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The Minnesota Freedom Fund is all over Twitter. Here’s what it does.

How a Twitter campaign to help Minneapolis protesters may also help reform America’s unfair bail system.

A protester holds a United States flag upside down.
Protesters filled the streets of downtown Minneapolis for days after George Floyd died in police custody.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

If you’ve been following the protests in Minneapolis on Twitter, you’ve no doubt seen more than a few tweets, some from very prominent tweeters promoting a nonprofit called the Minnesota Freedom Fund. The tweets usually say they’ve donated to the fund. Some include a screenshot of the donation confirmation page and urge their followers to donate, too. The tweets have quickly become iconic.

The origins of the campaign are unclear, but one of the earliest accounts to tweet about the fund was activist AntiFash Gordon. It’s grown from there, with thousands of tweets promoting the fund and its cause as a way of assisting the people protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. The fund and its mission to reform the cash bail system aren’t just important for these protests; it’s a way to help reform an aspect of the American criminal justice system that is fundamentally unfair to lower-income people, and goes against its very principles to do so.

The Minnesota Freedom Fund began in 2016. It posts small cash bails for people who otherwise couldn’t afford them. According to the fund’s executive director, Tonja Honsey, its beneficiaries only need an average of $150 to secure their pre-trial release.

“That’s $150 that separates people from their families, from their jobs, from their communities, from their houses, from employment,” Honsey told Minnesota Public Radio in 2019. “At the root of it, it’s extracting wealth from communities.”

When people are arrested, they may be required to pay a deposit to secure their release before trial, as a way to guarantee they’ll come back. If they can’t afford that deposit, they can get a bail bonds company to pay it for them — for a fee that some people also may not be able to afford.

Before the current protests, the Minnesota Freedom Fund made headlines for its work to get as many people out of pretrial detention as possible as the coronavirus pandemic hit prisons and jails, which have become hot spots for the virus. Now, the fund has become a way to assist people who are arrested during the protests.

The fund is one of many across the country fighting against America’s cash bail system, which disproportionately impacts lower-income people. Without the resources to pay bail, these people must remain in jail until their trial — effectively giving them a prison sentence before they’ve been convicted of a crime.

It’s estimated that 550,000 people are held in jail before they’ve had a trial, many of whom simply can’t afford their own release. For some, it could be years before their case ever goes to trial, as was the case for Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old who was jailed for nearly three years because his family couldn’t afford to bail him out. He was accused of stealing a backpack; the charges against him were ultimately dropped. Browder never recovered from his time in jail and took his own life a few years after his release. He has since become a symbol of the inequities and consequences of the cash bail system.

Several states have recently passed bail reform laws that do away with cash bails for low-level offenses. Minnesota isn’t one of them, though there have been recent attempts to institute such a system in Minneapolis. Bail reform detractors have argued that releasing people accused of crimes will lead to more crime. Soon after New York’s bail reform law went into effect, critics pointed to the rising crime rate in New York City as proof that this had, indeed, happened. Proponents say it’s too soon to tell if the rise in crime can be attributed to bail reform, and only a small percentage of people released under the bail reform law were accused of committing those crimes.

Regardless of what critics and proponents say, there is one undeniable fact: Everyone released by bail reform laws is innocent according to the American justice system, which is based on the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. A bunch of tweets from high-profile figures will make a lot of people aware of the issue who otherwise would not have been. Now we’ll see if that’ll be enough to change it.

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