By Elisabeth Long
From PHN Issue 34, Fall 2017
“Money kept them in. Black love got them out.”
— Pat Hussain, Co-founder of Southerners on New Ground
This August, activists bailed out 51 Black women, queer and trans folks across the South as part of the Black August Bail Out organized by Southerners on New Ground (SONG). SONG is a Queer Liberation organization made up of people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, people with disabilities, working class and rural and small town lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) people in the South. The Black August Bail Out is a continuation of bail outs happening around the country that began with the Mama’s Day Bail Out in May. Organizers found people to bail out in several ways, such as using public records requests and allying with public defenders. They met with women inside to ask their permission to bail them out and to find out what their needs might be after being released. In addition to bail, donated funds were used to provide short-term housing, healthcare, transportation, drug treatment, mental health care and other support services to people the activists bailed out.
The Violence of Cash Bail
Every day, 62 percent of people in jail — hundreds of thousands of people — around the country are held captive because they cannot afford to pay a ransom for their freedom. This puts them at risk of losing their jobs, housing, access to benefits and even their children. Bail pressures people into taking plea bargains. If they go to trial, people held on bail are more likely to be convicted. Bail has not been shown to make a difference in whether or not people show up for court. In fact, cities that have reduced or abolished the use of bail show just as high or higher rates of people returning for court.
Black communities are most devastatingly harmed by the cash bail system. Black people are more likely to be arrested, detained and face higher bails than white people. Black defendants have 44 percent higher odds of being denied bail and kept in jail before trial than white defendants with similar legal circumstances, the Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform notes. In addition to the inherent violence of incarceration, Black women and people of trans experience are more likely to experience sexual and physical violence while caged.
While held in jail, people living with HIV may miss their HIV medications. People of trans experience have their gender self-determination denied, which can include missing or losing access to critical hormone therapies.
Mama’s Day Bail Out
The Mama’s Day Bail Out was an effort to shed light on the destructive bail system and get Black mothers and caregivers out of jail in time for Mother’s Day. Envisioned by SONG Co-Director Mary Hooks, it began as a part of the demand to end money bail that was among the demands that the Movement for Black Lives listed in its Vision for Black Lives. The Mama’s Day Bail Out became a national action, resulting in over 100 Black mothers bailed out around the country. “Eighty percent of black women who are criminalized, profiled, targeted, and put in a cage are single mothers and/or caretakers,” Hooks told Mariame Kaba. Led by Black queer and trans women and allies, the groups bailing women out had an expansive understanding of mothers. Their definition of who is a mother included not just those who give birth, but those who mother chosen family, as well — in the club, in the streets, in the movement. The organizations involved are working to end money bail on local, state and national levels. But they know that people inside can’t wait for that day. “In the tradition of our enslaved Black ancestors, who used their collective resources to purchase each other’s freedom before slavery was abolished, until we abolish bail and mass incarceration, we’re gonna free ourselves,” the No More Money Bail website says.
Following the massive success of the Mama’s Day Bail Out, bail outs continued in June to honor Father’s Day, Juneteenth and Pride. Black August Bail Outs are the most recent actions taken. Black August originated in the California penal system to honor the life and legacy of George Jackson. George Jackson was an imprisoned Black revolutionary who was assassinated by San Quentin guards in August 1971. Black August is a time in which Jackson’s life and death, as well as those of other Black freedom fighters, are honored in the history of Black resistance and struggle for Black liberation. “At its very essence, Black August emphasizes honoring and upholding Black community,” SONG’s website states. “We can think of no better way to commemorate the history of Black August than to bail out as many Black women, broadly defined, and Black trans people across the South as we can.”