The Minnesota Freedom Fund became a viral sensation on social media, with celebrities and donors around the world giving $30 million to bail out protesters after George Floyd’s death.
But the instant social media fame is also drawing Twitter attacks and strong scrutiny of the small Minneapolis nonprofit for so far spending only $250,000 of what it collected. That funded bail for 42 people in Hennepin and Ramsey county jails since May 28.
The nonprofit says it wasn’t prepared to handle the unprecedented flood of donations, just adding a third paid employee last week in addition to an all-volunteer seven-member board. The leaders say they will continue to spend donations on bail for any other protesters as well as others who are incarcerated, such as in immigration cases.
“Folks are angry and upset and they rightfully should be and they rightfully should call for transparency,” said board president Octavia Smith, adding that the nonprofit is “rapidly scaling up to meet the demand of our current environment.”
Greg Lewin, one of the nonprofit’s three paid staff and the former board president, said he was doxxed online Tuesday when his home address was shared on Twitter. But beyond the personal threat, he said, he wasn’t surprised by the storm of criticism — some of which came from right-wing commenters and some from black civil rights activists.
“People should keep their rage. I’m very sympathetic to impatience,” he said. “We’d like them to shout with us.”
Hundreds of people were arrested protesting in Minneapolis after Floyd’s death at the hands of police. But Lewin said an estimated 400 to 600 people were released without having to post cash bail while others were charged without being imprisoned. The nonprofit has to be notified by the person or their attorney about their case and has paid every request it has received, Lewin said.
Leaders of the small nonprofit, which aims to abolish cash-bail, vow to use the rest of the millions of dollars in donations to continue to pay bails, including planning its first-ever “mass liberation” of a jail by bailing out a large group of people. Smith said they could also use donations to back a campaign for policy change, such as lobbying at the Capitol to end the cash-bail system. The Minnesota Freedom Fund’s position is that the “discriminatory, coercive and oppressive” system of cash-bail disproportionately punishes low-income people.
Besides Lewin, the nonprofit also hired staff to oversee communications and operations, and Lewin said they could hire more staff as the nonprofit grows. Usually, the Minnesota Freedom Fund receives about $150,000 a year in donations and grants.
“We’ve never broken $200,000, let alone $30 million,” said Steve Boland, the board treasurer. “It’s not that people are sitting in jail not being helped. We’re being successful in getting them released without bail, which is great. That means that there are more resources used to help other people who are jailed for other things and to end the process of cash-bail in the first place.”
The $250,000 the nonprofit has spent on bail in the past two weeks compares to the usual $1,000 a day the nonprofit typically paid in bail before the outcry over Floyd’s death. It would cost $50 million to bail out everyone currently in the Hennepin County jail for any charges, Boland said.
The Minnesota Freedom Fund has grown quickly since registering as a nonprofit just three years ago with all volunteers.
Criticism about the lack of transparency to donors is a reflection of the nonprofit not having a system in place to communicate to the more than 900,000 donors who contributed in the past two weeks, Boland said.
The Minnesota Freedom Fund didn’t conduct an organizing campaign to seek donations and yet cash flooded in, boosted by celebrities such as Justin Timberlake and Steve Carell promoting it on Twitter. The average donation: $41.
The nonprofit received so many donations that it asked people to donate elsewhere, to other local nonprofits fighting for racial justice or rebuilding Minneapolis businesses that were burned and looted.
President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee then criticized staffers on former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign for donating to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, saying it was posting bail for people arrested for destroying the city.
In 2018, the nonprofit spent only about $15,000, according to the most recent tax forms filed publicly. But Boland said that’s because most bail bonds are returned when the person makes their court date, and the funds can be recycled to spend helping someone else with bail. When asked if the small nonprofit needs $30 million, Lewin, a former research analyst, said, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Criticism on Twitter, however, expanded beyond an impatience for the nonprofit to spend donations.
Local civil rights attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong called the spending “unacceptable” on Twitter and added that “we literally have buildings burned down in North Minneapolis and Black businesses and families without essential resources.” She also criticized the board for not having any black members.
Of seven board members, four are people of color, including Smith, who added that the nonprofit has historically had a majority of white leaders and is working to continue to increase diversity. She said that for safety reasons, the Minnesota Freedom Fund isn’t posting names of its board publicly.
She also said the organization can’t legally spend money on issues unrelated to its mission and bylaws.
Smith said those actions will “just take a little bit more time and they can’t happen in the span of two weeks. But we are dedicated and committed to the work.”