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Free the People: The New Year’s Victory You Didn’t Hear About

Almost a quarter of a million dollars were raised for bail funds in just one day.

(Photo: Wanmongkhol / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

We squared off with authoritarianism, and we exhausted ourselves. That was the story of 2017. We fought, but things got dark, and we got tired. Then, in December, Republicans in Congress united around an idea that we lacked the power to stop — the Republican tax scam. It was an ugly way to round out a year of struggle and loss, but it’s worth noting that on the last day of 2017, something amazing happened.

At the year’s end, organizer and prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba was as tired as anyone. But she had an idea. “I fired off a tweet suggesting that I was renaming New Year’s Eve, #FreeThePeople Day and half-jokingly said that everyone should donate the cost of one drink to a community bail fund,” she told me.

Bail funds are mostly grassroots projects that post bail for prisoners who are incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to post bail for themselves. Once the defendant’s case is adjudicated, the bail (minus any court fees) is generally returned to the revolving fund so that it can be used to post bond for other prisoners.

Approximately 11 million people cycle through US jails each year. At any given time, almost 450,000 people are being held pretrial in local jails, and most of those are incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to post bond. Those who are held on money bond in pretrial incarceration have not been found guilty of a crime, and in fact have been cleared for release: If they had money, they could go home. They are, in effect, in jail for being poor.

When Kaba suggested the idea of #FreeThePeople Day, a few of her Twitter followers responded enthusiastically, so she set about creating a blog post listing some of the bail funds and efforts that she was aware of, and invited others to join the fundraiser on Twitter on New Year’s Eve.

Kaba’s whimsical idea created an opportunity to rally some assistance for the grassroots organizations doing bail work. “Quite honestly, I had no idea whether anyone would participate,” says Kaba, “but I committed to spending the next day fundraising for the community bail funds.”

In love with the idea, I made the same commitment, and by morning, we had a stash of information and resources for people to share.

“With some help from friends,” Kaba says, “I spent New Year’s Eve sharing facts and other information about the unfairness of pretrial detention and bail, asking people to share their favorite freedom songs, and uplifting donation tweets.”

Hundreds of people joined the effort, and tweets using the hashtag #FreeThePeople reached over 2 million users. Out of the fourteen bail funds on the list, three of them — Massachusetts Bail Fund, National Bail Out and Brooklyn Community Bail Fund — had matching grants in effect.

“By the end of New Year’s Eve, we had raised $234,000 (excluding matching funds) for at least 14 community bail funds and efforts,” says Kaba. “It was astounding and also inspiring.”

Almost a quarter of a million dollars were raised for bail funds in just one day. How did this happen? To answer that, we have to look at the momentum of the movement to end money bond and pretrial incarceration.

A Growing Movement

“The enormous success of #FreeThePeople is a reflection of a growing awareness of the injustice of money bail and pretrial incarceration,” says Sharlyn Grace, an attorney and co-founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which raised $35,000 during the #FreeThePeople campaign on New Year’s Eve. “Revolving bail funds around the country have also shown over and over again that money bail doesn’t work, but that supporting our neighbors to get free does.”

In Chicago, where Grace works and organizes, the fight against money bail has seen some major victories. In July 2017, in response to a lawsuit, a judge issued a new local rule requiring that all money bails in Cook County be affordable. According to Grace, “The rule states that it is ‘intended to ensure no defendant is held in custody prior to trial solely because the defendant cannot afford to post bail,’ and there are 1,500 fewer people in Cook County Jail now than when the order went into effect in September!”

Not all judges have complied with the Chicago rule, and thousands of pretrial prisoners remain in Cook County Jail whose bails were set prior to the July ruling. But Grace says that she and her co-organizers will continue following up to track compliance and support as many people as possible.

Since May, the National Bail Out collective has posted bond for over 200 people, providing some with short-term housing, healthcare, transportation, drug treatment and mental health services. “In the tradition of our enslaved Black ancestors, who used their collective resources to purchase each other’s freedom before slavery was abolished, until we abolish bail and mass incarceration, we will free ourselves,” the group pledges on its website.

Southerners on New Ground (SONG) bailed out over 60 Black mothers and caregivers across the South for Mother’s Day.

Still, criminalization carries a heavy stigma, and the work has not come easy. The Massachusetts Bail Fund almost shut down in August, due to a lack of funds. But the movement rallied on social media, and donations rolled in. “A lot of nasty things are said on Twitter,” says Atara Rich-Shea, the director of operations for the Massachusetts Bail Fund, “but in this instance, Twitter literally saved our bail fund. We raised $50,000 in a week through Twitter support.”

Several months later, the Massachusetts Bail Fund also benefited from #FreeThePeople, bringing in $26,060 in donations from 208 people in one day. “It was overwhelming to check our Twitter mentions and our email and see the donations come in…. We are such a small bail fund — all volunteers, and the bails we pay are relatively low; $500 or less plus a $40 fee for each bail,” Rich-Shea explains. “$26,000 frees nearly 50 people.”

Bail funds have played an important role in supporting people who’ve been criminalized for defending their own lives and bodies. The pretrial release of Naomi Freeman in Chicago was secured through a collaboration between the Chicago Community Bond Fund and other social justice groups in Chicago — a process that ranged from grant-writing to direct action. Organizer Holly Krig, of Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration, believes that a commitment to post bond for abuse survivor Paris Knox helped expedite a plea deal that Knox was offered last week. “Paris will now be home in a matter of weeks, though she faced the possibility of 27 more years inside.”

Krig notes that, like all defendants, survivors stand a better chance in court if they are released pretrial. “The longer the duration of pretrial incarceration,” says Krig, “the greater the chances of a conviction with a longer sentence. We not only compound harm to survivors by incarcerating them, but the state further punishes survivors who’ve survived longer durations of that incarceration.”

Krig, like Rich-Shea, Grace and Kaba, believes that the abolition of money bail, and ultimately, an end to pretrial incarceration, are the larger goals of the movement. With philanthropic billionaires having taken an interest in the idea of bond funds, there is a danger that people will begin to see bond funds as a matter of charity, rather than change. But groups like the Chicago Community Bond Fund have strived to set a different standard, taking on advocacy that tackles the root issue: the very existence of a system that cages people for being poor. And as Rich-Shea reminds us, “Posting bail, freeing the people, is essential work, not just because it’s critical harm reduction, but because the lessons we learn, the coalitions we built, and the people who are free, all inform and support the work towards the larger goal of ending pretrial supervision once and for all.”

Mariame Kaba also sees these efforts as part of an abolitionist movement praxis. “The funds that received these donations aren’t bailing people out for charity, but because they are also working to end money bond altogether,” Kaba says. “We engaged thousands of people through this effort: many donated but many more are now more educated about the unfairness of bail and pretrial detention.”

Bails and circumstances vary from city to city, but with $234,000 spread across 14 bail funds, #FreeThePeople will be emptying a lot of cages in 2018.

Countdown is on: We have 4 days to raise $34,000

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