More than 10,000 people have been arrested in the U.S. at protests against police brutality and racism after a Minneapolis officer killed George Floyd on May 25. As a result, donors have contributed millions of dollars in recent weeks to bail funds, which help post bail for people who’ve been arrested so they don’t have to wait in jail until they face trial. The Minnesota Freedom Fund, for instance, received $20 million within five days of Floyd’s death. Local and national funds have raised similarly stunning sums in a short amount of time, a trend fueled by informal social media drives and celebrity endorsements. Thousands of people have donated to bail funds for the first time, including—full disclosure—me.
Cash bail disproportionately affects low-income and minority populations, since they are more likely to face aggressive policing and higher bail amounts. Protesters, however, are facing vastly different bail conditions across the country due to varying local laws and the whims of judges and district attorneys. In some cities, like Washington, most protesters have been released without having to make any sort of payment due to local bans on cash bail. District attorneys in Los Angeles and New York have also said they will not prosecute low-level offenses. In other cases, protesters have been facing bails ranging anywhere from $100 to $250,000, according to Pilar Weiss, director of the Community Justice Exchange, which hosts the National Bail Fund Network, a coalition of more than 60 bail and bond funds. “It’s all over the map. I’ve seen high bills across the country,” said Weiss. “We’ve seen a lot of high bills in the South and Southeast, but I also heard of very high bills in Iowa today as well.”
One of the challenges that bail funds are currently facing is that donations aren’t always going to places that need it most. Funds in some cities have been overwhelmed with contributions and are actively encouraging people to send their money elsewhere. The Minnesota Freedom Fund briefly ceased taking donations, noting that it had enough resources to bail out protesters, and then announced on Friday that any further proceeds will go toward immigration bonds and efforts to end cash bail in the state. The Philadelphia Bail Fund also said on Sunday that it was “well funded to ensure protesters return home.” So far, the fund has posted bail for around 80 protesters and is now directing potential donors to a list of other organizations in the city that could use the money. “Donating to bail funds is important, but even more important is challenging the very system that makes a bail fund necessary,” said Malik Neal, director of the Philadelphia Bail Fund. “I would ask folks to join in that fight as well.”
The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund in New York currently has a notice up on its website stating that it is no longer accepting funds to pay bail for protesters. “We’ve been in touch with public defenders and understand that most people are being released,” said Zoë Adel, BCBF’s advocacy and communications manager. “It became clear that the need for demonstration bail, at least for our organization, had been met.” The hope was that by not taking more donations, people would donate to bail and bond funds elsewhere. (Despite the fact that many are eventually released, public defenders in New York are accusing the city of keeping protesters in cramped jails for unreasonable periods of time due to arraignment delays—a particularly troubling problem during a pandemic.)
While larger bail funds in major cities have been seeing a flood of contributions, many less visible ones are still in need of money. Organizations that don’t have 503(c)(3) nonprofit status often have a more difficult time collecting donations from joint fundraisers and online platforms like ActBlue. While national organizations like the Community Justice Exchange work to distribute money where it’s needed, Weiss recommends that people donate straight to their local community funds since they’ll be able to more quickly marshal those resources. And though bail funds are receiving a lot of attention at the moment, people can also support the protest movement by donating to volunteer medics and lawyers.
Weiss cautions that while a bail fund might seem to have a surplus of cash at a particular moment, it doesn’t mean that it won’t need to use that money to free people in the near future. The current civil unrest is still ongoing, and police have been arresting people days after they’ve left protests based on surveillance footage and accusations. It might be the case that a handful of people suddenly have to each pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in bail, at which point the local bail fund would have to resume fundraising or get assistance from another organization. “We anticipate that the protests and the arrests aren’t necessarily going to end today,” Weiss said. “You can spend millions of dollars on bail very quickly, unfortunately.”