I first showed up to a protest in Ferguson the day after Mike Brown was murdered by police officer Darren Wilson in 2014. At the time, I was working as a registered nurse managing a local community mental health clinic. My employer sent me to the apartment complex where Mike Brown was murdered to serve as a triage nurse and to assist with grief and trauma work. I was in disbelief at what I saw: Thousands of people were on the street. The police were dressed like they were ready to head into battle overseas. Police dogs were barking at protesters. There was rage and pain in the air. All this right in my neighborhood—my hair salon was on one side of the street, my nail salon on the other. Little did I know, I would end up coming back to protest for the next 400 days. We were simply compelled to action.
I never thought I would see the kind of state-sanctioned violence and hatred I’d learned about growing up with my own eyes. Yet, overnight, it had become my daily reality. More than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, I saw regular, everyday people brutalized on the streets of Ferguson. I saw people arrested for what felt like no reason at all. I saw people beaten unconscious for the mere act of raising their voices in the name of justice for Black folks.
One night at the protests, folks were crying out my name for medical help. I turned around just in time to catch an unconscious woman falling to the ground. I, along with six bystanders, carried her up the street to the line of police, decked out from head to toe in riot gear. I told them I was a nurse and suspected she was having a heart attack. I demanded they let us through the line to get to the paramedics who were behind them. They told me to drop her right there. They told me, “Let her go.” I refused.
The next thing I knew, my body was in the air—then on the ground. My vision went black, and I was stomped and kicked by steel-toed boots all over my body. Tear gas filled my lungs. I woke up bruised and with a gun held to my head. I was later told that after they stomped me, those police officers tear-gassed both myself and the woman I was trying to help directly.
Truth is, it was just an ordinary day in life during the Ferguson Uprising. Looking back, I’m grateful that, by that time in my life, almost every aspect of who I was had been touched by the legacy of Black organizers, from the Black Panther Party to Martin Luther King Jr. to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It turned out that having that living history inside me provided an endless well to draw upon. On the days when we had to pool our money to share a sandwich on the frontline; when the tear gas became more than I could physically bear; when the taunting, beatings, and gunshots just became too much, I continued to press on thinking of the brave warriors who came before.
That whole year, I could count on one hand the number of elected officials who showed up and demonstrated they cared about us. Most simply took a photo or two and were gone again within minutes. These were officials—public servants—who are paid to represent us, but they could hardly be bothered.
That taught us a lesson: When all of our so-called leaders desert us, we learn to lead ourselves. We learn that if we continue to vote the same people into office, they will simply continue to sign off on our destruction.
In Ferguson, everyday people stood up for what we believed to be right. We didn’t care that it was unpopular and dangerous. It’s what we needed to do. And that’s what’s needed in Congress. It’s why we need Black Lives Matter activists in Congress.
I first ran for Senate in 2016, and I did so without ever receiving any therapy for the PTSD I suffered due to the protests. Then just three weeks after I lost that 2016 primary election, I was violently raped. I thought that would be the end of my activism and political career, but I couldn’t stay away for long. Our community needed real leadership. I ended up jumping back in four months later to run for Congress in 2018. And now, I’m running for Congress again.
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Nothing about this work is easy, and being a woman makes it even harder. Most of the time, people care more about my clothing (they tell me to wear pantsuits instead of dresses); my body (they say my hips are too big); my hair (my braids are too unprofessional); my education, or my socio-economic status. But I wake up everyday knowing that this work isn’t about me.
We need folks who don’t mind being unpopular as long as their communities’ needs are met. We need organizers and galvanizers. We need good leaders and great listeners. We need compassion and strength, effectiveness and accessibility. We must build coalitions and mobilize around issues using our voices, skills, talents—not high-contributing donors or lobbyists. We need activists in Congress—not just one, or two, or ten, but an entire generation of activists. We have been through so much. We can’t quit. We can’t slow down. Now is not the time for incremental change. Incremental change means more people will die.
As Black folks, we have been fighting for our lives on a daily basis ever since we were forcibly brought to America. That’s violence against us. In St. Louis, we’ve been fighting for our lives against some of the worst segregation in the country. That’s violence. We’ve had to fight to survive under Trump’s presidency and through the COVID-19 pandemic that has devastated the Black community more than any other. That’s more violence. The economic and health disparities we face have existed for far too long, with the same people in power tasked with closing those gaps. Now, we the people have decided to lead, advocate, educate, and empower. It’s not just Ferguson anymore. The whole world is taking to the streets. For this. For George Floyd. For Breonna Taylor. For Tony McDade. For Mike Brown. For Nina Pop. For us.
Cori Bush is running to represent Missouri’s 1st congressional district.
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