Kelly Hayes discusses mutual aid during the COVID-19 crisis and talks with Pilar Weiss about how bail funds empty cages.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity.
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Kelly Hayes: Welcome to Movement Memos, a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes.
We talked a bit about COVID-19 last week and for some of us, it’s hard to talk about anything else. I’ve been following the situation closely, so after I had a couple of friends over for drinks on Super Tuesday, I decided it was time to lock down until further notice. I’m able to work from home and my partner has asthma, which means he’s high risk, so stocking up and hiding out seemed like the best plan. But over the weekend, I started coughing, and now my lockdown to keep illness at bay has turned into a self quarantine situation. I don’t think I have COVID-19, but since it is next to impossible to get tested in the United States, our best option when we develop a fever or a cough is to self quarantine. And I really do want to drive that home to folks: If you have a fever or a cough, please self quarantine if you can.
So, I feel like hell and I almost didn’t record anything this week, but this is an emergency and I want to do my part. In recent weeks, I have been trying to keep my community and other organizers around the country informed about COVID-19, the threat it poses and what steps to we can take to create as much safety as we can. This week, my constant refrain in those efforts became “CANCEL EVERYTHING” — a phrase borrowed from an article in the Atlantic by Yascha Mounk. For a good minute, a lot of people thought I was being ridiculous and told me that I should stop spreading fear. But a lot can change in a week, or even an hour. In the last week, the World Health Organization has officially declared that COVID-19 is now a pandemic. Large events have been cancelled across the country. The NBA has suspended the current season of play and celebrities have been diagnosed with the disease. Basically, this thing just got real for a lot of people. And as scary as it is, that’s a very good thing, because it’s clear that our government has completely failed us in this time of crisis. So we need to have these conversations. And we need to take steps to prepare and protect ourselves, and to protect others, because social distancing doesn’t just protect individuals. It takes links out of a chain of infection that would otherwise spread rapidly.
When I realized how bad things were getting last week, I worked with some medical professionals and organizers around the country to generate a list of demands. I talked about that list a bit last week. It’s continuing to travel and has been used by activists as far away as Ireland in their own advocacy work. I will be linking that list in the transcript by the way, along with any other resources I mention during this episode. And as always, you can find that transcript on our website, at truthout.org
So as we have all done all of this important work of making demands and getting things cancelled, it’s been difficult for activists and organizers to watch our work and connectedness being dismantled. We’re going to have to do a lot of creative improvising to keep our movement work going while practicing social distancing. In addition to organizing meetings through Zoom, and staging events on social media, we also need to look at people’s needs. How do we help our disabled friends, who might not have the care or resources they need? How do we make sure people under quarantine are getting food? How do we support others who rely on movement spaces for human connection? There’s so much to address and so much work we haven’t even imagined yet.
Some people are developing mutual aid plans to make this crisis more survivable for their communities. People are raising money for artists whose gigs have been cancelled. In Seattle, Chicago and beyond, people are developing plans to try to get food and other resources to people who need them. The needs of major cities cannot be met in their totality in this way, but while we demand government action, we have to do what we can for each other. I was particularly impressed by an organizing model that a group called the Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville (MAMAS) Network, in Massachusetts, came up with, and I will be linking to that as well — and to a larger list of mutual aid resources you all can check out.
78% of US workers live paycheck to paycheck. 44 million Americans have no insurance. The federal government has not forwarded a plan to make strict social distancing feasible for most Americans, and yet, it has become increasingly clear that strict social distancing measures will be necessary to slow the spread of the disease. You’ve probably heard people talk about “flattening the curve” — which means that we take steps to slow the spread of the illness, so that even if the same number of people get sick, it happens over time and puts less of a strain on our medical infrastructure.
Some of us are lucky. Truthout is a remote office, so I already work at home. A lot of people aren’t so lucky. And some people are trapped in conditions that we already know will prove deadly as this disease continues to spread.
People who are being incarcerated in detention centers, prisons and jails are in great danger right now. Conditions in such facilities are so poor, in general, that every year of incarceration in a US prison takes two years off a person’s life expectancy. We are talking about human beings who often lack clean drinking water, who are exposed to mold and filth, whose food is, at best, lacking in nutrition, and at worst, rotting or otherwise unfit for consumption. People who, in some cases, are even denied sunlight. During a pandemic, people living in unsanitary, overcrowded conditions are at particular risk, and the torturous conditions of the prison industrial complex make that threat even greater. Immigration detention is well known for its medical neglect, as are US jails. There are many elderly imprisoned people in US prisons, and many people living with disabilities and illnesses that could lead to deadly complications if they contracted COVID-19. Healthcare in the prison system is already a tragic joke, and during times of crisis, mass call-offs at prisons are common. Around the country, prisons, jails and detention facilities are going on lockdown, which means that, in addition to waiting for the disease to race through their facility like wildfire, these people can’t have visitors. Can you imagine being in jail, maybe for something you did, maybe for something you didn’t do, but because you couldn’t afford bail, you’re just sitting around in a dungeon waiting for a contagion to find you. Or imagine being a migrant who came here out of desperation for a better life or for the sake of survival itself, only to be caged and left in the path of a deadly disease.
We know Trump and Stephen Miller don’t care if any of these people live or die, and plenty of other folks don’t either. But I’m betting that some of you care.
The National Bail Fund Network has extended some demands in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and the threat the disease poses to imprisoned people. Those demands include mass bail waivers for people detained pretrial. The system claims such people are considered innocent until proven guilty, so it stands to reason that the government shouldn’t be executing them without a trial by leaving them in a viral incubator during this crisis. Clemencies and compassionate release measures could be used to cut down on the larger prison population — which is an ask that’s being made of Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker right now, that I am hoping he’ll give his attention to — and immigration detainees could simply be released pending their next court date. The Bail Fund Network is also demanding that ICE and Border Control cease operations, in order to allow people to seek medical care without fear of incarceration.
I’ll be linking the full list of demands from the Bail Fund Network in the transcript of this episode and I hope you’ll all have a look at them. I will also be sharing the donation link for the Bail Fund Network, since they will be continuing to bail people out of jails and detention centers for as long as the system will allow. With facilities going on lockdown, no one really knows what’s going to happen. With a lack of staff, or with outbreaks in area facilities, it’s possible the bail system could come to a halt in some places, so in every possible way, time is precious right now. In today’s interview, I talk with Pilar Weiss, who is actually the founder and director of National Bail Fund Network. So if you want to hear more about how bail funds get people free, and how we can rally together to make those things happen, stay tuned. You won’t hear any talk of COVID-19 because this interview was recorded some weeks back.
Today’s guest is Pilar Weiss. Pilar is the founder and director of the Community Justice Exchange. In 2016. Pilar launched the National Bail Fund Network, a collaborative partnership of more than 50 community bail funds working across the country to end detention in both the criminal and immigration systems. Pilar, welcome to the show.
Pilar Weiss: Thanks for having me.
KH: You and I have worked together on a number of big projects, always at a distance, but we’ve accomplished a lot together. How much did we raise for Free the People Day 2019?
PW: I think this year, we raised $384,000.
KH: And over the summer, and my friends and I worked with you on Freedom Day, which was an immigration specific bail fundraiser, raising funds to free immigrants who are being detained along the border and elsewhere, and ICE detention centers.
That fundraiser brought in $192,000 and just to break down for folks what’s possible when people band together and organize these bill fundraisers on social media, I’m going to go ahead and read some info you sent me last summer about what we had accomplished and who we had helped with the money those fundraisers brought in, the network build out to people who had been in detention for over six months. An 18 year old who had aged out of the unaccompanied alien children program and into the regular detention system. People who are part of the migrant caravan, one of whom was known as a hero, who helped many on the journey and had been in detention for over six months, separated from his wife and children, a survivor of domestic violence who was reunited with her four children.
A father who was home in time to be present for the birth of his child who was do only three weeks after the fundraiser. This was a pretty remarkable occasion where the prior week’s backlog was cleared all at once, but there is an everyday grind to this work for volunteers who raise and post bail for impoverished people and immigrants all around the country, and that work has such a rich history.
Can you tell us a bit about how bail funds work and how they’ve evolved as a means of mutual aid?
PW: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, people have always figured out ways to free each other and help each other, and I think, yeah, community bail funds have gone through a lot of different iterations over the years.
They were a tool in the civil rights movement. A lot of protest movements have created bail funds over the years to get people out after big actions. And a lot of communities who are overly criminalized have created bail funds over the years to free their people. And so that’s always been a tradition and in the immigration world, you know, I think for a long time, communities have come together to sort of raise money when people were taken by ICE and put in immigration jails. And so the last five or six years, particularly as organizers, really started to focus on ending pretrial detention and money bail and the pretrial system and really see an increase in the number of people being put in immigration jails, we started to see organizers using this as both an organizing tool as well as an act of mutual aid. And so I think that’s like one of the really important changes that, which is kind of an evolution of it, this dual track of both immediately providing that mutual aid and getting people free, but also making sure that it’s connected to the organizing to end detention.
KH: For our listeners who may not be familiar with the term, when people take responsibility for caring for each other and in so doing, construct a new set of social relations that are more survivable, that’s mutual aid. When the Common Ground Collective formed in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to take care of people, when Occupy folks organized an incredible amount of aid in the Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy, these were instances of mutual aid.
They were efforts that increased the power that people had to survive. And while people have a tendency to want to depoliticize charity work, mutual aid is unapologetically political because it is a response to the very political conditions that make the work necessary. In the case of bail funds, the conditions that make that work necessary are the conditions of pretrial detention and the cash bail system.
Can you say a bit about those conditions?
PW: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think in most, you know, all across this country, in the pretrial system, so pretrial being the, you know, the criminal legal system, about 700,000 people per day are in jail in somewhere in the U.S., rIght, in a city or County jail pretrial.
So they have only been charged, say there has not been a trial. They have not. No, there’s been no moving on their case. They would only have a, had a charge. And so people, you know, in some places the bail is five, $20, $25, $5, you’ve heard of bail as low was $5, I’m actually in New York City, there’s such thing as called a $1 bail.
And so people sit in detention and lose their homes, lose their apartment, lose custody of their kids, suffer major health problems, get forced into taking a plea because they don’t have the money to afford to get out. And so community bail funds, right, try as hard as they can when they exist to to fill that need and to get as many people free as possible in the absence of a bail fund or even when there’s a bail fund that exists, but the resources are just limited and the need is very high. People often take a plea or their family will see the commercial bail bond, the agency, which will then charge them exorbitant fees that they don’t get back and oftentimes subject them to harassment and extortion and electronic shackles.
So you know the consequences, it’s like sort of being put in a vice, right? You end up these, you’ve got your kids, your family, your home, your job, your livelihood. And the decisions that people have to make to get free are incredibly stark. So that’s, you know, I think one of the, the beautiful solidarity moments of community bail funds and people who support community bail funds is getting, you know, raising funds to get people out so that they have the ability to make the decisions and live their lives and in a very significant amount of cases have the charges dropped completely and not being forced into taking a plea.
KH: I think that aspect, the coercion, is something a lot of people don’t understand. If everyone actually got the trial that they are entitled to.
Well, I shouldn’t say if because it’s just not possible. The system would collapse if it tried to offer what it claims we are all entitled to, which is a fair trial. Even if you put the whole fairness part aside, because you kind of have to, because it’s not real, we have a system where if everyone demanded a trial, the system would collapse.
It would shut down. It simply doesn’t have the capacity, but it does have mechanisms that coerce people into foregoing the trial aspect. People who are caged and definitely will agree to all sorts of things, just to solidify an end point to what they’re enduring. And I know we’ve talked about how quickly things can change when the state’s no longer holding that card. Could you say a little about that?
PW: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, yeah. I think we see stories every day that are of people who are set free through a bail fund and the cases are then dropped. Right. I can think of multiple cases in the last couple weeks since the start of the year, we’re recording this in the first part of February where, you know, a bail fund paid the person’s bail in, you know, the first week of January and they’re out and the case has already been dismissed.
Right. I can think of people who have been, you know, were able to keep their rental, you know they’re home, right? They would have lost their home if they had been out through the end of the month. Right. If they had been in jail. It’s the small things, right? Like that we, a lot of us, you know, we take for granted if we’re free, right?
That like, of course we can figure out how to piece together our rent for the next month. Right. But if you’re incarcerated for three weeks, that no longer exists as an option. I think one of the other things, I guess on the flip side of sort of the, one of the things that it’s hopeful or you know, the, the power of community bail funds and solidarity that is expressed through them, is that, you mentioned that, you know, so much of the pretrial money bail system is about coercion, and I think we also see it sort of in, we don’t often talk about it as a form of social control. Right? And so people get, when they can’t afford to pay money bail, they’re often pushed into taking a plea, which then means that they now have, it’s on their record now. Maybe it’s a misdemeanor, maybe it’s a felony. It has huge ramifications for housing, for jobs, for financial aid, as a student, for all kinds of future opportunities.
But it also often means accepting, you know, getting out without being able to be free on money bail. Completely means that you end up having to take levels of supervision, right. A lot of people get sort of pushed into accepting diversion programs that are mandated,they show up places that they are being monitored, that they’re constantly checked in. And this is all again before they’ve actually had a court date.
They have not been found guilty of anything. Oftentimes what they’ve been charged with might have no relationship to the level of supervision they’re subjected to. I often think about cases of people that we know have been able to then, you know, be out, and not be subjected to that type of the other option if they had had to go through a bail bonds or if they’d had to accept some kind of supervision.
The level of restriction and surveillance in their life and their community’s life would have been catastrophic.
KH: I knew nothing about bond funds until we saw the beginnings of one here in Chicago. I know you know the story, but for our listeners, a Black teenager named DeSean Pittman was gunned down by the Chicago police.
As the whole world knows, our police in Chicago are infamous for their racist violence, including homicides and their overall brutishness. And those qualities were on full display back in 2014 after they had killed DeSean, which was just two weeks after Mike Brown was shot in Ferguson. DeSean’s family was holding a vigil to mourn their terrible loss and to honor DeSean’s memory and the Chicago police showed up. They shouted racial slurs, they kicked over candles, they made threats. Ultimately, they arrested five of DeSean’s friends and family. The community effort to raise the $30,000 needed to get them out on bail led to the creation of a revolving fund.
So what began as a community effort to help one group of people turned into the work of a collective and that collective eventually became a nonprofit that’s also done some really important policy work. And now we’re in a position where the needle is moved significantly and the governor of Illinois says he wants to end cash bail.
As someone who organizes against state violence in Chicago, I saw the Chicago community bond fund go from an idea and a project some friends were working on to the incredible organization that it is now. And I’ve also watched them navigate the mess that comes along with trying to scale up mutual aid work within the nonprofit system.
Can you tell us a bit about what these growth processes have looked like elsewhere?
PW: Yeah, I mean I think it looks different in different places, right? Based on sort of what the organizing ecosystem and the conditions are. You know, in some places they grew out of protest movements, right? And support of bail funds that had grown out of particular, supporting a particular protest and other places, particularly in the immigration bond part of the sort of ecosystem of community bail funds, a lot of immigration bond funds grow from a response, a community response to an ICE raid. And so we see that, right? And so those, those bail bond funds end up being very connected, you know, they’ve come out of that. Other times they’re started by a community based organization or a collective of organizers who are working on a particular campaign and see this as a really effective organizing tool. To think sometimes it’s like very explicitly forming as an organizing tool, and sometimes it’s growing in sort of in and out of the organizing itself. And I think we see, you know, like you have an example in Hawaii, right?
A group of organizers had started a community bail fund, the Hawai’i Community Bail Fund, and that was, you know, they were focused on it using it as an organizing tool to take on ending pretrial detention. And there was a particular debate going on in Hawaii about ending money bail and pretrial detention and so they were really seeing it as a tool.
But then in this, at the same moment, shortly after they started the Mauna Kea protests began and that bail fund ended up supporting all of the protestors and the elders who were arrested in those protests. And so then the bail fund became sort of a hub of both supporting the protest, protesters, as well as continuing to pay for criminalized, you know, people who are just being criminalized in the day-to-day and you know, continuing to organize around and can draw attention. So I think we see like different sort of the formation of when and how the bail funds started often, you know, that’s where the home is, but then we see a lot of changing based on the conditions.
KH: That’s just incredible. You all have definitely been faced with some serious efforts at co-opting the work you do and the intended purpose of that work. And there’s also something happening right now where the idea of ending cash bail is sort of getting divorced from the context in which cash bail exists.
PW: I think that, you know, one of the central sort of principles that we really hold as sort of a, an organizing tenant among the national bail fund network is that, you know, a bail fund. It has to have a theory of change about how it’s in opposition to this system, particularly, you know, the criminal legal system and how that there’s tension between what it’s doing and the system.
And so not serving the system. Right? Cause in some places, you know, if the bail fund is just bailing people out and the system continues to arrest people and, right, we’re just, we’re doing this immediate mutual aid moment, but we’re not, it’s, we haven’t really, there’s got to be this tension. And so we’ve seen in, you know, a number of places, I would sort of call it a corporate philanthropy or you know, folks who are coming at it from a very charity, sort of a charity perspective, want to kind of collaborate with the criminal legal system.
And so see a bail fund or a bailout project of some sort as a way to sort of cooperate with the system. And they’re paying bail for people and the system is really happy to like have those people out of the system so they can arrest more people and fill those beds in a different way. We’ve had a number of bail funds across the country decide, actually, there’s no tension anymore. The system tried to co-opt it. The system actually wants the bail fund to operate because then it has sort of a release of the tension and it releases some space to fill in different ways. And so when that happens, you know, I think we really, we really question that it no longer is serving an organizing function anymore, and has lost its power. And so I think that’s something that we’re sort of contending with because we want to always support folks who are pooling resources and raising money to get their folks free. But we also, you know, really hold that we have to have our eye on how are we contributing to building towards ending pretrial detention completely and not sort of serving the system.
Part of the uptick in community bail funds, you know, being seen as an organizing tool and being a popular intervention is people really focused, you know, there’s been sort of a broader education in the public that bail, you know, bail is bad. That money bail is bad. Right? And some of that is because there’s been some really high profile cases that have really helped to educate general public about money bail and pretrial detention had become so normalized. Right? Especially in communities that have been very criminalized. I know growing up, you know, many of us, that that was like a normal thing. Of course you had to raise money to bail your people out, right? Like that was just something that was normal. And so I think we, we got to a shift where people have recognized that, right?
Cases like Sandra Bland, there’s a high consciousness, that her death, you know, she was in on a $500 bail. And that was why she was in that weekend that she was killed.
KH: I know that, that some big players have gotten excited about bail funds in recent years, and we’ve seen some bail fund reforms that have come along. And I’m, I just want to talk a bit about pretrial detention because there are efforts to end cash bail in the U.S. that are getting a lot of attention, but serious concerns have been raised about some of those efforts and what kind of trade offs are being made. Because pretrial detention is a violent racist system with racist rules and guidelines that consumes human beings at the behest of the police. We have police out there deciding who to arrest without any regard for what can be proven. Most of the time, police get to play the role of judge and juror. If someone is poor and especially if they are Black, Brown, trans or otherwise marginalized, this is an extraordinary amount of power, and it’s no surprise that police are against bail reform. And in fact, when the police in Chicago argue against bail reform, they actually argue that we need bail as a deterrent to crime. Like, we need high bails to discourage people from committing crimes. So they’re actually really open about the fact that they want bail to function as punishment that they can levy.
Because they say that makes their job easier and brings down crime even though there’s nothing to substantiate that statistically. And of course, all of this falls far outside the legal basis of bail and why it supposedly legally exists, which is to ensure that people show up for court. If we gut out the cash aspect, we aren’t looking at the deconstruction of pretrial detention with most of the plans that are being forwarded. We’re talking about ending the cash bail aspect and relying on risk assessments to determine who gets detained and who doesn’t.
Can you talk about these risk assessments and how they’re playing into these conversations about ending cash bail?
PW: I mean, I think, you know, when, um, a lot of times on the system is faced with the community’s push to, in the call to end money bail and pretrial detention, there’s a lot of hand wringing about, well, how will we decide? Right? And if there has been so much discretion in the system where judges and, um, district attorneys and other court doctors, right, have discretion to just say, oh, I’m going to detain this person. Right? And so there’s been a push for a long time of, oh, we could, you know, that there’s a way to actually “decide,” and I’m doing air quotes as I sit here, who should be held in and who should be let free.
And so risk assessment tools, we call them RATs, often, as the acronym, use algorithms to come up with models to decide and you know, assign a number about whether or not somebody should be detained or released. And so that’s often held up as, well, this is a safe quote unquote “way for us to decide.” It obviously upholds the entire premise that there are some people, that people should be sorted into risky and safe or dangerous or, you know, and that is a huge part, I mean, like, you know, I think problem one with that would be, they’re, they’re based on a premise that pretrial detention is needed, right? That there are people that should be detained and there are people that should be deemed safe. And so, I mean, that’s sort of layer one that, you know, they’re, they’re constructed off of racist data, right?
The algorithm is based on deciding that somebody should, you know, be given a number that is supposedly going to determine that they are not going to come back to court or they are going to commit another crime in ways that is not scientifically ever been proven to be correct, right? If you miss court once 10 years ago because you were having a medical crisis, that tells us nothing about why you may or may not come to court now. Right? And so I think we always push back to say that risk assessment tools are, you know, they’re very bad. They’re not. There is not a substitution, right? We have to actually unpack why are we so worried about people coming back to court and why are we convinced that we can judge whether somebody who is charged with something might do something else down the road.
Right? And so that’s this what I’m saying, the risk assessment tool has become sort of, you know, it’s, it’s a way for the system to just substitute one way to detain people and oppress people with another. The unfortunate thing is that they’ve, they’re, you know, in this dialogue about bail reform, we sort of missed the question of like, if, and should they exist like they exist in over 60% of jurisdictions at this point?
I think it’s over a thousand counties in the, across the country already have a risk assessment tool they’re using. So it’s been kind of, despite the fact that in reform conversations, it gets framed as a substitution. They’ve already kind of penetrated and are there. Right? And so now they’re sort of being held onto by the system as the absolute thing that has to be in place if you make any changes to the bail system.
KH: It’s really just a new presentation of the same racist, classist dynamics, and this is a misconception people have about many elements of the punishment system. People hear the word cash or profit and think that if they could only remove those words from the equation, they could make a death making apparatus good somehow, as though a system that has always been racist, torturous, sexually violent, classist.
A system that is, as Mariame Kaba says, a serial killer, as though that system of bondage can be redeemed if we just get rid of the, the quote “profit motive.” What the people who champion these reforms as solutionary don’t tell people is that there is a whole web work of profit in every prison. As Ruthie Gilmore says, a prison is a city. It’s an economy. The same is true of jails, of course. So you have these dungeon economies that are woven into the larger economy and this revenue that is expected. So all prisons are for profit in that sense. But it’s very easy to hone in on elements of a situation and say, we fixed that. This won’t be so bad because that part, that’s the really, really bad part. When folks talk about, you know, prison slavery.
Well, it’s true that extracting labor from imprisoned people is violent and awful. If you look at places where prisoners are not working, it’s not a better situation. It’s just differently terrible. People often languish in far worse conditions than if they were getting out of their cell to do a job. Which doesn’t mean they should be doing the jobs either. But it does mean that this isn’t a system that needs some light editing. It’s a system that needs dismantling.
PW: This is an area that I think we, you know, as organizers across this movement are, this is a big challenge for us to confront. Right? Which is that, you know, I think when we simplified that, we were just talking about ending money bail, right, people could grasp, but like, yeah, you shouldn’t be detained because you didn’t have $50. Right. And like that, we’ve, we’re engaging with people in that way, but the question of people shouldn’t be detained.
We shouldn’t be, you know, that this is not the way that we should be dealing with harm in our society is to incarcerate people. Because when we remove, sort of peel away the money bail piece and start talking about ending pretrial detention, all of a sudden, you know, people who had claimed that they were progressive, you know, people who claim that they were really for bail reform, and suddenly gets very nervous about the idea that we would actually be asking that people be free and they would be able to be at work and at home and living their lives. And if the system, you know, if the criminal legal system is going to engage with them in a court case, that they’d be able to approach that from the outside like that, suddenly, that conversation there’s not as much buy-in for, right?
We have a ways to go. And I think that’s, you know, that’s why it’s been so important, I think, in the work of community bail funds and in the work of, you know, organizers across the movement space to really be sure that we’re talking about ending pretrial detention and that money bail itself is not going to be the magical solution.
KH: So we’ve talked about some of the complications and difficulties. Now I really want to take a moment and hear about what makes you proud of the work that you all are doing.
Pilar: Thanks for that question. I mean, I think we’re really proud that we have built a, you know, a, a community of solidarity across a lot of places, you know, and I think it’s make us something that we’re particularly proud of that’s happened in the last year is really building out the national bail fund networks, immigration bond fund capacity. So we’ve talked a lot about the pretrial system, but in the immigration system, particularly under the current administration, although in the past administration as well, to be clear, you know, the number of people who are being put in immigration jails for no, there’s no criminal charges, they’re just trying to migrate. They’re just trying to be with their families. They’re fleeing. Horrible violence in many cases, or they’re living in the United States and they’re being , you know, picked up by ICE within the United States, that has been, you know, really we, we now have about 30 immigration bond funds, and they, because it’s one unified system, they work together as people are moved around the country as a way to divide families and to try to harm people’s chances of getting a remedy and getting asylum.
We’ve built a network where people can raise money together, that they can support families that they can work across the country to respond. And so that’s been something that we think has been really powerful that we’re really proud of, and it’s given us chances to collaborate with people like you, right? To raise money, to support the act of getting people out of immigration jail.
KH: I actually didn’t know until I learned from my work with you all that we could bail immigrants out of detention. After the first three of the people day, which I had helped Mariame with. You sent us an email telling us that the LGBTQ bond fund in Florida had used some of the money it had received to help out with the case in Arizona where a trans woman was being held on $5,000 bail and was likely to be deported very soon if the bond weren’t paid.
It was incredible to hear that story and to know that woman was helped, but also it was complete news to me that we had the potential to do that. I think that was news to a lot of people as Trump’s policies brought the incarceration of immigrants into sort of a public focus, that this method of mutual aid was even an option.
PW: I think it’s a little bit less known.
KH: How many immigration bond funds are there operating within the network right now?
PW: Right now about 30.
KH: Great. So about 30 and people probably haven’t heard of most of those funds. So I just want to take a moment to touch on something that I’ve noticed when people are talking about donating in general on the internet, there’s a lot of common wisdom that says, go with the name you know, so do people tend to gravitate toward what’s most familiar when in reality, that group may not be doing the best work or simply may not have the greatest need. What would you say to people who want to help, who’ve heard that advice? That they should go with the name they know?
PW: Yeah, I mean, I always encourage people to just think as local as possible. Right? And so I think that, you know, the, the fact that there are now 30 immigration bond funds and there’s about, you know, 35, 40 depending on the week bail funds on the criminal side, you know, they, they exist because there’s a local need.
And you know, for some people. They, you know, if they’re affiliated with the national bail fund network and you know, we have a directory and you know, these are all groups that we’ve worked with very regularly and, and are part of our community, they can, you know, if they want to make sure that they want to see the, the, the sponsoring organizations, you know, 501 and C3 paperwork and all that due diligence.
You know, that’s all available for folks to look at. But I think that the amount of money that’s needed to bail people out, particularly out of immigration detention, where the average bond is $10,000 right, and you can’t pay a portion of it the way you can sometimes the criminal legal system, that the way that folks raise these funds is through small donations and through collective community action. And so that’s, that’s where it’s gonna go. It’s not being funneled through some national organization that then takes a percentage and then it’s not paying for a bunch of overhead.
Right? It’s like literally you give to a small community bail fund in your community that’s going to immediately go to the bond for somebody. And so I think, you know, getting people feeling comfortable with supporting local action and understanding that these local bond funds get created and it might be new and might not be like a brand name they know because they’re part of a extensive solidarity network that’s been doing work for a long time. Just not like in public, right. Oftentimes the bail funds that we work with, they might decide they’re finally going to be, you know, they’re going to become a fiscally sponsored product of a 501c3 because they’re just, you know, there’s a lot of money being moved around to pay all this bond.
But there are groups of organizers that have been helping to get people free and are part of extensive networks that help with transportation and emergency housing and food and sanctuary support, and all kinds of solidarity all the time. So I just encourage folks that, you know, if, if a community bond fund has grown out of local organizing, that that’s going to be the quickest way for them to be connected in and support folks, you know in the place that they live or work or where they’re from.
KH: Thank you for that. Well, we may have some listeners who are checking the bill on directory right now to see if their community has a bail fund. If they find there is no bail fund in their area and they want to change that, what should they do?
PW: Yeah. I mean, if folks want to think about starting their own bail fund on our website at the link in there is they can email us and we can connect them to folks that may already be working on that or give them resources to think about that. Sometimes folks will see that there’s not a bail or bond fund in their list on the directory and they, and that might just be that folks are sort of in a planning phase or that they’ve decided that’s not the best tool, or that they’re not the best equipped. So being in touch and emailing us is a great way. If they, if they see no local fund, and want to think about why is that and should there be one?
KH: Wonderful. Well, I think that the work that you all do obviously is incredibly important, but there’s a level of hope that comes along with the idea of emptying cages that for me, not many things bring up. I just can’t think of anything more hopeful, anything that embodies the idea of what we owe to each other and what we need to do in this world, then literally setting each other free. So I, I’m grateful for all the hope that your work instills. And I want to ask as we’re closing out here, what gives you hope?
PW: Yeah. You know, similarly, I think something that gives me hope and that comes out of this work is potential for solidarity among people. And I think that recently we had an action where we had been able to have coordination across a number of immigration bond funds to free people. And we had the resources and, and that was great. But the way that we found people that needed to be out was actually other people that had been freed and they had gotten out of the cage, some through the fundraising that you helped with for a freedom day on the 4th of July, some with other actions that bail funds and bond funds had done, and they immediately sort of put themselves into the work and made sure that the comrades that they had found support and solidarity with inside the cage, that they were getting information to them, that they were sending commissary dollars to, so that they can call out when they got a bond and that we can then find them and get them out.
So just the ability to, even in like the darkest, hardest moments for people, to be in solidarity with each other and to not leave each other behind, that’s what gives me hope.
KH: Well, thank you for that and thank you so much for being on the show today Pilar.
PW: Thanks Kelly.
KH: And I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. Remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time I’ll see you in the streets.
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