Just past 8 on Sunday morning, a group of young women gathered outside the Downtown Detention Center. Some sat on the ground, heads leaning again the wall and water bottles at their feet. Their wrists were red.
“I was charged with criminal trespassing and resisting arrest,” says one woman in a video posted on the Nashville Community Bail Fund’s Twitter account. Then she holds her forearms to the camera, where zip ties have rubbed them raw.
The woman is one of the 55 protesters who state troopers arrested outside the Tennessee State Capitol Saturday, after a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. Not all of them have been charged bails. But the Nashville Community Bail Fund has been working in overdrive to release people from jail since the coronavirus started spreading, including protesters.
By May, the organization’s money had nearly dried up. But the nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd have spurred a flood of donations.
“It’s our duty as a bail fund to make sure that they do not stay in a cage one second beyond any moment that they should not be there,” says Rahim Buford, the fund’s manager.
State troopers are kicking protesters off of Capitol Hill. Several people have been arrested. pic.twitter.com/v5vMAKDiEV
— Samantha Max (@samanthaellimax) July 5, 2020
The nonprofit covers those who can’t afford to pay for their own release. Reimbursements from the courts keep the organization afloat. When the group pays someone’s bail and their client shows up to court, the money is refunded.
Then COVID-19 hit. When courts partially shut down during the outbreak, reimbursements stopped coming in.
“We had to reduce the amount of money that we were spending, so as not to run completely out of money,” Buford says.
The pandemic has made Buford’s work feel more urgent than ever. The sheriff, the public defender and the district attorney worked together to release some low-level offenders and pretrial detainees from county jails. But more than 1,100 people are still in sheriff’s office custody. And about 130 have recently tested positive for the coronavirus.
The fund has increased the amount of money it spends to bail people out, even as it resources have dwindled. Between January and March, the organization had raised only $3,000.
So, Buford breathed a sigh of relief when contributions started pouring in, as campaigns to support bail funds started spreading on social media. The organization has raised more than $700,000 since protests started in May. That’s nearly six times their donations in all of 2018.
Plus, Colin Kaepernick just pledged to donate $1 million to 10 bail funds across the country, including Nashville’s. Buford hopes the support won’t fade.
“You keep it up by keeping the issue before the people. And, that’s why I’m happy to see these protests,” he says. “I’m happy to see disruptors going into places and spaces where they have a right to be.”
Buford wishes the donations hadn’t been spurred by killings at the hands of police. But he hopes the fund will soon have enough money to bail out everyone.
“I hate the fact that the money we have now is written in blood. I hate that George Floyd lost his life, and we have money now. But we were drying up,” Buford says. “I’m looking for the day when we can maybe bail out 100 people in one day. I’m looking for that day to come, because it has to happen.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.