Community bail funds are being flooded with thousands of donations, as organizers across the country struggle to keep demonstrators out of jails after three nights of protests and riots reacting to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The spontaneous street protests are happening during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has devastated incarcerated populations who face living conditions where the virus spreads easily. Since the uprisings began, there have been widespread reports of mass-arrests in Minneapolis, Denver, Columbus, New York City, Louisville, and other cities across the US where thousands of people are protesting a series of recent police killings of black citizens, including Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery.
For activists on the ground, keeping protesters out of jail has become a matter of life and death. In response, local bail funds have received an outpouring of support on social media. On Twitter and Instagram, hundreds of people have begun matching each other’s donations to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a nonprofit which provides cash bail for those who are sent to jail for pretrial detention and can’t afford it—including immigrants and asylum seekers being held in ICE detention facilities.
“We were totally surprised and grateful and overwhelmed by all of the support,” Tonja Honsey, the Fund’s executive director, told Motherboard.
While Honsey didn’t know the exact amounts that have been donated, she said the bail fund has received “thousands” of individual donations in the past 48 hours, despite never officially posting a call for contributions.
“This police force has a long history of abusing and oppressing and murdering people in the community and no justice coming from it,” said Honsey, a survivor of incarceration who serves as an advisor on Minnesota’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission. “We’re just trying to be there and focus on the fact that this is because a man lost his life.”
While those arrested during the demonstrations are still waiting to be charged, The Freedom Fund is anticipating a serious crackdown after protesters occupied and burned down the Minneapolis Police 3rd Precinct, where the officer who killed Floyd was stationed. The officer, Derek Chauvin, who was captured on video crushing Floyd’s neck with his knee over the course of seven minutes, has a long history of violent arrests and has been the subject of at least a dozen official complaints.
Chauvin has since been charged with third degree murder.
With the US now the epicenter of the global COVID-19 pandemic, prisons and detention facilities have become dangerous hotspots for the virus. Across the country, activists, doctors, and public officials have called on state governors to release incarcerated populations at these facilities, where cramped and unsanitary conditions allow the disease to easily spread.
Organizers are hoping their bail funds will save lives by releasing protesters from jail as quickly as possible. Honsey says that since the pandemic began, the Minnesota Freedom Fund was able to help reduce the incarcerated population of one Minnesota county by half. Since the protests began, bail funds have seen donations jump in several other cities where protests have occurred, including Louisville, KY and Columbus, OH. The Minnesota Freedom Fund is now directing people to give to other grassroots organizations working on the ground during the protests, including the Black Visions Collective and Reclaim The Block.
“Our primary goal is to abolish the cash bail system. It doesn’t make communities safer to extract money from people who don’t already have it,” said Honsey. “What we’re really pushing for is true systematic change.”