10 Lessons Learned From the Black Mamas Bail Out Action
1. Putting our organizing practice into action. At SONG, our organizing practice has long been based in love, longing, and desire across class, race, gender and community. This action allowed us to demonstrate our collective belief in a shared destiny with the dreams, demands and hopes of Black women in all of our varieties at the center. Our collective cup overflowed locally and regionally with gift cards, bouquets, clothes, services offered by local practitioners, prime rib donations, gift bags, bouncy houses and volunteers, members, and supporters who showed up for 16-hour days and then came back and did so again. From the loosey cigarettes and balloons that were donated, hugs, letters and testimonies given, to even having real china plates at the Homecoming, this action moved tons of us across the South to tears over and over again.
2. Highlighting the crisis changes policy as well as hearts and minds. We knew the cash bail system was horrible and destructive based on the work of many organizations across the country over the years and our own lived experiences, but this action magnified the crisis. This resonated with Black folks across class lines. Many Black folks have experienced getting money together to get a friend or a family member out of jail. People questioned and gave us pushback as to why we were only focused on Black mamas. But we should be questioning: why are Black mamas targeted and caged at higher proportions to begin with? We saw this action as one of the many ways that a unified movement can demonstrate what it means to be pro-Black. Whether we were engaging in street outreach or talking with our neighbors and family members, everywhere we went almost everyone said YES. This created another opportunity to talk to strangers, break beyond our circles, and give people and ourselves the chance to rise to the occasion to buy each other’s freedom and be invited into a longer-term fight to end cash bail.
3. Same beast and different manifestations across the Southeast. This action was a game-changing way to map, untangle, and understand the lay of the land around the courts, jails, and system of bail in our communities. SONG’s weekly technical assistance calls were open regionally and nationally and allowed us collectively to learn, struggle, commiserate, and grow together. We now understand with much more depth and nuance the decision-makers, the discretion of individual judges, magistrates, and prosecutors, pressure points, and the structural barriers to changing the system. We also understand with much more depth and nuance how the system of cash bail works. While it has similar results and impacts on our communities, it varies deeply across the South. Judges have a core role in determining a person’s bail and often make these determinations without consideration of folk’s ability to pay. States like Arkansas have structural rules that require people to use bail bonds companies and have to put up material collateral like their homes, cars, etc. Bondspeople use their discretion and will often refuse to issue bonds when they don’t think they will make any profit. The presumptions set up against granting bonds by judges in Virginia are so extreme that the organizers in Charlottesville, VA weren’t able to bail anyone out. We are clearer now more than ever that the next step in our work is to abolish the system of cash bail.
4. We found allies along with enemies within the criminal legal system. The criminal legal system is an evil beast. We expected to be met with enemies that would condemn and discourage this action. But we also found that there are people working within the system who came through as tactical allies for us — from Black women working as corrections officers in the jail who helped to get in-reach forms inside to Mamas locked up, to the bondspeople who joked we were going to put them out of business and bought us all lunch anyways. Wardens, jailers, public defenders, and solicitors were in SOME sites were deeply helpful, supportive and even bent and changed rules to help us. But in other places, they were completely obstructionist to the farthest extent possible. Overall and in the future, we know that tactical allies are not common and to expect pushback and hostility at all levels. We understand the personhood of the individuals that have played roles in perpetuating this system of oppression and found humanity in some. This is not about bad apples vs. a token good person. This is a reminder that we all can be transformed in the service of a larger vision, even for a day. Our next questions should be: How do we utilize these allies as we build local power to take down the cash bail system town by town?
5. Social safety net disaster. The rift between social services and grassroots organizing is immense and needs to be mended to the farthest extent possible. Folks cannot organize for power if their basic needs are not met, nor is grassroots organizing the place to meet all those needs. As we organize, we must also look for ways to find and redistribute resources to build what we need. In Charlotte, you have to prove that you have been homeless for two years to be able to get into a shelter. In Durham, you have to show up for an intake that happens only once a week and agree to daily devotions and physical labor amongst other restriction. Another shelter in Durham, requires a valid state issued ID, which you cannot get without an address, and 7 days of clean clothing. Locally, our crews were not prepared nor had the relationships in place to connect those we were bailing out to all they immediately needed. After clocking organizing interventions that need to be made, we will do it better and differently next time. At every turn we encountered barriers, from accessing safe and affordable housing, to disability benefits, to food stamps, to mental health care and basic health care, to child care, to transportation, and more. In this action, some of our most heartbreaking moments were women telling us that staying in jail was their only survivable option versus dying on the outside. So what must be built and demanded from our city and county budgets to get our folks truly free from all the snares of the system?
6. We need more skills and magic to find our trans and gender nonconforming Black mothers and caregivers inside. Many had to be reminded that Black mamas includes trans Black mamas and caregivers. Our chosen families have been born out of love, suffering, and sometimes abandonment. Our capacity to love, protect, and take care of each other extends beyond who gave birth. The self-determination of a trans woman is not honored when she is booked into the jail. In most cases, her classified gender is based on the discretion of the booking officer. We need more support and advice finding our trans mothers and caregivers in jail and getting them out. Over and over we asked, demanded answers, researched, and worked to try to find them and free them, but we couldn’t. Jails intentionally hide and displace trans and gender nonconforming people to make them difficult, if not impossible, to find.
7. “But who will you get out?” An abolitionist vision is the guiding light. This action tested and strengthened SONG’s abolitionist vision and practice in every way. Our belief that transformation is possible, that none of us should be judged by accusations, and, above all, that no one should be in a cage. Throughout, we had to resist the refrain from supporters and naysayers wanting to know what these mothers and caregivers were arrested for and then judging if they deserved to be free. And yes, each local crew had to make calls on who we could and couldn’t get out. Several factors and every nuance for each woman was unpacked before each decision. We modeled, to the best of our ability, what the needs assessment versus risk assessment process should look like when a person is given due process. What do they need to survive and to live whole lives on the outside versus whether or not they are at risk. A clear goal with visionary aspirations gave us a chance to practice our abolitionist politic in a non-fundamentalist way. Not a tangle of words and theory, but a chance to engage together the question of what do non-reformist reforms to the criminal-legal system look like in practice. We have no illusions about what it will take to keep building out our abolitionist politic, practice and why it is a necessity.
8. When you’re doing something right, the action moves faster than you. Making direct interventions in our local communities created a ripple effect that snowballed the momentum of the action. We were overwhelmed by the energy and response in fundraising, media articles and interviews, and social media shares. But long before the action had such a public presence, we knew we were doing something right based on the response from community. As Ms. Cara McClure from Black Lives Matter Birmingham said “The people in my city were on fire with this and did everything to make this happen. When I first came to speak with the women and told them about the bailout, tears fell from their eyes.” Nearly everyone said YES to not only bail folks out, but also to make tangible impacts in people’s lives. in Atlanta, the women at the bank even offered to print and distribute more flyers. People gave change from the ashtrays in their cars. This action got so big we couldn’t even keep up with it. We met the challenge to keep up by being vulnerable and honest with our imperfections, turning towards each other across the region, and grounding ourselves in the core principles that guided SONG and this action. We understood what it meant when others understood the vision, ran with it, took ownership and moved as they felt called to. This action was not copywritten and did not belong to SONG, it belonged to everyone who put in the work.
9. We can and must be Pro-Black in a multiracial organizing. In this time, multiracial organizing with core Black leadership is so desperately needed. We collectively commit to getting better, stronger, and sharper at how we do it. Across class, race, place, gender, immigrant status, and sexual orientation, people responded resoundingly to the vision and demand of this action. Our Latinx, immigrant, Asian, Arab, Middle Eastern, indigenous, white, and mixed race comrades showed up and came through to get Black mamas free. From shaking down the money tree to giving rides for weeks to blessing us with pans of tamales, everyone had a role. This work asks and requires of us to sharpen how we understand and practice Pro-Black organizing, unapologetically. We challenge ourselves to come with even more courage next time. For those of us that are white, immigrant, and non-Black people of color, we will continue to root out the hesitancy and move from being Pro-Black in our rhetoric and theory to being Pro-Black in our actions. We challenge those of us who are not Black to be willing to be transformed in the service of the work and to not simply do tasks that we are most comfortable doing. We don’t need passive and scared white and non-Black people of color in this movement, we need those who will be bold and unapologetic about advancing a pro-Black agenda and who love Black people more than they hate the state.
10. This is only the start. The wreckage and impact of the criminal legal system on Black families are wrenching at every turn. Our people are in cages, losing their families, jobs, cars, and their peace of mind. The longer our folks are held hostage in the cage, the harder it becomes for our people to survive outside of it. The more we continue to bail our people out, the more we are able to expose the grimey cash bail system and the suckas who are profiting off of our bodies and our suffering. After this action, the possibilities of readying the ground to move into campaigns to end cash money bail are clearer than ever.
If someone has been locked up in your community, let us know via firstname.lastname@example.org. While we can’t make any promises, we want to at least put folks on our radar and connected with any possible resources, bail funds or giving circles in their local area.
Want to get down with the next round of bail outs and take on the heinous practices and policies of money bail in your community? Contact us at email@example.com. Also check out the National Bail Out site, nomoremoneybail.org.
“When Black mamas are taken from our communities and put in cages, we all suffer.”
MARY HOOKS, SONG CO-DIRECTOR
SONG crews and political family across the region bailed out Black mothers across the region this week. Over 3,000 of you have donated to SONG’s Black Mama’s Bail Out Fund in the last three weeks. Thank you! From Little Rock, AR, to Charlottesville, VA, and across the country, hundreds and thousands of our people have put in the work to make this action possible. From fundraising on the street, stuffing gift baskets, countless late night meetings, jail visits, filing open records requests and navigating the dizzying intricacies of local jails you all helped make this vision a reality. When we say our people, we mean Black, Latinx, people of color, undocumented, poor, white, rural and urban and working class LGBTQ folks and allies that exemplify the power and practice of a multiracial, multigenerational kinship network with a solidarity that we call unity to support and follow the vision of Black leadership.
These actions are in honor of the Black mothers, known and unknown, that sacrificed, worked long hours, put themselves last and continue to act as the foundation for their chosen family, loved ones and communities. While Black mothers act beyond measure for our communities, they are often targeted by criminal legal system. This very system attempts to destabilize fabric of all of our communities because it was not meant to protect or represent us.
We were called to collectively welcome home, center and support Black mothers. We joined several organizations nationally to build power and bail Black mothers out of cages. The criminal legal system justifies money bail as a tool to hold individuals accountable. Across identity, money bail is yet another tool used to hold our people hostage simply because they cannot pay bail and inevitably pushing our people deeper into the criminal legal system.
SONG is a political home, kinship network, and family of LGBTQ people. Often the ties that bind us have been and are upheld by the many queer and trans women in our midst. For decades, queer and trans women have been creating our own support systems and chosen family based on survival work, organizing, balls and pageants. As Black queer and transgender women are targeted for simply existing, we have to honor our existence with support by going toe to toe with the very system that targets us. The concept of buying each other’s freedom is not new, but it is a tradition laid out as a pathway from our ancestors. We take up the collective responsibility to free Black mothers to fulfill the mandate set forth by our ancestors to abolish systems of oppression that keep our people in modern day bondage. This pathway created by our ancestors crosses identity as it calls us to reject anti-blackness, anti-immigrant, and homophobic and transphobic sentiments and actions simultaneously. As we collectively buy our freedom, we are also called to collectively build alternatives to policing to protect and defend our communities with the same momentum.
While we bailed out Black Mamas, a bill, SB4, was signed and passed in Texas reflecting the same anti-immigrant rhetoric spewed from this current administration. In the state of Texas, SB4 punishes law enforcement officials who refuse to turn over undocumented immigrants to immigration enforcement. More than often, law enforcement collaborates with ICE to police and detain undocumented folks. This piece of legislation explicitly solidifies law enforcement and ICE collaborations. In this moment, we are simultaneously reminded that our communities are called to act on each other’s behalf. We understand we are taking a shared risk to reap a shared reward, because we have a shared destiny.
We are just getting started. To end money bail and disable the framework of the prison and criminal legal system system it will take everyone playing a role to make it happen. While this endeavor is Black-led and centers Black mothers, we are all tied to this effort. We cannot forget our political and spiritual conviction ties us to act.
Over 100 Black mothers were bailed out across the country. In these cities, SONG members bailed out 41 Black mothers!
Participating SONG solidarity sites provided political education, fundraised and acted as a resource for mothers on the inside.
As we focused on connecting Black mothers with their families in time for Mother’s Day, love and support poured out from across the country. From the mainstream media to organizational newsletters, to SONG members and allies helping to share the donation link, to the twitter town hall we hosted, to the homecoming gatherings across the South, you all showed up for Black Mamas. And for that, we cannot say thank you enough.
Abolition in the Now by Melissa Gira Grant – Pacific Standard
Amid increased police brutality, Black Lives Matter changes tactics by Warren Olney – KCRW
A Black Lives Matter Coalition Is Posting Bail for Dozens of “Black Mamas” This Mother’s Day by Ruth Graham – Slate
Activists Are Bailing Out Incarcerated Black Moms for Mother’s Day by Lily Workneh – Huffington Post
Bailing Out Black Moms this Mother’s Day by Brianna Perry – For Harriet
Black Lives Matter and other groups raise money to bail women out of jail before Mothers Day by Debra Cassens Weiss – ABA Journal
Black Lives Matter to Give Dozens of Jailed Women the Gift of Freedom on Mother’s Day by Tanasia Kenney – Atlanta Black Star
“Black Mamas Bailout” seeks to bring black women home for Mother’s Day by Sheila Poole – AJC.com
‘Black Mama’s Bail Out Day’ Aims to Reunite Incarcerated Women With Their Families by Charlie Shelton and Frank Stasio – WUNC 91.5
Black Activists Are Bailing Moms Out of Jail For Mother’s Day by Cierra Bailey – Carbonate.TV
Black Lives Matter Is Giving The Best Mother’s Day Present To Women In Jail by Joesph Milord – Elite Daily
Black Lives Matter is Bailing Out Women for Mother’s Day by Brandon Patterson – Mother Jones
Black Lives Matter Activists Bail Black Women Out of Jail for Mother’s Day by Monique Judge – The Root
Black Activists Are Paying It Forward By Bringing Home Jailed Mom for Mother’s Day by Stacy-Ann Ellis – VIBE
For Mother’s Day, Activists Are Bailing Black Mamas Out of Jail by Mariame Kaba – Broadly
For Mother’s Day, You Can Donate To Bail Out Moms So They Can See Their Kids by Eillie Anzilotti – Fast Company
Getting Moms Out of Jail for Mother’s Day by Marcus Patrick Ellsworth – MTV
LGBT rights group SONG kicks off rescue mission by Dallas Duncan – Georgia Voice
Local Organizers Join Nationwide Effort to Post Bail for Black Mothers on Mother’s Day by Ryan Pitkin – Creative Loafing Charlotte
Make a difference for Mother’s Day: Mama’s Bail Out Day by Kimm D Lett – Daily Kos
Mother’s Day gift: Get-out-of-jail card for moms by Colin Warren-Hicks – The News & Observer
National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day to free dozens of jailed moms by Mo Barnes – Rolling Out
Resisting mass incarceration by bringing Black women home for Mother’s Day by Rebekah Barber – Facing South
These Groups Are Trying To Bail Black Mothers Out of Jail for Mother’s Day by Mary Lou Lang – The Daily Caller
This Mother’s Day, Black Lives Matter Activist Will Give More Than 30 Women Their Freedom by Dani McClain – The Nation
You Can Bail Out Black Mothers For Mother’s Day by PushBlack
If Mamas Free: Abolitionist Blues for Liberation by Alexis Pauline Gumbs – Bitch Media