Rahim Buford knows what a night in a cage feels like. He can count about 9,490 of them in his lifetime. The 49-year-old manager of the Nashville Community Bail Fund grew up in a family of 19 children in Nashville. There were times when he didn’t have enough food to eat, and his classmates mocked the clothes he wore to school. His family circumstances drove him to trouble. At 18, he shot a gun at the floor of a store he was robbing, and the bullet ricocheted into an employee, killing them. Buford spent the next 26 years of his life between seven different Tennessee prisons, contemplating how he ended up there.
“I educated myself, I learned about the system, and I realized that the choices that I made were not just because I was a bad person,” Buford told me. “I learned about the history of the country I live in and then it all made sense.”
Buford was paroled in 2015, and now spends his days visiting the very same jails where he spent time during his early adult life, paying bail for people who can’t afford it. As he sees it, his job is to ensure that someone spends as little possible time behind bars pretrial—a goal that has only become more urgent as COVID-19 outbreaks surge through correctional facilities across the country. (Pretrial detention occurs when a person is arrested, cannot pay their set bail, and must remain in jail until their court date.) The work is important to him because he sees a through line from his impoverished upbringing to his time in prison, and wants to halt that cycle where he can.
“We are here to make sure that citizens all across this country are not held in a cage simply because they’re poor,” he said.
Buford is one of two full-time organizers at NCBF, a nonprofit whose annual fundraising rarely pushes over $40,000. Which is why he was shocked to see a flurry of activity when he glanced at the organization’s Instagram page on Monday.
“I can’t even count how many people were sharing,” he told me. “The individuals were creating their own posts. They were grabbing things that we were doing and just creating new posts and writing into those posts or superimposing onto those posts, asking the community to support us.”
Generous strangers were urging their friends to donate to NCBF. Some were posting receipts of their own contributions and challenging their followers to match them. One guy was selling homemade blueberry kombucha for the cause. All of this was happening completely without the nonprofit’s solicitation. When I reached Buford on Monday, his organization had received close to $50,000 in 72 hours.
“That has never happened in the Nashville Community Bail Fund’s history,” he said. “We’ve been operating since 2016 and it has not even received a grant in that amount of money. And we know that this is happening all across the nation.”
Buford shares this recent experience with many community organizers as Americans have erupted in protest over police brutality against black people and the criminal justice system at large. On Memorial Day, a white Minneapolis police officer named Derek Chauvin dug his knee into George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds until Floyd stopped breathing. Chauvin’s fellow officers—J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao—stood by, uninterested in saving the man dying before their eyes. Smartphone footage of Floyd’s death spread quickly, piling onto a heap of other racist incidents that had recently circulated online, and captured the reality of what it is to be black in America. It came at an already fraught time in the country: A global pandemic has infected more than 1.9 million Americans, is killing black Americans at 2.4 times the rate of white Americans, and resulted in 20.6 million job losses. Violence layered on poverty layered on death.
Alongside a historic number of public demonstrations came a powerful wave of online fundraising. And, with the helpful direction of organizers, social media has zeroed in on one legal tool in particular: local bail funds. They solicit donations from the public to pay any legal fees associated with a person’s release ahead of their trial. They rebuke one of the many plain injustices of the prison-industrial complex: Poor people of color are disproportionately incarcerated pre-trial simply because they can’t afford their release. Bail funds also eliminate a common dynamic in which people who cannot afford to pay bail must choose between pleading guilty or remaining behind bars.
Since the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, these organizations have proliferated across major cities, low-income and minority neighborhoods, and LGBTQ groups. What began as a handful of disparate local efforts has grown into a robust national network of almost 100 bail funds. Though many are modest nonprofits, they have—within the span of a few days—drawn the attention and wallets of the global public and raised tens of millions of dollars. Now, with their combined efforts, bail funds are shifting the power wielded by criminal justice systems to the communities they police.
“It’s part of a growing movement,” said Sharlyn Grace, the executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund. “Like the protestors, now we’re building on what we learned in the last several years over the course of the movement to stop police violence and the movement for abolition.”
It all began with the Minnesota Freedom Fund. Donations to the small, four-year-old charity organization started streaming in on the Wednesday after Floyd’s death, as protests erupted in Minneapolis and onlookers from around the world sought to show their support. What was jump-started by a tweet from the activist Twitter account @AntiFashGordon quickly became a homegrown fundraising campaign across multiple social media platforms, in which people took screenshots of their receipts and posted them with requests that their followers match them. Soon enough, celebrities including Janelle Monáe, Harry Styles, and Lil Nas X posted screenshots with more and more zeros, relishing that their contributions would put protestors back onto the streets, and sustain the momentum of the moment. “In celebration of whatever the fuck maga night is, I am committed to donating $100,000 to the bail outs of protestors across the country,” Chrissy Teigen tweeted to her 13 million followers on May 30, referencing one of many threatening comments made by President Trump about the demonstrations. When someone accused her of freeing “rioters and criminals,” she doubled her sum to $200,000.
Two weeks ago, the Minnesota Freedom Fund was struggling to fund bail and ICE bonds. Now it has about $31 million from more than 800,000 donations in its bank, according to Mirella Ceja-Orozco, a board member at the organization.
“Our Gmail account had temporarily stopped working because we had met the communication traffic limit of 50,000 emails,” she told The Ringer in an email. “I didn’t even know that was a thing.”
As protests began spreading to other major cities, so did the scramble to highlight their corresponding bail funds. The director Matthew A. Cherry pieced together a Twitter thread of local organizations, some of which were established charities with a long record of challenging the justice system, and others that included hastily made Venmo handles or GoFundMes for protestors in specific cities. Tracey Higgs, a 27-year-old legal assistant at Fordham University Law School, built on that by vetting the fund’s websites, cross-referencing their social media accounts, and adding others she’d come across. Eager donors latched on. “It was happening so fast,” she said. “That’s when I felt like, OK, I can advocate as much as I can from social media. It’s still a powerful tool.”
Pilar Weiss, the director of the Community Justice Exchange, which oversees a network of U.S. bail funds called the National Bail Fund Network, recognized the grassroots momentum around the cause when she saw an astrology account sharing its own Twitter thread of bail funds.
“We realized that we needed to create very quickly a centralized directory that was constantly updated, because these bail funds can sometimes be very fluid,” she said. (NBFN has since created a protest-specific list of bail funds alongside its existing directory.)
The impact of these organic posts was immediate, and the donations surged for major cities. On May 29, people began sharing screenshots of their donations to the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. Within 24 hours, the organization raised $1.8 million from more than 50,000 individuals. Since last week, the Chicago Community Bond has received $1.7 million from more than 30,000 people. In three days, the Baltimore Action Legal Team received more than $100,000. When I called Giovanni Arias, the executive director of a Houston-based nonprofit called Restoring Justice, on Tuesday, he was returning to his office from that day’s protest and checked the total donations for the organization’s bail fund: $267,000.
“Wow,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve seen it cross this number. Right before the march at 3 p.m. Central time, we were still under. … We hadn’t hit $200,000 yet. You’re catching me at a raw moment. I’m astonished.”
Every suddenly viral fundraising campaign has a certain level of curious magic to it. But that such a vast network of bail funds existed to guide willing donors is the result of years of activism against a glaringly unjust fixture in the criminal justice system. Between 1970 and 2015, the use of pretrial detentions increased by 433 percent, according to the Center for American Progress. The more cash bails that are set, the more bodies that wait in cages. In 2015, more than 60 percent of the U.S.’s total jail population was made up of people held in pretrial detention, according to one Vera Institute study. And a disproportionate number of those people are both black and poor.
In American history, the act of pooling and posting bail has evolved right alongside our nation’s shapeshifting discriminatory policies. The resurgence of bail funds often marks moments of revolution. “Visually, the history of bail funds would look much like the ebb and flow of an ocean’s tide,” reads a 2018 paper published in UCLA Criminal Law Review, “growing with consciousness about injustice and falling into extinction once the momentum, or often the money, dies out.” Jocelyn Simonson, an associate professor at Brooklyn Law School who has studied bail funds, said that the origins of the tradition root back to slavery, when black communities would quite literally pool their resources to buy their loved ones’ freedom.
“To me, that corollary really rings true, especially when you think about contemporary abolitionist movements using that term—abolition—to really make us feel the connections between slavery and the carceral state,” Simonson said.
In the past century, bail fundraising evolved with the needs of the moment. The first major fund was organized in 1920 by the American Civil Liberties Union, which sought to correct “Red Scare” arrests of labor organizers, radicals, and activists in the name of anticommunism. (But without the help of Twitter, it took a whole two years to raise just $60,000 of their $300,000 goal. The fund dissolved at the start of World War II.) Amid the civil rights movement in the 1960s, bail fundraising took on a more fluid form to meet the needs of protesters. While groups like the Mississippi Bail Loan Fund became a go-to relief for protesters in the Jim Crow South, others functioned as temporary pop-ups to address bouts of discriminatory policing in the North. Current-day activists have taken this history to heart in their work, especially in the past week.
“As an immigration attorney, organizations like this have often been what helped us properly advocate for our clients,” Ceja-Orozco said. “Had they not received these funds, we would not have had adequate time to prepare our clients for hearings or obtain the evidence needed to even make their claims. Bail can be political when it is often used to continue keeping an institutional knee on people’s necks.”
To that end, bail funds have proved useful for combating discrimination against a variety of marginalized communities in the past decade. The Lorena Borjas Fund in Queens, for instance, resulted from a partnership between the ACLU in 2012 and a trans Latinx woman of the same name. Borjas and her fellow trans immigrants, some of whom were sex workers, were frequently targeted in her Queens neighborhood, and the fund helped them fight that. (Borjas, a beloved community organizer, recently died of COVID-19, a reminder that the deadly disease and unfair policing overlap in their lopsided effect on low-income communities.)
“It was a real example of a bail fund that was born out of people sitting in court and just trying to support members of their community being targeted because of racialized policing,” Simonson said. “And then connecting that to the necessity of paying bail for a population that’s extremely vulnerable when incarcerated, vulnerable to violence of lots of different kinds.”
Just in the past five years, bail funds have grown in both the scope of their responsibilities, and in sheer numbers. The Chicago Community Bond Fund was formed in 2014 to bail out several black community members who were arrested at a vigil for DeSean Pittman, a black teen who had been shot 10 times by a Chicago police officer. But it has since expanded, taking on the role of criminal justice system watchdog via data collection, lawsuits, and court watching. Now, organizations just like it are sprouting up across the nation, and taking a similar course. When Simonson began writing a law review article about bail funds in 2016, she counted about four or five in the United States. According to the National Bail Fund Network’s most up-to-date list, there are now more than 90.
“That is kind of mind-blowing,” she said. “The growth has been very rapid, but it’s not that the growth’s just happened this weekend. Bail funds are a tactic that has been steadily growing among organizations that are trying to find ways to participate in a criminal legal system that excludes them from participation in other ways.”
As Simonson detailed in a 2017 Michigan Law Review article titled “Bail Nullification,” the combined legal efforts of this grassroots network ultimately empowers citizens against legislatures, judges, and prosecutors. And the more that happens on the local level across the country, the more profoundly it can transform the criminal justice system from the outside. Though bail is theoretically meant to ensure that those charged with crimes don’t evade justice, bail fund organizers say they also demonstrate that people will appear for their court dates, regardless of whether they may be financially penalized, when aided by their community to do so. And that, for those from low-income, marginalized communities, a “failure to appear” rarely means they’re on the run from the law. In this way, bail funds can prove to policymakers that bail is both harmful and unnecessary, and that the interest of public safety falls on the side of freedom. And in states like California and New Jersey, those efforts are leading to actual reform.
“The thing about bail funds is that they’re literally using money to free people from cages,” Simonson said. “And so because they’re doing that performative act, and they’re doing it repeatedly, and they do it over and over, it shifts power. It shifts who’s in charge of who’s free and who’s not free when it’s working as the bail fund collective wants it to work. It disrupts the system. It changed who has the power. And then in doing that, it changes hearts and minds about the leanings of larger concepts like safety, community, justice, and now I think public health.”
However gradual the change, Buford is ready to shepherd it. Like many other bail fund organizers, he is grateful for this influx of donations, but still processing how quickly they came in the first place. What’s clear is that he feels a responsibility to pay the good will forward.
“You have to have guardians,” he said, speaking to me from outside of a Tennessee jail. “Because the system is not concerned with the issues that poor people have.”
An earlier version of this piece misstated that the Chicago Community Bond Fund’s services include participatory defense; it does not.