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3 June 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 1:16pm

How bail funds give Americans a voice against police brutality

Donations allow people to protest who would otherwise be denied a voice by the US's unequal system of cash bail.

By Emily Tamkin

“Match me if you can”: from last Thursday, this phrase was all over Twitter, encouraging people around the world to send money to help those who had been arrested while protesting the police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, in Minneapolis on 25 May. In four days, the Minnesota Freedom Fund had received so much money – more than $20 million – that it asked for donations to be redirected to other community organisations. They had enough money, for the time being, to bail people out.

As the protests spread, links to other bail funds started appearing across social media. Last Friday, Zoë Adel, advocacy and communications manager at the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, saw a link to her group’s page on Twitter. “Very quickly — within 24 hours — that turned into 50,000 people donating,” she says. The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, too, eventually asked that donations be directed elsewhere; its need had been met, and it wanted to make sure support was spread.

The US criminal justice system operates a commercialised system of bail, illegal almost everywhere else in the world, which charges a cash fee to release a person suspected of a crime before they go to trial. Money bail is discriminatory; the rich can afford to pay it, while the poor are imprisoned before trial, even if they are innocent.

The American bail system is also racist. According to research collected by the Prison Policy Initiative, black and brown defendants are set bail amounts twice as high as those set for white defendants, and which they are less likely to be able to afford. Innocent people who cannot afford bail are given a perverse incentive to plead guilty, to avoid spending weeks or months in prison waiting for a trial.

Bail funds themselves are not new. The National Bail Fund Network, a directory of community bail funds paying bail or bond in the criminal justice and immigration legal systems, has been around since 2016. But the current protests have pushed it into the limelight, and encouraged a wider discussion around bail.

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“There’s been a growing consciousness around the impact of mass incarceration, the role of bail,” says Pilar Weiss, director of the Community Justice Exchange, which runs the National Bail Fund Network.

Bail funds, Weiss says, have “captured people’s imagination, as well as their clicking”. By helping to pay someone’s bail, people can have a direct impact, from anywhere in the US and beyond, on a situation that has been global news since the world watched the gruesome nine-minute video of Floyd’s killing. 

“As a black woman and person, I was not surprised that we saw an explosion of donations,” says Chloe Cooper, co-founder of the Kansas City Community Bail Fund. Cooper and her co-founder Lauren Worley are social workers. They set up the fund when a client of theirs, an African American woman and survivor of domestic violence, was arrested in an affluent suburb in a neighbouring county. “I think people – specifically white people – are looking for a way that they can help,” Cooper says. “They see it as a way they can step up to the plate.”

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In the interest of full disclosure, I am one such white person; in the past week, I made small donations to six bail funds.

Iman Freeman of the Baltimore Action Legal Team agrees that bail funds offer “an immediate connection” to a protest that may be taking place in another state or country. “That’s due to the work of many advocates,” she explains, who “put in the work” to communicate that people are in jail not because they’ve been proven guilty, but because they cannot afford to free themselves. But even Freeman admits she was surprised by the amount donated to the Minnesota Freedom Fund.

Different bail funds work differently. Some exist solely to provide bail, while others, such as the Baltimore Action Legal Team, are broader organisations that include a bail fund. The response to them also differs across the country. Freeman says that when the organisation started in 2015, officials didn’t ask questions when it posted someone’s bail. “Now, it’s, how did you know this person, did you get consent?” The $2bn bail bond industry, which posts bail on others’ behalf but charges hefty, non-refundable fees, is apparently not subject to the same suspicion.

The threat of arrest and pretrial imprisonment are a powerful deterrent to political protest, but by providing a financial safety net against the pretrial system, bail funds give communities a political voice, allowing people to speak up who couldn’t otherwise afford to. In Memphis, Tennessee, Josh Spickler of the community bond fund Just City explains that in protests, “most people are released ‘on recognisance’ [without bail] fairly quickly”, but confirms that Just City, too, has experienced a bump in donations; in the past three its donor base has grown by 40 per cent, with donations from as far as New Zealand.

Everyone I spoke to agreed that bail funds work in conjunction with other community organising groups. “People are drawn to donating to bail funds right now, which is terrific. A lot of money is needed – six figures, in some places”, says Sharlyn Grace of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which was founded to release people arrested at the vigil of DeSean Pittman, a black 17-year-old shot and killed by the police in 2014. “It’s not enough on our own. We are part of a larger movement,” she says.

There was a shared sense, too, that bail funds are a temporary measure, and it would be better if they did not have to exist. Those who work for bail funds don’t want to keep paying money into a system that is by definition prejudicial. They want to see bail reformed and, eventually, abolished. Pilar Weiss calls bail funds “a temporary intervention” on the longer path to the abolition of the money bail system and pretrial detention, and eventually wider reform of a system that gives the US the highest incarceration rate in the world.

For now, though, the bail fund is a foot in the door, a way for the community to push back against the deeply racist and inequitable prison-industrial complex.

“Bail funds represent people power, community power to say, ‘No we don’t agree with you, system. We want people to be released’. And that’s what we’re doing,” says Rahim Buford, manager of the Nashville Community Bail Fund. For Buford, it’s personal; he was incarcerated for 26 years, from age 18 to 44, in seven different prisons across the state of Tennessee. “I know what it feels like to be in a cage. I know what it feels like to be powerless. I know what it feels like not to experience justice.” Bail funds, he says, fill in the gap between the system and the poor. But the system itself needs to be addressed.

“The system is a system that does so much harm and costs so much money,” Buford says, “and it produces very little benefit.