The Columbus Freedom Fund rose to prominence amid protests. What is it, and where will it go from here?
When the Columbus Freedom Fund formed in March, Stacey Little knew she and her fellow organizers would put the community bail fund to good use. The group’s goal was to raise funds to help people in Franklin County who were sitting in jail and unable to leave — not because they were convicted of a crime and incarcerated, but because they couldn’t afford to post bail.
And that’s exactly what the Columbus Freedom Fund (CFF) has done. But Little could never have anticipated the protests that would sweep the country and take over Downtown Columbus in the days and weeks following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May. Nor could she have predicted the prominent role the CFF would play in those protests and the huge influx of cash for which the group would be responsible.
“Oh, my gosh. It was crazy,” Little said. “When the protests happened, I had so many notifications on my phone I couldn't even make a phone call because my phone was buzzing and beeping. The first week of the protest, on Instagram, we went from maybe 100-some followers to 4,000 or 5,000 followers. [Now] we have almost 11,000 followers.”
And the money. At the height of the protests, countless local individuals and organizations were giving to the Columbus Freedom Fund every day. It became the go-to repository for the proceeds from fundraisers and benefits for racial justice across Central Ohio.
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Prior to the protests, the Freedom Fund had been excited to build on its largest donation to date — a few thousand dollars from the fund’s fiscal sponsor, Women Have Options Ohio. “We were working with what we thought was a huge amount of money,” Little said. “At the height of the uprising, a lot of these community bail funds weren't prepared for the large influx of money. A lot of us didn't have the structures in place. Not to say we weren’t ready, but… we weren’t ready.”
Initially the donations came through the group’s PayPal account. “We were getting so many donations that PayPal was like, 'Wait a minute.’ PayPal had to slow down for us and help us navigate through this whole process,” said Little, who reached out to national bail funds for advice and leaned heavily on the group’s fiscal sponsor for direction.
In early June, Columbus Freedom Fund posted data regarding protesters who had been arrested and jailed amid the uprisings. According to the group, CFF paid nearly $50,000 in bail money for seven black protesters.
The influx of money has also caused problems. “People were like, ‘It’s a scam. They’re not bailing people out,’” Little said. “People thought we weren't moving fast enough for the amount of donations that were coming in and the rate at which people were getting arrested.”
Those suspicions were compounded by the fact that CFF doesn't disclose how much money is in its accounts. “We've agreed as an organization not to [disclose the amount] because of the ramifications of that. We're not trying to hide any information or do anything fraudulent with the donations that the community has given us. But the system will use [that knowledge] against us. They will set folks' bail high on purpose to deplete bail funds. We talked to other bail funds across the nation, and that is what they will do,” Little said. “We want the community to know that we’re doing what we said we were gonna do with the donations, but we also want to make sure that we're not put in a situation where the system sets these ridiculous bail amounts on folks and it depletes our funds."
Little also said the process of posting bailing for someone can sometimes take longer than people expect due to a lack of initial information. For example, if someone is arrested and a request is made to the CFF to cover the bail, in order for the Freedom Fund to attempt to help, the group has to know the person’s first and last name and date of birth. “It is going to be very difficult to bail out your friend if I only know his name is Derek,” Little said.
Even though March marked the official beginning of Columbus Freedom Fund, Little and fellow organizers such as attorney Tabitha Woodruff are not new to the issue of bail reform. Last year, the pair led the charge in bringing the #FreeBlackMamas campaign to Columbus, hosting a Mother’s Day Bail Out event at Ace of Cups. But even then, creating a community bail fund was always the goal.
There’s a localized learning curve in creating such a fund, because bail works differently depending on the city and county. Franklin County has specified bail amounts tied to the degree of the misdemeanor or felony charges, but a judge can also change those amounts.
“There are several factors that they're supposed to take into consideration prior to setting the bail. [But] over the uprisings, we saw that bail was set differently for white folks and Black folks,” said Little, who said that because of those inequities, the Columbus Freedom Fund focuses primarily on bailing out Black and brown citizens. “These people have not even been convicted of a crime yet. They are literally locked in a cage, and it could be days or weeks ... before they even see a judge. Bail is not supposed to be a thing of punishment. … This whole idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is hypocritical because you're deeming folks guilty by placing a ransom on their freedom.”
Little said she has seen people sitting in jail for days because they couldn’t afford the $100 bail. Plus, while waiting in pre-trial detention, citizens can lose their jobs or even have their children taken away. “Yes, we are there for the protesters, but we also bail out people who have nothing to do with the protests,” she said. “It's really about people who were there before these uprisings and will be there after these uprisings.”
Little also cautioned protesters to be smart and safe. “Knowing that we exist is definitely a comfort to folks,” she said. “But just understand that sometimes our actions can put us in situations that we definitely don't need to be in.”
Moving forward, it’s Little’s hope that someday Franklin County won’t need a community bail fund. “Our goal is to end cash bail. We do not want a cash bail system. Freedom should not have to be paid for,” said Little, who also wants the CFF to be nimble and ready to provide whatever is needed for the city’s Black and brown citizens. “We see ourselves being a safe space for people. We see ourselves being a resource and a place where you know that you're gonna get the help that you need, whether that's food, child care, or you just want to punch a pillow. Whatever the community needs. … We want to be an organization that fills in the gaps.”