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What's Next For The Minnesota Freedom Fund


We've been talking a lot about all the unexpected outcomes of this season of unrest and activism. And here's another one - a month ago, the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a small nonprofit dedicated to paying bail for low-income individuals, was going about its business with just three employees, only one full-time, and an annual budget below $200,000.

Then George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis. Protesters filled the streets, and donations started pouring into the fund - more than $30 million worth. But what happens when a tiny nonprofit gets a windfall of that size so quickly?

OCTAVIA SMITH: I don't know if we're allowed to curse, but it was a, you know, WTF moment of, like (laughter), what is happening?

MARTIN: That's Octavia Smith. She's board president of the Minnesota Freedom Fund. She says she and her colleagues were just not prepared for all the attention.

SMITH: When we found out, like, you know, Seth Rogen, Don Cheadle, Noname - we're, like, yeah. Donate to the bail fund. We were, like, why do they know us?


SMITH: How is this happening? We are really small, and we knew that with the expectation of, I guess, social media clout or all that that there would be a larger level of scrutiny towards us.

MARTIN: So I also understand that the Freedom Fund spent - what? - $250,000 in the past few weeks, which is more...

SMITH: About.

MARTIN: ...Than you - about - which is more than your entire budget for the previous year, right?

SMITH: Yes. In two or three weeks, we spent what we normally spend in two years. And I think that that conversation was a little bit lost on folks.

MARTIN: What happened then? People started - what? - flaming you on social media, saying...

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: What are they saying?

SMITH: Suddenly, we were trending with the hashtag #wheresthemoney and #35million. And, you know, we as a board felt that we were being transparent. We had named, you know, the amount of money that we had raised then. And I'd like to say that, like, I understand, we understand as a board that people have a right to be mad - rightfully so. There are so many generations of Black and brown, BIPOC folks and BIPOC communities, who have been exploited by organizations. And so the anger is real. I think we didn't expect the heat to come towards us.

MARTIN: And you're still trying to bail people out, right?

SMITH: Oh, we still are bailing people out. Yep.

MARTIN: How does cash bail work in Minnesota?

SMITH: Yeah. So we are a community bail fund, and we pay cash bail not just for the criminal system but also for the immigration system. And cash bail in Minnesota, as it is in other states, is a very oppressive system. It essentially says that you have to have the exact amount of money on hand. And so if someone was charged with a petty crime, and their bail was set at, like, $78, if you go in with $80, you cannot free that person.

MARTIN: So you can't bring $80. They won't give you change. What do you have to have...


MARTIN: ...Like, a money order or something? How does that work?

SMITH: No money order because we operate in a cash, yes. And that's the wild part, right? Like, it's, like, this system is really put up. It's not supposed to help people. You can't pay with credit card. You can't pay with a money order. You have to have cash. And you can't - like, if we're talking about doing as an organization doing mass release, mass liberation, you have to go in and say, I'm paying XYZ's bail. That process to just bail one person out can take upwards of three hours.

MARTIN: Ms. Smith, can I ask you this? $30 million, $35 million sounds like a huge amount of money. But in the context of how many people are being held who could be bonded out, is that really a lot of money?

SMITH: It's not. To put this into perspective, if we wanted to bail out the folks in Hennepin County who are qualified for bail, it would cost $50 million. That's, like, wild, right? That's ridiculous. And, like, the system, the cash bail system, is just operating on this thing of, like, they haven't been convicted of anything, you know? And people are literally rotting in jail because they can't afford to pay high bills.

MARTIN: Forgive me for asking, Ms. Smith. Is there any part of you that kind of wishes that money had never poured in?

SMITH: Oh, all parts of me wish that it had never poured in (laughter). I think, like, you know, when we're talking about these moments, we are witnessing an uprising. And America has to contend with the fact that for so long, it is said that Black lives don't matter, right? So we have deep - like, deep gratitude and also, like, with solemnness to say, like, we want to do more.

We wish that we were in a situation where none of this happened, right - like, where George Floyd was still alive. But that's not the reality that we're in. And so we'd love to not have this money. But now that we have this money, we have a responsibility to do more with it and also to increase our bandwidth.

MARTIN: Octavia Smith is the board president of the Minnesota Freedom Fund.

Octavia Smith, thanks so much for being with us.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.