ATLANTA—On June 1, police officers had 20-year-old William Lefforge, and about 50 other protesters, boxed in on the sidewalk near Atlanta City Hall. The officers warned the protesters they had three minutes to leave, but according to Lefforge, the group could not get by the police. The police arrested them and transported Lefforge and his group to the Atlanta Detention Center. Lefforge estimated his arrest happened around 4 p.m., well before the 9 p.m. curfew that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has since lifted.
Lefforge called his mother, Jen, who in turn reached out to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund. Thanks to the fund, Lefforge walked out of the detention center a little before midnight. He had only his release papers, which cited “pedestrian in the roadway” as his charge. Organizers were waiting in the parking lot across from the detention center to make sure protesters reached their homes. On June 4, Lefforge was at another protest.
As historic protests against police brutality toward Black Americans sweep the United States, social media is littered with calls for donations to local bail funds. Those unable to join the frontlines of protests are giving material support by donating, according to protesters and organizers.
The Atlanta Police Department reported it made 298 arrests in the first weekend of protests alone. An organizer with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund who asked to be identified only by his first name, Marlon, said protesters have been arrested for curfew violations, disorderly conduct, and even felony incitement to riot. With a felony charge, judges are more likely to set a higher bail—or deny it entirely.
Keeping protesters in jail is the point, according to Marlon. He said, “Not just in Atlanta, but around the country, police forces are waging a kind of war of attrition. Eventually people’s wallets will run out. Their safety nets will run out and they’ll have no choice but to stop protesting. When we support bail funds, we make sure [protesters] have that backing that they need to stay on the streets as long as they need.”
Even before the protests, bail was a costly system. A 2017 report from UCLA’s Million Dollar Hoods research team found that “the money bail system is a multi-billion dollar toll that demands tens of millions of dollars annually in cash and assets from some of L.A.’s most economically vulnerable persons, families, and communities,” all before anyone has been found guilty. One factor driving up that total cost is the fact that judges frequently set higher bail for Black and Hispanic defendants than for white defendants with the same charge.
Albert Corado, 31, is an organizer and police abolitionist with People’s City Council in Los Angeles. Corado said People’s City Council emerged after the city government’s lack of action in the face of the novel coronavirus’ spread. “There was no rent relief, no tangible plan to help people. We were frustrated with city council and the mayor’s response,” he said.
So the People’s City Council called for rent suspension and commandeering hotels for Los Angeles’ unhoused population. It also supported People’s Budget LA, which is focused on getting more funding to social services like improved mental health services and public education, instead of funding the police. People’s City Council’s demand to defund the police is now being echoed across the US. City councils are voting to slash police budgets and even heeding protesters’ calls to defund.
After the police killing of George Floyd, People’s City Council’s agenda expanded. Corado and nine other organizers started a GoFundMe to cover legal and medical costs for protesters, direct support to Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, and supplies for protest organizers. The group raised over $2 million. Corado said it is a huge sum of money for a few organizers to make decisions about, but they are committed to channeling the money to supporting protests against police brutality.
Corado also has a personal connection to recent appeals for defunding police. The LAPD killed Corado’s sister, Melyda, in 2018. He added, “Having lost my sister to police violence, it feels amazing. It’s a big fuck you.”
Similarly, the Minnesota Freedom Fund was one of the first bail funds to gain national attention. The nonprofit raised $20 million in only four days but struggled to spend the donations on bail, using only $200,000. Board member Jared Mollenkof told local media the nonprofit would be undergoing a massive scaling-up and remains committed to ending cash bail.
Sarah Abdel-Motaleb, a law student in Dallas, Texas, donated to her local bail fund as a form of solidarity with the protesters. Abdel-Motaleb added, “Even if [a donation] is just a little bit, it’s going into a larger fund that will make an impact on people’s lives.”
She also brought up the safety concerns of jailing protesters while the coronavirus pandemic is ongoing. Health experts warn the virus is able to spread quickly in jails.
The Bail Project is a national nonprofit that provides bail assistance to low-income individuals charged with a crime. The nonprofit has helped release over 11,000 people from pre-trial detention, according to CEO Robin Steinberg.
Steinberg called cash bail “a driver of injustice,” citing the disproportionate cost to Black families. When someone who has not been convicted of a crime is able to await their trail outside of jail, Steinberg said, “The impact is felt not just by the individual but also allows that person to reconnect to family and employment and their community.”
In light of the protests, The Bail Project started operating a 24-hour assistance line to help arrested protesters and concerned friends and family. The line has received 300 calls, according to The Bail Project.
She said it makes sense why people have flocked to bail funds as a way to show support for protesters, adding, “Paying [someone’s] bail is a way to have an immediate disruptive impact on the way [the legal] system operates.”
Ultimately, Steinberg said bail funds are “not the answer,” but are a “powerful tool.” The Bail Project is dedicated to ending the norm of mass incarceration. She said, “The ordinary is that we are ensnaring Black and Brown people in our legal system.”