Following the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protests, social media has lit up with people across the U.S. looking for ways to help out, both on the streets and off. Links to local organizations and funds — first in Minneapolis, then around the country — that combat racism and police brutality and address the needs of black communities have gone viral, including small business funds, mutual aid groups, food drives, and more. But in a show of support for protesters, and with over 10,000 arrests and counting from demonstrations across the U.S., one type of grassroots organization has received the bulk of attention and financial aid: the bail fund.
“Our total support that we’ve received now is at least $3.5 million from at least 75,000 people,” Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, tells Rolling Stone. And they’re not the only ones. All over the country, bail funds that already existed before George Floyd’s death have received exponentially more donations in the past two weeks than some have received for their entire existence. Perhaps none have received more support than Minneapolis’ own Minnesota Freedom Fund, which was so overloaded with donation requests that it took Steve Boland, an MFF board member, 45 minutes to prepare a single download on Paypal. All in all, the Freedom Fund has received over 800,000 individual donations since Floyd’s death, totaling $31 million – enough for the organization to halt further contributions and redirect the outpouring of support to other local grassroots activists.
In Los Angeles, the Peoples City Council Freedom Fund, initially created in early May as a response to LAPD’s proposed budget increases, has received over $2 million in aid since the protests began. And in New York, two major bail funds — the Brooklyn Bail Fund and Free Them All For Public Health — have had to redirect donors to other community groups due to a surplus of support.
Typically operating as local collectives run by volunteers and, in some cases, pro bono lawyers, bail funds’ objective is to raise funds for freeing jailed individuals who cannot afford bail, and to advocate for bail reform in a system that disproportionately hurts low-income people of color. Some funds may also provide various forms of legal aid – informing clients of court dates, hiring attorneys, and paying for court expenses in subsequent judicial processes. Increasingly, due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the carceral system, many funds have devoted themselves to identifying and tracking individuals held in jail cells for prolonged periods of time. This particular issue is only likely to get worse: according to Grace, the Chicago fund currently has two volunteers working on freeing a dozen protesters at Cook County Jail, a major epicenter for the virus. Earlier this week, the Legal Aid Society sued the city of New York, alleging that hundreds of protesters were illegally detained in cramped cells in violation of their right to an arraignment within 24 hours of their arrest.
Lauren Worley, co-founder of the Kansas City Community Bail Fund, stresses that even a short time spent in pretrial detention can have long-lasting effects on low-income individuals. “Loss of housing, loss of job, loss of custody of children — just understand the real effect that detention has on people,” she says. “And understand that it can be just as harmful as these arrests at protests.”
The National Lawyers Guild and similar groups have set up hotlines which protesters can call if they get arrested; many of these phone numbers can be seen on the backs of cardboard signs held up at demonstrations. The NLG will then set that person up with the Community Justice Exchange, which hosts the National Bail Fund Network in all 50 states and connect incarcerated individuals to their local fund.
Granted, the focus on localized funds in the wake of George Floyd’s death has brought on its own issues. There’s concern that bail funds for protesters are being prioritized over community organizations that promote long-term policy change and neighborhood sustainability; Minneapolis’ Reclaim The Block, which aims to defund the police department in favor of community health and safety, is one such example of a group taking a ground-up, holistic approach to this crisis. There’s also the question of which bail funds might be less than legit, with fake Venmo accounts springing up on Twitter over the past week without proper verification.
Most importantly, bail funds rely on continuous support, and until sweeping bail reform is enacted on the federal level, the need for grassroots organizations like these will remain. Many bail funds and collectives have a recurring donation option, including ActBlue’s split donation box for over 70 bail funds across the country. “Prior to the death of George Floyd, we had two African-Americans killed by police officers in Nashville, and we were not getting that type of support,” says Nashville Community Bail Fund manager Rahim Buford. “So this says a lot about what America is thinking at this time, and what type of America we want to live in.”