayor. I just remember that, you know, I worked on every part of my dad’s campaigns, year after year. He would have to run every two years. And, I mean, we did it all. I was the — I just did it all — didn’t know what I was doing, but I was there to support my dad. And looking back, those were seeds being sown that I didn’t know that I would need, you know, later on in life.

And now it’s funny, because I was at all of my dad’s functions and supporting him, holding the signs, wearing the shirts, doing all the stuff, and now my dad is doing that exact same thing for me. You cannot stop my dad from wearing his purple “Cori Bush for Congress” T-shirt and, you know, making sure everybody knows: Vote for my daughter.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your protest to stop evictions? You yourself were unhoused, with your two beloved children. You’re a registered nurse. You came out of the Black Lives Matter movement, dealing with the terrible police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Talk about how that history informed your strategies and how you decided that — though your father was in electoral politics, that you were going to go from movement to electoral politics. And do you see a difference?

REP. CORI BUSH: Yeah. So, that was not a decision that — first, it didn’t come easy. I never had a desire to be a politician, never wanted to be an elected official. It was not at all a dream of mine. I wanted to be a nurse. That’s what I saw. That’s what I wanted to be. And especially because I worked so closely with my dad, and I would watch how my dad would say something, and then in the media, like in a newspaper article, they would print something that was not what my dad said, or people would attack him for things that he didn’t do. And I just remember, like, just I would ask him, like, “Why do you do this? Like, why do you continue to help people and do all of these things and give all of your time, and then you get all of these attacks and all of this criticism back?” And I didn’t understand it then.

But it was through the protest, through more than 400 days of protest during the Ferguson uprising, us being out there on the streets demanding what we thought was justice — now I consider justice being alive, not just — not someone going — not a police officer or anyone else going to jail. That’s more accountability. That’s not justice, to me, in my eyes. But, you know, we were out there just doing what we could to not only bring accountability, but to also be able to save other lives.

So, when someone approached me — and I write about it in the book. Someone approached me, another activist, and said, “We need you to run for U.S. Senate. Like, will you run for U.S. Senate?” I’m like, “No. Like, why would I do that, after 400 days of protest?”

Now, I do remember being out there, though, looking for our elected officials, looking for more of them, I’ll say, to be out there on the ground, to stand with us, because we weren’t there to — just to piss people off and to block traffic and to be seen. Like, that’s not why we were out there. We were out there because, for me, I didn’t what my son to be the next hashtag, I didn’t want my daughter to be the next hashtag, and I didn’t do everything in my power to stop it. If throwing my voice, lending my voice, my hands, my feet to the moment was something that I could do, I needed to do everything that I could.

But when someone asked me to run, you know, in the beginning, I said, “No. Like, why would I do that?” But then, the more I thought about it, and I thought about all the times when I felt like I was just shouting at the wind, when I felt like I was throwing pebbles at the ocean and no one was there, I thought about, “Hey, if you put someone in the space to be able to hit the ball” — like, thinking about the St. Louis Cardinals. It was like, you know, you have this — you got a pitcher throwing these balls. Who’s there to hit the home run? You know. And so, I said yes.

But that was not easy, because the other part of that was, “Oh, you’re just a nurse. Oh, you don’t come from money. Oh, you’re not an attorney. Do you realize you’re an activist from Ferguson?” Like, you know, people would call me a terrorist. Like, that was — that’s what people saw, or, “Oh, your skin is too dark. Like, you realize that, you know, Black women can’t run for this seat. You know, your hair is unprofessional. Your hips are too big. Your lips are too big.” Like, I went through all of those things trying to run for office in this state.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Congressmember, in your book, you talk about your early experiences with police as a teenager, and you write, quote, “My friends and I were being initiated into the attacks that came to shape our teenage years and beyond.” You were talking about being sexually harassed by a police officer. Could you talk about that?

REP. CORI BUSH: Yeah. You know, not knowing — like, waking up one day, and your body looks different. You put on the same clothes, and they don’t fit you the same way. You know, I didn’t — it got to the point to where I was like, you know, “How do I dress? Like, am I doing — am I doing something wrong?” Because now all of a sudden I have all of these men, these grown men, like, making these catcalls at me.

And then this one particular day, this police officer just — you know, I’m walking down the street. I walked a lot, because that was just how I got around. And just I’m walking down the street, and this police officer pulls up in the car next to me. And I kept walking, but I didn’t think anything — you know, that there would be a problem, because I knew most of the police officers, or at least they knew who we were. And we were taught that those police officers were safe. Like, you know, so I had no — I just assumed that this person was safe. But he was riding alongside me, and I kept walking. And I just remember, as he kept talking to me and when I finally looked in the car, I noticed, you know, he was making — he had this hand gesture going. And when I finally looked, because I had never experienced that before, I had never seen — you know, I had only changed kids’ diapers, you know, so I had never seen a grown man’s penis before. And that was — and I had never seen someone masturbating right in front of me. I was a kid.

And so I internalized it. I didn’t even go home and tell my dad, because I felt like I was wrong. You know, I was able to get away from that person, but I felt like I did that, like it was something that I did wrong. It was something — maybe it was the way that I was walking, you know, or maybe this shirt was too tight or my skirt should have been looser. Like, I felt like I was the problem, so I didn’t want to tell my dad about that, because the police officer, he couldn’t have been wrong. And if he was, how do I tell my dad that, as someone who really supports them? At least locally, anyway.

AMY GOODMAN: And you also talk about the just horrifying moment where a faith leader rapes you. You have chosen to go public with these stories — you describe them in graphic detail — as a lesson. And can you talk about what happened next? I mean, you were a nurse. You were raped in your nurse’s uniform.

REP. CORI BUSH: Yes, yes. So, in the book, I write about some other, some prior sexual assaults. And for 20 years, I held onto those, thinking, “You know what? It was because my shirt was too short, or it was because my shorts were too short, or, you know, I was at this club, or, like, it was — there was something that I did to make this person think that that’s what I wanted.”

And then, but fast-forward 20 years later, I’m 40 years old, had just lost my primary, my very first primary, running for U.S. Senate and was trying to — I was grieving that loss. And I was just going to — we got the news that a friend of ours, my protest brother, had been killed that morning. So, our protest family, they were out at the site where his body was found burned, shot in a car. And I was grieving that during — all day long and went to go see this home, because I knew I just needed to move. I was having so many problems where I lived. I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t feel safe having my children in that home, because of all of the surveillance, all of the attacks, all of — just all that was happening.

And so I went to see this home of someone who I thought that I knew, that just said, “Hey, you can come see it.” They put it out on social media, on Facebook: “Come out and see, you know, if you want to see the home that I have for rent.” I went, just thought I was going to, you know, see this house that he had for rent. I went straight from work. I had on a white — my uniform. It was the uniform, the white scrub top with the brown — the blue — I’m sorry — scrub pants, and I had on some boots, some, like, Nike boots.

And I wasn’t there but minutes, when he grabbed me and led me to the bedroom. And I just remember him pulling my clothes down. And I still — it wasn’t — I wasn’t understanding what was happening, because I’m like, “I know that’s not what’s happening. You know, I know” — and then the violence started, you know, because I wasn’t acting right. You know, I wasn’t complying. And so, then that’s when the violence started, and he had to just keep pushing me down. And he was just pulling at my clothes. And at that moment, I’m thinking, like, “What did I do this time? Like, I — what? You know, like, I’m not exposed. I’m not like — what did I do?”

But, you know, so that was — that one hit me really, really hard, and it knocked me down for several months. I could not — I was hypervigilant. I was suffering through moments of dissociation and a lot — I was having trouble even taking care of myself, taking care of my children. I had to have family and friends to help me, because I could not even walk outside of my home. Like, part of my therapy was to step outside of my home for five minutes, then go for 10 minutes, then — like, I was not — I was not OK after that.

And the other thing is, because this person was a pastor in this community, you know, and then it was like something — people not believing, like, “Oh, why would a pastor do this to you?” I was laying in the hospital right after it happened, laying in a hospital bed with people looking over me right after my rape kit, right after they did this horrific rape kit. The rape kit is not an easy thing to go through. Right after that, I’m laying there, and I have people looking over me, looking for my bruises, people looking over me, like, “Well, he’s a pastor, though. Why would he do that?” Ask him!

AMY GOODMAN: And yet — go ahead, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, I wanted to ask you if you could talk about the Michael Brown killing and your involvement in the Ferguson protests. You write that your time as part of a mobile response team expanded your understanding of the public health impacts of policing and violence.

REP. CORI BUSH: Yeah. So, after — when Michael Brown was killed, a couple days later, I was back at work. That was that Monday; it happened on a Saturday. I was back at work that Monday, and I was telling my supervisor, like, “Hey, you know, we should be on the ground. You know, like, people out there need help. Maybe we could — you know, you could send some folks to just be out there on the ground.” I didn’t think that they would send a whole van and a mobile response team, but that’s what they ended up doing. And we organized everything, was out on the ground immediately, set up tents. We worked with Better Family Life. We collaborated. And we —

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember, we have 30 seconds.

REP. CORI BUSH: Yes. And it was a time when I was able to see what happens when people don’t have access to true care, and what also happens when we — when everybody doesn’t feel safe in their community.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, your story is a truly remarkable one. You became the first African American woman to represent Missouri in Congress. And you’ve written about it in this incredibly brave book, The Forerunner: A Story of Pain and Perseverance in America. Cori Bush, our guest. We thank you so much for being with us.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a video news production fellow and a people and culture manager Learn more at democracynow.org.

Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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