Cori Bush on the Shame and Power of Poverty

The U.S. representative’s protest on the steps of the Capitol helped put pressure on the administration to reinstate the eviction moratorium.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

Last week, Congress failed to pass an extension to the Covid-19 eviction moratorium. In response, several members of the House, including Reps. Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, camped out on the steps of the Capitol in an effort to pressure the Biden administration into executive action. Bush joins Ryan Grim to discuss this week’s action and how her own life story has informed her understanding of poverty and eviction.

[Musical introduction.]


Ryan Grim: As the expiration date on the nationwide eviction moratorium approached last week, efforts to extend it and allow people to stay in their homes devolved into a tragicomedy of errors.


In June, the Supreme Court had sort of, but not really, ruled that it couldn’t be extended beyond July 31. Democrats did basically nothing over the next month, and last Thursday, the White House announced it would allow the ban to lapse in two days time. It had originally been put in place last year by the CDC as a way to slow the spread of Covid. But the Biden administration had concluded that it didn’t have the authority to extend the moratorium on its own, without an act of Congress.


Here’s White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre:


Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre: President Biden would have strongly supported a decision by the CDC to further extend this eviction moratorium to protect renters at this moment of heightened vulnerability. But, like we’ve all said today, unfortunately the Supreme Court has made clear that this option is no longer available.


RG: This was, apparently, news to congressional Democrats, who had been hoping for unilateral action from the president.


There now ensued a mad dash by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her allies to whip enough support to pass an extension before the end of the week, or at least to look like they were trying.


Said Rep. Jim McGovern, chairman of the Rules panel: “I quite frankly wish he” — meaning Biden — “had asked us sooner.”


Unsurprisingly, the rushed effort failed. From there, Democratic leaders shrugged and went on recess. Oh well.


But one member of Congress decided not to go home. Cori Bush headed for the steps of the Capitol and said that she wasn’t leaving until the moratorium was extended. She asked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to camp out with her, and the two were soon joined by several dozen people who made the steps their home. Nobody was allowed to sleep, though. If Capitol TK Police saw anybody dozing off, they’d intervene. But as long as they stayed awake, they were able to stay.


Over the weekend, the White House continued to insist that it would love to help, but it simply didn’t have the authority. Pelosi said she’d be happy to pass legislation extending it, but gosh darnit, that darn filibuster in the Senate meant it couldn’t get through.


And Schumer? Well, he was dealing with his bipartisan infrastructure package, so he’d love to help, but he just couldn’t.


Democratic leaders probably assumed the issue would fade from the front pages pretty quickly, but the crowd kept growing at the Capitol, and Bush was soon joined by more of her colleagues.


Public outrage about the lapsed moratorium, and at the incompetent way it was handled, only grew.


I was there on Tuesday afternoon when news broke that the White House had had a change of heart and would be introducing a new moratorium. Not long after, Elizabeth Warren stopped by.


Sen. Elizabeth Warren: I think Cori Bush has been absolutely pivotal in getting real change. You know, she’s one woman, who stood up and said: I’m not moving.


She testified from personal experience. And she said this is what it is like to lose your home, this is what it is like to be moved out. And that was enough to capture the attention of a lot of people across this nation, and a lot of people in this building and at the other end of Pennsylvania Ave. And that’s how we get change. Go Cori!


RG: The members of Congress who’d stuck it out held a press conference, and then a makeshift rally.


Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Governors, municipalities, get this money out. We have $46 billion. It needs to get out to the American people. We need to keep people housed.


Rep. Mondaire Jones: Today is important. Because it marks, I hope, a turning point, in the way that this White House views progressives.


Abbas Alawieh: What has just been announced is that the CDC, under the direction of the president, is implementing a new federal eviction moratorium. [Scattered cheers and applause.]


Rep. Cori Bush: The tears, let’s be clear, are joyful tears. My god, I don’t believe we did this. [Laughter, applause, and cheers from the crowd.”


RG: The next morning, I spoke with Congresswoman Bush about her win on the moratorium extension, and about how her own life experiences have informed her view on poverty in America.


[Musical interlude.]


RG: Congresswoman Cori Bush, welcome to Deconstructed.


CB: Thank you.


RG: So, you’ve had less than 24 hours to reflect on your — do you want to call it a victory here? I guess it’s too soon to call it a victory — to reflect on the White House introducing a new eviction moratorium.


CB: Yes.


RG: Did you expect that it would come this quickly?


CB: I felt like it would come this quickly, I just didn’t know that it would come this quickly. I was very, very helpful. I kind of thought that we would have to have a little more pressure. But I am just still in awe of how the community just pushed this thing. It was amazing.


RG: So yesterday at the press conference, after the news came out, you got emotional when Congressman Gomez talked about how your own background had kind of put you in a place where you were able to achieve this.


And it made me think about this Dolly Parton song that talks about poverty in one of the most profound ways that I’ve ever heard. And basically, what she gets out in the song is that in this country poverty and economic struggle are things that we are proud to have overcome, we are proud if our parents overcome it; in the moment when we’re in it, we’re deeply ashamed of it. There’s a classism in our country that we internalize when we’re going through it.


And you’re so close to it still. You and I talked a bunch during the campaign, you were struggling right up until election night. So I’m wondering how that classism that everybody who struggles in this country deals with has affected you, because you’ve leaned into your story, it’s your story that’s made you such an effective advocate, yet at the same time telling that story forces you to relive it and forces you to go through the shame that our society puts on that poverty.


So, what’s it been like for you to grapple with that?


CB: You know, it’s really difficult, because you can just feel the judgment, you know? Or where people are asking questions to see where they can find your error, because it’s your fault that you ended up in those positions. Every time I talk about it, like when Rep. Gomez was talking about it being my story, it’s because the tears came from feeling like I felt in those moments when I was unhoused. I could still feel the way that I felt. I remember being in the car, and my babies being in the backseat, and just wondering what day this ends. What day this ends. How will it end? And: Will I ever end up back in this position again?


I just remember feeling that. I remember feeling like people don’t understand, and how can I make them understand. It’s not that we are bad people. It’s not that we don’t deserve to have a home or we don’t deserve to have a better quality of life, getting people to understand that. And so that’s where some of that emotion was coming from.


Because there’s something that comes with standing in the line at a food pantry. Something happens to you, something happens when you have to explain how you’re poor enough to be able to receive these resources, why you ended up in this position, you have to explain it, and I just remember feeling that and how it felt every time I pulled out my WIC vouchers in the grocery store. And whenever I paid for something with food stamps, all of that was just flooding back.


RG: Yeah, I could feel that coming from you at that press event, because there were definitely tears of joy —


CB: Yes.


RG: — flowing at times yesterday. But those seemed like genuine tears of pain, of remembering that time.


CB: Yep.


RG: But you said, at the time, you’re wondering: Will you get back there? One thing that people who’ve gone through that for so long, who continue to live with it, is this question of: Will I get back there? And I wonder, do you still, to this day, confront some of those questions? Like, is this temporary? Will I be there again?


CB: Absolutely. Because I don’t know how I got there in the first place.


RG: Mhmm.


CB: And I didn’t know that — like I had never seen that for myself. And the issues that were present, that help me to end up in that position, are still very present and prevalent today. We have not fixed those issues. And so that’s one reason why I wanted to run for Congress was because I want to be able to work on those issues because sometimes we legislate on such a high level that we don’t understand all the nuances to poverty. So we miss so much.


For example, if we say: Well, I want to make sure that I am helping our unhoused community to have a home, we have a bill, the Unhoused House Bill of Rights. OK, so if we take money, we build homes for our unhoused community members and we get everybody into a home, how did they get there? Did we make sure that they had wraparound services to even be able to be in a position to even walk in those doors? Like, what all did we equip them with to be able to walk into those doors, to have the home and maintain the home? Did we make sure that they had even a shower and clean clothes to feel the dignity that they may want in the moment to be able to walk into a grocery store and buy the food to be able to put into the home? Like, all of that.


Because that’s me. I wanted to feel the dignity of being able to walk into my job. And there were days that I had to go into my job with the same clothes that I had on the night before and go in and sneak into the bathroom and go and wash myself up before work. So that’s what I mean. Understanding the different pieces of what we deal with is important.


[Musical interlude.]


RG: There aren’t many people in Congress who understand the indignity that our kind of public benefits programs inflict on people, that it almost feels intentional. As a lawmaker, have you thought of ways to strip some of that indignity out of the system?


CB: Yes. Well, that’s one reason why I talk about it. Because one thing, too, when you expose the dirt, it’s not dirty anymore. You know, it has to be cleaned up. And so that is one reason why I talk about it, why I allow myself to be so vulnerable, because once it’s out there, it’s out there, and we got to deal with it. When we hold it, when we keep it to ourselves, then it becomes ours. And people aren’t helped that way, or at least not helped fast enough.


So for me, I talk about it, and I try to get down into the grimy parts of it because people should know: It is not our fault. These are policy decisions made by people who either want to have power, keep power, and make sure that power is concentrated in a certain area. That is now my work along with so many others in Congress, especially my friends on the Squad, our work is to tear that down completely.


RG: When you met with Vice President Harris on this question, what was the approach you took to try to move her on it?


CB: I just said to her, I want you to look me in my eyes; I want to look into yours, but I want you to look into my eyes. Because I cannot allow my people in St. Louis to end up pushed out onto the street. And I need you to hear me, I need you to see my heart. That’s all I wanted from her in that moment was to see. Look, I wanted her to see into my soul, and to see all the pain, because there was so much going on the inside of me, I wanted her to see that and feel with the people of St. Louis that are risking eviction and the people all over this country who were at risk or actually being evicted, I wanted her to feel that. Because I felt like if she could feel that, if she could hear that, and then also hear it from somebody who [is] also on the team. You know, I’m not trying to work against you, I’m not trying to embarrass you, none of that. We’re on the same team. I’m just trying to help you to see how urgent this crisis is and how our inaction will kill people. It’s a global pandemic. And so that was the point of that moment.


RG: Did you see any of your colleagues’ minds being changed over the course of the last week? Or do you think that primarily what happened was public pressure moving both Congress and the White House?


CB: I think minds were changing. I mean, I can’t say for sure, because I didn’t necessarily talk to all of the people that did show up, the members that did show up, or called me, over the weekend, in the last couple of days, I didn’t necessarily talk to them prior to — so I don’t know what their mindset was then. But for those that showed up, or called me, many of them said: I heard you. Or, I saw your interview, and I have to be here. So I know that they were getting the message. Whether they were a yes vote on the eviction moratorium extension or not, I know that change did happen within our caucus. And I’m proud that we were able to get here.


And we didn’t do it alone. Our staff, the staff of all of the members that were out there sleeping out there during the day — and I’m not saying sleeping, because we really didn’t sleep — out there all night.


RG: Right. You’re not allowed to sleep!


CB: You’re right. They were out there with us, too. And they pushed hard. They worked hard to bring this home, along with so many community members and advocates. And this was a community effort.


RG: How nervous are you that 60 days from now, we’ll be right back in the same situation —


CB: Nope.


RG: — with very little of the money spent and the new moratorium expiring. What do you think has changed?


CB: Uh, actually, I’m not nervous about it. I’m not nervous, because I just feel the same way I felt the moment when I made the decision to go run over to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and say, Hey, let’s stay here. Let’s sleep out here tonight. And let’s bring some awareness.


So that same thing that I felt on the inside of me then, that feeling of like, move, like it’s in my feet — like, let’s go. That same feeling is what I feel right now. And it is: OK, now we can take this and we can run with it, we can go and do the work to make sure that we connect people to these dollars. Like that’s what I feel. So if we can keep this momentum and push and go get these dollars out, this $46.5 billion, where only $3 billion has been spent, get this other $43 billion out the door and in the hands of the people who are supposed to have it, who need it the most, I’m very optimistic. I’m not worried. But we got to do the work. And it’s a lot of work. We got to do the work and Congress needs to act as well. So we have to figure out legislatively what we need to do.


RG: And what lesson tactically and strategically have you and your colleagues drawn from this?


CB: I think it’s just a clear reminder that there is people-power, the power is with the people, and you know, we’re powerful individually, but collectively, we can move mountains. And I am even more encouraged to see what all we’re able to accomplish now, because we see that we don’t have to follow the same protocols and the same: How do we usually do this particular thing? Who do we usually call for this and all of that?


We have to think outside of the box, because right now we are in a situation that is so different. We’re finding out more information about Covid-19, what happened with the Alpha variant, and what happens with the Delta variant? Will there be another variant? Do we need a booster? Everything is just always evolving with this situation, and then going backwards, and it’s just so much happening with this, we have to be just as flexible. Ready to move.


And so I think that’s the lesson learned here, is to think outside of the box. We are legislators. We should be able to do the work. We have amazing teams, we have people in our communities that are ready to talk to us and share their ideas. Let’s listen and get the work done. It just may call for us to be a little uncomfortable to do it.


RG: [Chuckles.] And, meanwhile, it seemed like a lot of Democrats in Washington were spending more energy defeating Nina Turner out in Ohio than they were on extending this eviction moratorium. The Congressional Black Caucus of which you’re a member, their PAC even went in and endorsed Shontel Brown. I mean, one: Was that a decision that the CBC brought to all its members? And, two: What do you take from that Tuesday night election?


CB: Yeah, the CBC PAC, I believe it was, yeah, I believe that. That was their route. It wasn’t my route. I actually was supposed to be in Cleveland for the weekend. And when this happened, I called my dear sister Nina Turner and let her know that I would be late getting there because I had to stay the night on the street. And I just didn’t know how long, I didn’t know I would be there overnight, the next day, I didn’t know I would be there the following day. But she understood. And that’s what I love about a fighter.


RG: Mmmm.


CB: That’s what I love about like-minded people. Ready to show up but also an understanding that the people are our first focus.


RG: Do you think this win will have implications for the rest of the agenda? Progressives have said that the bipartisan infrastructure deals and going through without a big reconciliation package as well. Do you think that this demonstration of power is going to make that threat or that promise more credible?


CB: You know, I hope so. But it’s just a matter of, like, that’s on us. It is on us to know what we want out of this and then do the work for it, but then also seeing what it is that others are saying that they want to see, and then, with the reconciliation package, being able to do this thing together. I am definitely looking forward to a big package, bringing home deliverables to my community that we weren’t able to get before.


So, yes, this is our moment to really, really use our voices, but being very strategic about what we can do with this. I’m so glad we have Senator Bernie Sanders in the Senate, who believes the same things that many of us do about making sure that we bring home these wins.


RG: And last question, ’cause I know you gotta run, you had taken some heat earlier for saying that: As a member of Congress, we all vote alone. People took that to mean: Well, why not some strategic bloc voting? What’s your attitude toward this kind of strategic bloc voting at this point?


CB: That’s the thing. People heard what they wanted to hear, they already had a particular thing that they felt about us. And so they only heard what they wanted to hear with that. They totally misunderstood what I said.


The point is, we can bloc vote — yes! But at the end of the day, even with a bloc vote, my name, when you pull up Cori Bush, the record is mine. If you pull up Speaker Pelosi, that record is hers, you pull up someone else, that record is theirs. That is the point, that no matter how you vote, my community, they don’t care about what the next person voted. The district that voted you in cares about how you voted. And so whether we vote as a bloc, or whether we vote separately.


And so, yes, we can. And we have done that. And the people that have listened to this and don’t understand that, it’s baffling to me. Because you want, in your district, the things that are specific to your district, you want your representatives to care about those things. But another district may not have those issues as number one, number two. So that is the point. In some districts, water may be the issue, may be the number one issue in that community. But then another district, it could be gun violence; another district it’s wildfires. So we have to understand that. So do we say, I don’t care about the wildfires happening in my community because I want to vote like everybody else? But your district is like: But we needed this thing! You didn’t speak up for us!


So that is the point of that. At the end of the day, my record doesn’t say Cori Bush and then Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her votes aren’t mixed in there. This is OK because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Talib, and Ayanna Presley, and Ilhan Omar, and Jamal Bowman all voted this way. No. So that is the point.


RG: Right. Well, Congresswoman Bush, thank you so much for joining me.


CB: Thank you.


[Credits theme music.]


RG: That was Congresswoman Cori Bush, and that’s our show.


Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.


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