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Messenger: In protest that captures nation's attention, Cori Bush answers her own question
Tony's Take

Messenger: In protest that captures nation's attention, Cori Bush answers her own question

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Who speaks for us?

That’s the question Congresswoman Cori Bush asked herself several years ago, before much of the nation knew her name. She was a single mother, working as a nurse, raising two children. There were financial struggles, eviction, even moments sleeping overnight in the car because they had no place to go. Times were tough.

“I remember one day, it was a breaking point for me,” she told me recently in an interview. “I had just pulled up into this parking lot of the payday loan company. I had my two children in the back seat. And I was just sitting there thinking: Why do I have to do this? There was no extra money. Something had happened and I needed an extra $300. I had nowhere to pull it from. And I was thinking: Why do I have to keep doing this? Who speaks for us? I remember thinking at the time, who was in positions of power who could speak for single parents? I’ve made it my mission to make sure I’m talking about that.”

In a series of conversations with Congresswoman Cori Bush and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, Post-Dispatch columnists Aisha Sultan and Tony Messenger ask the two political leaders of the region about a variety of topics, including reparations, rebuilding north St. Louis, crime, the changing political scene in Missouri, and parenting. Video by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

Over the past couple of weeks, Cori Bush has spoken for the millions of people, single mothers and otherwise, facing eviction as a result of the financial struggles induced by the coronavirus pandemic. She grabbed a chair, some blankets, some friends and colleagues, and camped out on the Capitol steps. She begged her colleagues in the House and Senate, or President Joe Biden, to do something about the eviction crisis that will soon grip the nation and create an entirely new class of unhoused people, coming to the streets of American cities. The eviction moratorium that had kept people in their homes and apartments was about to expire. Courts across the nation were gearing up for thousands upon thousands of evictions.

It was a singular sit-in. A protest. A moment of desperation from a first-term congresswoman who has just one vote inside the ornate chambers of the House, but the power of her own heart and compelling story, when she takes to the streets.

That’s where she’s comfortable. Before she ran for Congress, Bush protested the killing of Michael Brown on the streets of Ferguson in 2014. Monday marks the seventh anniversary of Brown’s death. Bush was back at it in 2017, after a white St. Louis police officer was acquitted in the death of an unarmed black motorist, and massive protests ensued.

Republicans have targeted Bush for her insistence on police reform and accountability, but it’s people living in poverty, particularly single mothers like herself, who more often than not are the driving force behind her growing national profile.

In 2017, for instance, she marched in St. Louis to try to stop the forced closure of the New Life Evangelistic Center run by the Rev. Larry Rice. It was the place of last resort for many homeless people, unable to find beds or follow the rules at other homeless shelters, but it was eventually closed, after years of complaints from local loft residents and businesses, and violations of his city occupancy permit.

Bush lost that battle. She won this one.

After four days of camping on the Capitol steps, a moving moment of protest in contrast with the violence of the Jan. 6 insurrection in the same location, President Biden extended the nation’s eviction moratorium until Oct. 3, in cities and counties with “substantial and high levels” of virus transmission.

Bush exchanged hugs with fellow progressive House member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Senators, from Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, came to the steps to congratulate Bush for her accomplishment. “She made yesterday’s announcement possible,” Schumer told the Associated Press.

Biden’s extension of the moratorium might be legally problematic, the president acknowledged. But it gives the nation time. Cities such as St. Louis have millions of dollars in federal aid available for renters and landlords alike to try to stave off the wave of homelessness that so many civic leaders fear. Now there is at least more time to get the aid to people who need it.

With the commitment and heart of an activist, Bush saved lives with her solitary act of peaceful protest. She moved a nation to action by standing up for the people who sent her to Congress.

And she answered the question that she previously asked in desperation, sitting in fear outside a payday loan shop, seeking a lifeline to feed and house her children.

Who speaks for the downtrodden and voiceless?

Cori Bush does.

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