Shutterstock / The Atlantic

In the fall of 2017, a year that would ultimately see American police officers fatally shoot 986 people, Justin Bieber dominated headlines for days because of a single Black Lives Matter post on his Instagram. The following summer, Harry Styles earned rapturous praise for adding a Black Lives Matter sticker to the guitar he played at a show in Detroit. Bieber and Styles, two young white stars with massive fan bases, did what many public figures do when looking, earnestly or otherwise, to support a social movement. They resorted to symbolism.

This week, Bieber and Styles have joined many celebrities and regular people in a more concrete display of advocacy: by paying to bail out protesters who’ve flooded the streets following the police killing of George Floyd. The relevance of donating to bail funds in this moment of nationwide demonstrations is clear. Though some protesters have destroyed property, most gatherings have been largely peaceful. Police, meanwhile, have consistently incited violence—beating, shooting, driving cars into, and detaining those who were exercising their right to assemble in public space. These crackdowns and mass arrests of nonviolent protesters, captured on live TV and in viral videos, have only fueled the popularity of community bail funds, which help keep people out of jail.

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.

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.

The violent police response at protests across the country, particularly the deployment of tear gas and rubber bullets, is prompting more people to see incarceration as an unjust, or at least flawed, system. Even when not stated explicitly, the attitudes underlying a bail-fund donation are more radical than the attitudes that informed the most common kinds of support for activist movements in earlier years: Affirming that black lives matter on Instagram is one thing, but challenging millions of your followers to support black people engaging in civil disobedience is a far bolder stance. But whether celebrities—or anyone, for that matter—who donate to a bail fund believe that the system needs a total overhaul is almost irrelevant. Their money equips activists and organizers to do work that tangibly improves the lives of people whom the police often target.  

While calls for body cameras and racial-sensitivity training for police officers were common after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, efforts to end cash bail—and to support people held in detention in the meantime—are different. Freeing individual people doesn’t contribute funding to law-enforcement agencies, which requires trusting them to modify their procedures enough to approximate justice. As Weiss told me, “The pure fact that many people are making a donation to organizations that free people from jail because of police violence—and making those connections between police violence and mass incarceration and all of the violence of the prison-industrial complex—that gives us some hope.”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.