Plenty of people now championing these funds have been vocal about policing issues in the past, including celebrities such as Janelle Monáe and Gabrielle Union. But many other donors are likely learning about the procedural complexities of cash bail for the first time. And unlike vague symbolic displays, bail contributions remedy an injustice directly: They free people who are being imprisoned without having been convicted of a crime (something that’s true for most people in American jails). Unlike guitar stickers or Instagram posts, these funds tacitly recognize specific, systemic problems—like the fact that many people are jailed simply because they can’t afford to post pretrial bail. Donating to bail funds amid widespread public unrest supports protesters who are facing police willing to use aggressive arrest tactics to quell legal dissent.
While celebrities such as Chrissy Teigen have donated huge amounts, many more bail-fund contributions have come from people with far less means. Donors have posted screenshots of their gifts to Twitter and Facebook, creating chains that urge their friends and followers to do the same. The Minnesota Freedom Fund was one of the first to gain national attention, after the first wave of protests broke out in Floyd’s home state. Within four days, the fund saw an influx of $20 million in donations. To protesters, that financial support affirms their right to gather and decry Floyd’s senseless death without fear of undue incarceration.
Annie Lowrey: Defund the police
The existence of community bail funds can sometimes cancel out the punitive measures that police try to impose on people. “Bail nullification,” as the Brooklyn Law School professor Jocelyn Simonson calls it, does more than keep people from being held indefinitely while awaiting trial. It also, Simonson writes, “exposes publicly what many within the system already know to be true” about the arrest process, which produces “guilty pleas and longer sentences when an individual cannot afford to pay their bail.” At the core of work to change the bail system, including community funds, is the belief that arrests and incarceration do not meaningfully reflect guilt—and that caging people doesn’t guarantee public safety.
While the surge in donations to bail funds across the country is unprecedented, the concept of organizing to bail people out of jail following protests or acts of civil disobedience isn’t. “We’re sort of wowed by the amount of interest right now and the sudden conversation about community bail funds,” Pilar Maria Weiss, the director of Community Justice Exchange, which started the National Bail Fund Network, told me. She noted that the tactic’s current popularity has been driven in part by many years of organizing campaigns, as well as many works of pop culture, which made more Americans aware of abuses within the criminal-justice system, including pretrial detention.