In the immediate aftermath of police officer Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Minneapolis, spurring nationwide demonstrations against police brutality. In the earliest days of the protest, one particular organization assisting protesters went viral: The Minnesota Freedom Fund, a nonprofit organization that bails people out of jail.
In the few days following Minneapolis’ first protests, the tiny, volunteer-run organization raised more than $31 million as donations poured in from all over the country. Two weeks later, some people have been wondering what’s happened to all of those donations. Overnight, the phrase “$35 million” started trending after the MFF tweeted that it had thus far spent only $200,000 on bail over the last few weeks (some people on Twitter asserted that the organization had raised $35 million; it has raised closer to $31 million). Separately, a “public request for transparency” began circulating on Twitter calling for two other organizations that were flooded with donations—Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block—to explain what they have been spending money on.
The implication in thousands of replies to an MFF tweet was that the organization had either misappropriated funds, or hasn’t been spending enough money to help people arrested in Minnesota during the protests. Questions from well-meaning people who don't necessarily understand how the bail process works were then co-opted by right-wing Twitter accounts with huge followings to suggest that people had been scammed.
But the situation that MFF finds itself in is one that’s common after a cause goes viral: A small organization has been overwhelmed with donations from well-meaning people, but doesn’t necessarily have an urgent need for that much money. At the beginning of the protests, the organization had earmarked $10,000 to help bail out protesters, and soon found itself with many times that amount.
“There seems to be a disconnect with reality,” Pilar Weiss, director of the Community Justice Exchange, which is host of the National Bail Fund Network and is working with Minneapolis Freedom Fund, said in an interview. “An all volunteer organization with a small budget received a huge amount of support they didn’t ask for, and that was a beautiful thing. A beautiful show of solidarity. And now they have to responsibly create systems to spend that money. But no one is going to spend $31 million in two weeks. That would never happen.”
At one point in late May, the organization stopped accepting donations, recommending other Black led-community organizations to send donations instead.
"We started to realize, oh my god, we have this money now, we have to really figure out where we're using it," Mirella Ceja-Orozco, an immigration lawyer who serves on the board of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, told VICE News last week. "We wanted to make sure that people knew that the funding that they were providing was going to be used in the ways that we promised."
After recalibrating some of their organizational objectives, the fund began accepting donations again a couple days later, this time with some more ambitious, systemic aims than they were previously able to pursue.
"This money now is going to the bigger cause of ending the cash bail system and hopefully getting out more people that are in this system unfairly," said Ceja-Orozco. “Our organization doesn't want to exist long term. We want to end the cash bail system. So we would like to not exist forever because our goal is to not have a system that would require our existence.”
Weiss said that the reality on the ground does not reflect what well-meaning people who donated to the fund believe is the situation in Minneapolis. While more than 480 people were arrested during the first weekend of protests in Minneapolis late last month (and hundreds more have been arrested in Minneapolis since), the majority of those people were not held on bail.
“Thousands of people have been arrested, but not every person has gotten bail,” Weiss said. Many people were released without bail, or were simply given a ticket. Others weren’t arrested during protests but may be arrested later. “Minnesota Freedom Fund has released everybody who has been arrested protesting, and they’re supporting those people with ongoing legal support. The insinuation on Twitter seems to be there’s money that could have been used for bail[ing out protesters] that’s not being used.”
In a series of Tweets Tuesday morning and a frequently asked questions section of its website, the Minnesota Freedom Fund said that it is planning on using some of the money to pay for the ongoing legal fees of people arrested, and to prevent people who were arrested from taking unfair plea deals.
"Weeks ago, we were a small fund that paid a maximum of $1,000 in the course of a 'normal' day," they wrote on their website. "We’re adapting quickly to handle the volume and scale of the current need." Ceja-Orozco said "it's kind of crazy how we've transitioned into this whole different ballgame as an organization, one that we were not ready for."
“Many people had no bail but were scooped up and charged, and now have ongoing legal costs,” the fund tweeted. “Part of fighting pre-trial injustice means making sure people aren’t pleading guilty on bullshit charges … ‘support’ starts with legal representation, court fees, and transportation.”
Weiss said that people who donated are right to want transparency about where their money is going, but that it’s simply too early to suggest that organizations somehow aren’t spending their money wisely, or haven’t done enough to help. It's worth mentioning that MFF is a 501(c)(3), a class of nonprofit that is highly regulated, and which must make many of its financial documents public eventually (MFFs previous tax documents show that, for example, its total revenue in 2018 was just $110,000).
MFF and other bail funds are also dealing with systemic issues that make the work they do so difficult. For example, some organizations have had their funds held up by PayPal and Venmo, as Motherboard has previously reported. They must also simply wait for the legal process to play out.
“People need to understand that this is a process controlled by police, prosecutors, and the jails. That is lost in some of the nuance,” Weiss said, adding that it can take days or months for cases to work their way through the legal system. “People generously donated $31 million, and it will be used to free people as there’s bail to be paid. Let’s all take a breath.”
Ceja-Orozco echoed the sentiment that cash can be burned through rapidly when distributing bail funds, even with a windfall of new funding. “Especially with some of the protesters their bails are going to be significantly higher than you might expect, like $500,000,” said Ceja-Orozco. “It's like one of those things that we need to kind of have that in the back of our minds, that as these months progress, we will be seeing more of those arrests happen. And so we need to be able to help when that time comes.”
Samantha Cole and Janus Rose contributed reporting.