Minnesota Freedom Fund explains its plans for $30 million in donations

The Minnesota Freedom Fund has been around since 2016, but the Minneapolis uprising marked a turning point in its destiny.

The Minnesota Freedom Fund has been around since 2016, but the Minneapolis uprising marked a turning point in its destiny. Susan Du

Just a handful of weeks ago, the day-to-day operations of the Minnesota Freedom Fund looked radically different.

Based on the firm belief that nobody should have to sit in jail simply because they can’t afford to be released, the nonprofit founded in 2016 paid bail for people being held in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, as well as immigration bonds. They had one full-time staff member (an executive director), a part-time staff member, and a volunteer board of directors.

The budget allowed them to spend $1,000 on bail on any given day, and there were caps on how much bail they could spend on any individual’s case. The long-term goal has always been to abolish cash bail altogether, which disproportionately punishes people who are already disenfranchised to begin with.

Then, a Minneapolis man named George Floyd was killed by police officers, sparking weeks of protests and unrest across the Twin Cities and the state. As more and more protesters and members of the media were thrown in jail, more links to the Minnesota Freedom Fund started flying around the internet.

Everything prior to that was the “before.” We are now in the “after." The Freedom Fund has been inundated with more than $30 million in donations from around a million individual donors, to the point of directing donors to other causes to support, which they've been doing since just a few days after the protests began. Coverage tends to focus on celebrities and influencers putting their thumbs on the social media scales, but the average donation, according to the Star Tribune, was just $41.

Along with that massive support came calls for transparency. People started calling out the fund, demanding to know where and how the money was being spent. On Thursday, the Freedom Fund tweeted out a response saying leadership “appreciated” people’s concerns.

“We see y’all,” it said. “Without jeopardizing the safety of the folks we bailed out we paid well over $200k in the weeks since the uprising alone. We are working on doing more.”

That figure sparked more outrage from some. If the fund had received millions, why was only $200,000 being put to work? Some commenters posted photos that supposedly showed the board of directors, pointing out most of them appeared to be white.

“No one should be in jail with the amount of money you took in,” one responder said. “’Y’all’ need to get back on this asap!”

With the detractors have come a smaller but stalwart fleet of defenders telling everyone to lay the hell off and try going from a tiny nonprofit to having millions of earmarked dollars in a matter of days. 

Board member Jared Mollenkof, a public defender by trade, is a bit gentler than that. He says it’s completely normal to want to hold organizations to their word – especially ones with the kind of support the Freedom Fund has enjoyed these past few weeks.

“I have no animosity toward people who want to hold us accountable and make sure we’re centering the right communities,” he says.

As far as the board’s racial makeup goes, he says, there’s been some misinformation out there -- that photo is an old one, and the board is actually majority people of color. Mollenkof himself is a Black man. The president of the board is a Black woman.

But he gets why people are concerned or even upset. The Freedom Fund is navigating a massive paradigm shift, and the criminal justice system, he says, doesn’t make it easy to bail people out if you’re not operating through a bail bondsman. In the end, someone still has to go down to the jail and fill out the paperwork. That’s what the Freedom Fund has always done. But now, they’re doing it with much deeper pockets, and that means more adjustments.

Going forward, they’ve adjusted their bail cap policy. Under ordinary circumstances, the cap on an individual’s case is now $20,000. If they got arrested for protesting, there is no cap at all. And faced with the herculean task and working with people who mostly have full-time jobs elsewhere, they’re still bailing people out “every single day.” All protest-related bail that's landed on their desks up to this point has been paid, according to a recent tweet from the Freedom Fund.

The next step, Mollenkof says, is expanding their reach from Hennepin and Ramsey to all over the state. But they can’t do that overnight. They need volunteers out in the field. They need to consult with other community organizations led by Black people, detainees, and arrestees. They need to figure out how to manage potential mass bailouts for people in jail pretrial or in ICE detention.

That takes time. Mollenkof assures they’re “working around the clock” to get there, and there will be more information readily available in the coming days.

If you want to volunteer with the Freedom Fund’s extension, you can sign up on the website, which also has a list of other organizations working to rebuild the community and fight racism and police brutality, and they could use the kind of support the Freedom Fund has received, too.

Mollenkof also encourages people who want to help to pitch in with their ballots, too. Vote for county attorneys and judges who will help dismantle the cash bail system.

But in the meantime, he's most heartened by the sheer number of people who have donated in the past few weeks. That means there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who agree that there’s no reason to hold people’s freedom for ransom.