Cori Bush: “Love Must Be at the Center of Our Work as a Movement”

The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, says Rep. Cori Bush — but only if we pull it.

Rep. Cori Bush at the “How We Win” conference in Washington, DC, held June 16 and 17. (Polina Godz / Jacobin)

I want to start by saying this: I love you. I love us.

I say it all the time, because love must be at the center of our work as a movement interested in the public good. I am someone who happens to believe that we cannot serve that which we don’t love, not adequately. There are a lot of people who think they’re doing good things. But while they think they’re doing good, they’re actually hurting others. Because the heart of it is, “I want to be seen doing good. I want people to say I did a good job.” Because the unconditional love for the people is missing, they missed the mark.

Voters have said to me, “Cori, I don’t really care if you love me or not — just serve me.” And I’ll say, “No, that’s what you’re used to. You’re used to people just doing something for you and then moving you out of the way.”

Rep. Cori Bush at the “How We Win” conference in Washington, DC, held June 16 and 17. (Polina Godz / Jacobin)

That’s not who you get when you have folk like us that actually love humanity. Because we don’t care if you voted for us or not as a condition of whether we help you. We care if you eat, if you have clean clothes, if you have clean air and clean water. We care if your child is safe in school. We care about all of those things, whether you vote for us or not. So know that when I go to work every single day, I do so with love.

I tell my folk in St Louis all the time, “Your congresswoman loves you.” Why? Because I learned on the streets of Ferguson [Missouri] that we have to put out our own narrative. We create it, and then we have to push it out. We push that narrative. I realized that so many people just don’t get to know, because they don’t hear it, that somebody loves them. I need people to know that’s who they get when they get me. I don’t care if you like me or not; I’m going to love you out of your mess or out of your heartache, out of your underresourcedness.

Shout-out to the St Louis Democratic Socialists of America for all that they’ve done for me. Shout out to all the elected officials that are here in the room. Thank you for what you’re doing in your communities. And I want to shout out to my team for being here. And my husband.

Senator Bernie Sanders — I want to shout out the good senator. Because Bernie Sanders believed in me in 2016 back when other folks didn’t. In my very first race, Bernie Sanders put me on his stage, at one of his rallies for president. He put this dark-skinned black woman with these braids on his stage. It was a big deal because so many people thought I looked unprofessional. I was still a Ferguson activist, so close to the movement. He didn’t care. That moment onstage changed my life. So I always have to shout out Senator Sanders for seeing and doing something that other people were afraid to do.

The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. This is what we know. This is the thing: it only does that if we pull it. Pulling that arc is hard; it’s tiring. Our collective struggle, our mission, is so intertwined. What happens over there happens over here. Our struggles are so connected, and therefore our push for equality and our push for justice is connected too.

I am one of the forty million people in our country who descend from enslaved Africans. Our ancestors were torn away from their homes and their families. Enslaved, brutalized, sexually assaulted. Forced to fuel this country’s economy since the day that it was founded, to the tune of over 222 million hours of forced labor, which today would look like somewhere around $97 trillion. Then they were left landless, impoverished, and disenfranchised. My people continue to bear the harms of slavery and its vestiges, through the racial wealth gap. We don’t get to hear enough about the black-and-white wealth gap being $14 trillion.

Participants at the “How We Win” conference in Washington, DC, held June 16 and 17. (Polina Godz / Jacobin)

In a just society, there would not be a wealth gap of trillions of dollars simply based upon race. Segregation, redlining, disparities in health care outcomes, a racist and destructive criminal legal system, and countless other toxic fruits of policy violence are perpetuated by our own federal government.

So I refuse to accept the status quo. That’s who the folks in this room are — you don’t accept the status quo. I refuse to accept the status quo, because the status quo of a system of oppression is oppression. I refuse to accept the status quo where our so-called justice system sees black and brown and indigenous people as more criminal. Seeing us as dangerous allows police to brutalize us and kill our people with impunity, then turn around and perpetually increase no-strings-attached money for policing and wars while stripping our communities of the critical funding needed for us to stay alive. I refuse to accept the status quo, where Juneteenth is a federally celebrated holiday but reparations are a nonstarter for the elected officials who will gladly go and attend those Juneteenth parades.

I refuse to accept the status quo where people are paid $7.25 an hour while corporate profits soar and executives capitalize off of the crisis of “greedflation.” I refuse to accept the status quo that allows our trans siblings to be targeted by legislation all over the country by people who want to attack and hurt other people. I refuse to be silent. I won’t be silent, and I know you won’t either.

I refuse to accept the status quo that funds the oppression of our Palestinian siblings and of communities striving for liberation and self-determination worldwide. I refuse to accept the status quo that says unhoused people are a stain on our society. Everyone deserves housing. And we have the resources to provide that as a guarantee. We just don’t use them.

I refuse to accept the status quo where we destroy our environment because big oil CEOs want another yacht. I refuse to accept the status quo that burdens everyday people with medical debt and education debt. In this nation, the wealthiest nation in the world, people should not have to go into debt to stay alive or to get an education.

Attendees of the “How We Win” conference in Washington, DC, held June 16 and 17. (Polina Godz / Jacobin)

I refuse to accept the status-quo immigration system that routinely defies international law over and over and over again and treats those seeking refuge in our country with contempt and with criminalization. I refuse to accept the status quo where police can shoot someone fifty-seven times for protesting “a training facility” being built. Rest in power, Tortuguita.

I refuse to accept the status quo that sees the issues I just named as acceptable, as part of society, as the way we’ve always done it — but the solutions to these issues, they see as radical. It’s the proliferation of these issues that is radical. The solutions to them are what’s rational, how we actually help people, how we touch our communities.

Because if people don’t feel the change, then you really didn’t change much harm.

We know that the people are with us. People are fed up with the status quo. We see it. We hear it all the time. And so we need that all-hands-on-deck approach to enlist people. To pull on that power. Like the folks in this room, like the elected officials — we need that. We need it at the local level. We need it at the state level. We need it at the federal level. The people-powered movement is gaining momentum each and every time another one of us wins, every time another one of us runs.

We are transforming the way that people do politics. It is with your help that more candidates like us get to Congress, more candidates get into races and seats all over the country. But I think about when people say to me, “Well, I didn’t win. So I’ll just go do something else. But I’m so proud of you.” I have to remind them that I ran three times. I ran consecutively three times without stopping, while my heart was bruised, while I was embarrassed and humiliated. Because people believed in me.

I thought I knew what I was talking about, and I thought people would support that. And people did, but it didn’t look like it by the vote. I just was crushed. But in all of my heart, I remembered the vision before me was to take care of all the people. I had to start with making sure I kept my own kids alive. So I couldn’t understand how I could be told, “You didn’t win. It’s because people don’t believe in you. So just don’t run again.” But how do I keep my son alive if I can’t use my voice? I’ve already been beating the street with my feet, my mouth, and my hands for hundreds of days. I gotta do something more.

I know that you’re going to keep working for policies that lift all of us up. I know that you won’t stop. For those of you who are running right now, I know you’re elected, but some of you are still running — don’t stop. Don’t stop. Even if you don’t get it, don’t stop. Don’t stop, because the momentum that you push in your community, somebody else is going to catch that. Now, it might not have happened for you, but it may happen for the person that was watching you. It may happen for the person that was next to you.

This movement is big. When people tell us, “The Squad is six people” — no, the Squad is all of us. We can’t do this alone. We need everybody’s support as we organize and legislate in Congress for an agenda that puts people first. We need more voices in Congress. We need more voices in our state legislatures. We need more voices in our city councils. We need your voices.

Rep. Cori Bush gives the opening plenary speech at the “How We Win” conference in Washington, DC, held June 16 and 17. (Polina Godz / Jacobin)

You are the light. “This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine.” I don’t sing that. I say, “This mighty light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine.” Because this is it. What I have, I take that, and I give it out to you, and then you take that, and you give it to somebody else. We need more of you that believe what you believe. Don’t just hold that for yourself. Make sure you’re passing it out to the folks next to you. So when you speak, make sure you bring in somebody else, because we’ve got to grow this movement. You’ve got to duplicate yourself. You’re not a leader if you can’t duplicate you in spirit.

I love you. I’m so grateful to every single one of you for your partnership. We fight forward to deliver student debt cancellation. We fight forward to expand voting rights. We fight forward to dismantle white supremacy everywhere. We fight forward to fix our US Supreme Court, to redefine public safety, to prevent hateful violence, to ensure environmental justice, to enshrine reproductive freedom, to transform our immigration system, to believe and support victims and survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, to save lives through gun-violence prevention laws, and so much more.

Our work is just getting started, y’all. So let’s keep going. Let’s keep fighting this oppressive status quo in favor of a world that is fundamentally just, kind, and loving.