FERGUSON, Mo. – Cori Bush earned a reputation as a fierce activist on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Come January, she’ll almost certainly be representing the St. Louis suburb in Congress, making her the most prominent of many Ferguson protesters who have turned to politics.
On Tuesday, just days shy of the sixth anniversary of a white police officer's fatal shooting of Black 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Bush pulled a stunning political upset by ousting 20-year Rep. William Lacy Clay in the Democratic primary. Both Bush and Clay are Black.
The district that covers St. Louis and north St. Louis County is overwhelmingly Democratic, and Bush is heavily favored in November against her little-known Republican challenger, Anthony Rogers.
The victory also comes just over two months after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis prompted massive protests and created a larger-than-ever movement toward the sort of police reform that Bush championed in Ferguson.
“It is historic that this year, of all the years, we’re sending a Black, working-class, single mother, who’s been fighting for Black lives since Ferguson, all the way to the halls of Congress,” an emotional Bush, 44, said after her victory.
Brown died on Aug. 9, 2014, when he was shot by a Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, following a confrontation that began when Wilson told Brown and a friend to stop walking on the street. Wilson claimed self-defense, but some witnesses claimed Brown had his hands up in surrender. Wilson was not charged and resigned in November 2014.
The shooting led to months of protests, and that unrest helped create a new generation of Black leaders in St. Louis, some of whom, like Bush have taken the next step into politics.
Bruce Franks Jr. was a protest leader who won election to the Missouri House as a Democrat, though he resigned in May 2019, citing a need to focus on his mental health and his family. He was replaced by another Ferguson activist, Rasheen Aldridge, who is just 26. Protest leader Fran Griffin was elected to the Ferguson City Council last year. She defeated Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden.
Kayla Reed, co-founder of the local Black-led political activist group Action STL, said Bush’s victory is especially momentous for people who protested during the Ferguson Uprising in 2014, when the nascent Black Lives Matter movement began gaining prominence. It also holds national significance in that Bush's ascent to Congress would grow the number of House members whose politics on criminal justice reform are aligned with the movement, added Reed, who is also an organizer in the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 150 organizations that make up the broader BLM movement.
“What this win really signifies is a desire to change the guard to one that is more relatable and accountable to its constituents,” Reed told the AP in a phone interview Wednesday. “When you think about the moment John Lewis went to Congress, this is very close to that for the people of Ferguson. This isn’t someone who tried to swoop in, put Ferguson on a shirt, and run a campaign."
Bill Hall, a political science professor at Webster University in suburban St. Louis, said Clay was conspicuously on the sideline during most of the unrest in Ferguson, while Bush was on the street earning a reputation as a fierce proponent of the effort to get police and courts to treat Black people more fairly.
“Since 2014 with the Ferguson escalation and this movement of activism, Clay has not been actively engaged and involved as one would think he would be given his background and heritage,” Hall said. “For people like Cori Bush who have, it’s beginning to pay dividends.”
Bush told the AP on Wednesday that her activism opened her eyes to the need for political change.
“The idea that my son or my daughter, or somebody else's loved one could be the next hashtag,” she said. “Thinking about how our elected officials didn't step up for us, especially those who represent the area, especially our congressman. That was enough for me.”
Perhaps if anyone should have understood how an activist could ascend to prominent political office, it was Clay himself.
Clay’s father, Bill Clay, was a St. Louis alderman in the 1960s who took on a prominent bank over concerns about its discriminatory practices. The activism led to a successful run for Congress in 1968. He stayed there until retiring in 2000, when his son won the same seat.
William Lacy Clay, 64, was never really challenged until 2018, when Bush received 37% of the vote. This time, she had strong support from other progressives including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and her friend, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
Zaki Baruti, another leading Ferguson activist, said he recognized Bush's potential during the protests and helped convince her to run for U.S. Senate in 2016. She lost in the Democratic primary, but Baruti said it was clear she was going places.
“She was very charismatic,” Baruti said. “She grabbed the attention of many of the people in the protest movement. And then, there was her commitment to stay true to the movement.”
In 2001, Bush was working at a preschool when she became ill while pregnant with her second child and had to quit. She and her then-husband were evicted from their rental home. For months, the couple, their newborn and their 14-month-old son lived out of a Ford Explorer.
The couple divorced. Bush earned a nursing degree. She also became a pastor. After Brown’s death, she became an activist, and has continued to lead protests since Floyd died May 25 after a police officer placed a knee on his neck for several minutes while the Black man pleaded that he couldn’t breathe.
Bush, in her victory speech, noted that six years ago she was pepper-sprayed and beaten by police officers while protesting in Ferguson. Once she takes office, she said, “I will be holding every single one of them accountable.”
AP Race & Ethnicity writer Aaron Morrison in New York contributed to this report.