A small group of lawyers and activists known as the Columbus Freedom Fund has received tens of thousands of dollars in donations to bail out protesters arrested during recent demonstrations. The group's sudden rise to prominence, however, has raised questions: Who are they, and how exactly are they using the money?
Nearly 100 people were arrested during one week of protests in Columbus. Half of those arrested were black, and half were white, but their bail amounts differed significantly by race.
Bail for black protesters totaled almost $50,000. Bail for white protesters, however, was only $2,000.
Tabitha Woodruff, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society and volunteer with the Columbus Freedom Fund, said that disparity is partially because protesters were arrested for different crimes.
"We knew that this might be a moment where protesters, particularly black and brown protesters, would be targeted, would be brutalized, would be arrested and locked up and held essentially for ransom before they even had a chance to have a day in court," Woodruff says.
She points to two men, both out past curfew in the same neighborhood. The white man was arrested for breaking curfew and let out with no bond. The black man was arrested in connection to a nearby looting and had a multi-thousand-dollar bond.
"Anytime you break down bail amounts, whether it's in urban areas, country wide or just one city, even just the small list of those 98 protesters, it's visibly clear that there are higher bond amounts for black people" Woodruff says.
In total, the Columbus Freedom Fund has paid out about $48,000 to cover bail for protesters of color.
Transparency And Security
Since the beginning of the recent protests, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, activists have urged people to donate to bail funds around the country - including the Columbus Freedom Fund.
Columbus Freedom Fund says that 100% of donations go towards bail, and bail only. But while they've raised more than the amount they've paid out, leaders won’t say exactly how much.
"We have been in touch with bail funds in other cities," Woodruff says. "We've worked with the National Bail Out collective, and they have warned us that in cities where they've released how much is in the bail fund, the courts make a point to set bail at that amount for black people."
Still, the initial lack of transparency caused concern from the public. Their inbox was flooded with questions: Where were all those donations going?
"People are donating, and we’re trying to answer questions and like put these systems in place, all while trying to bail people out" says Stacey Little, one of the Freedom Fund's founders. "It's not easy!"
Little co-founded the group a few years ago with other activists, including the late Amber Evans, with the mission of bailing out a few black women for Mother's Day. They planned to expand slowly, but Little says the Floyd protests sped up their timeline.
"These past couple of weeks with the protests and everything, we literally blew up over a weekend," Little says.
That caused some problems. The Columbus Freedom Fund didn't have non-profit status or its own bank account, which made accepting the huge influx of money difficult. Another non-profit, the abortion rights group Women Have Options Ohio, stepped in to facilitate.
Then the fund was named on the online messaging board 4chan, and it started to recieve hateful messages on Instagram and Facebook.
"That's part of what the system does to dismantle movements, you know?" Little says. "It's always going to be something, somebody, some entity trying to destroy the good work. Especially when you’re talking about black liberation and freedom."
Charges Not Dropped
The office of Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein has been reviewing charges against the protesters. Last week, he dismissed all the cases related to curfew - a few days after Mayor Andrew Ginther rescinded the policy.
"Now we’re focusing on the other pending charges," Klein says. "We're reviewing those, we're seeking body camera footage, any other additional independent footage to make sure that we can deal with these cases fairly and pursue them in the interest in justice."
Klein says more than 70 cases remain, with charges like rioting and failure to disperse.
None of the charges against protesters bailed out by the Columbus Freedom Fund were dropped. They declined to speak with WOSU for this story because their cases are ongoing.
Even though the protests have died down, Little says the group will continue to bail out black and brown people in Columbus. Their end goal, however, is even bigger: to abolish the cash bail system altogether.