Civic Engagement

Anatomy of Boots on the Ground: Bailing Out BLM Protesters in Lincoln, NE

A few weeks ago, over 60 people were arrested for “Failure to Obey Order of the Mayor” and “Failure to Disperse” in Lincoln, Nebraska over the course of two nights of BLM protests (May 31st-June 2nd) . Charges differed by the night they were arrested, for no apparent reason, but fines were set at $1,000 for both charges, or $100 bail if the judge required it. The first night, all were arrested for curfew violations based on the Mayor’s curfew, which was 8pm. The second night, people were arrested later in the night as part of a sweep intended to arrest folks who threw rocks at boarded up windows at Target (which caused no damage).

At the time, there was no organization in Lincoln to provide bail funds. While Omaha had a designated bail fund through Nebraskan Left Coalition (NLC) where bail funds could be reimbursed upon receipts, there was no similar organizing group in Lincoln. Unverified word on the street suggested that NLC might cover bail funds in Lincoln, but we learned quickly that their bail fund account through Paypal was frozen, and so we were left without a way to get funds directly to the people on the ground bailing out people in Lincoln. This doesn’t mean there weren’t people on the ground bailing folks out, it just means they were using their own personal funds with no guarantee they would be reimbursed.

I was alerted to this gap in funding on the morning June 1st, and I was asked if I knew of local orgs to fill the gap. I searched and saw nothing, and at that point, Seeing Red Nebraska began Paypal bail fund in order to reimburse activists on the ground ASAP for bailing all the activists out. What we knew was there were people with cash who would be able to help, and we had the organization to help reimburse Lincoln folks who were spending their own money to do it. I personally felt compelled to help because I had received so much support in my own activist legal expenses that I wanted to help pay forward that support by organizing bail and court fees for other BLM activists in Lincoln.

What I learned quickly was that Natalie Weiss and Michael Marcheck, along with others, were at the jail bailing activists out in the late evening and early in the morning across the 3 days. Court happened at 9am but it took hours to process all the activists. I also learned that local lawyer John Cartier was on the frontlines representing activists whose families had called him based on a facebook post offering pro bono support. For those activists, John represented them via video conferencing, he was unable to speak to them beforehand. None of the activists spoke to a lawyer before their hearing. Some “chose” to plead guilty without any representation. I am unaware of the Nebraska ACLU supporting activists in any way during these three days, which was surprising.

These activists spent the night in jail for minor, non-violent, misdemeanor violations where they were potentially exposed to COVID-19, even though nothing they did was a crime against anyone except the mayor’s curfew. In fact, there were also other people who were cited for breaking the curfew who were never thrown in jail.

I was in awe of these folks, boots on the ground, who were organizing, representing peaceful protesters, and who never gave a moment’s thought to donating their whole day and their own savings to making sure BLM protesters had representation and had bail money to get out.

On my part, I just heard there was a need, went to Lincoln/Lancaster County website and created a spreadsheet of all potential protesters arrested during the two nights of curfew. Then, I created a Paypal money pool which we promoted on our blog, Seeing Red Nebraska, and we raised almost $6,000 in just a few days. We were worried at the time about stepping on toes or duplicating efforts of other local orgs. After we got started raising money and distributing funds to boots on the ground, we realized there was a GoFundMe set up by the Alinea Coalition, a group of activists who are undergraduate students in Lincoln. We reached out to them and learned that due to the restrictions of the GoFundMe site, they would not have access to funds to reimburse activists bailing people for another couple of weeks. They worked with local orgs to make sure that the money they raised went to the Black Leaders Movement in Lincoln. But in the meantime, in less than 24 hours, we were able to crowdsource bail funds over $5,000 through Paypal money pool, and to transfer those funds directly to the activists bailing people out on the same day. This resulted in quick reimbursement to local activists at the jails, and the spreadsheet helped us to make sure we weren’t duplicating efforts or paying more than we needed.

Lessons Learned

There were some lessons learned: much like the Nebraska Left Coalition, once we exceeded $5,000 in transfers, our Paypal account was frozen. Because most bails in Lincoln were around $100, we were able to bail out approximately 50 activists. In Omaha, arrestees were required $250 bail, so they reached their max before funds were frozen much sooner, and for fewer activists than in Lincoln.

There was no alert email that Paypal thought there was fraud the way you would expect from a bank. There was no phone call. Suddenly they simply disabled transfers and shut down the account for 48-72 hours with no recourse or appeal. It was not possible to reach a real person to unfreeze the accounts, and it took a lot of time to even get information about unfreezing the accounts from their bots. If you ever can’t suddenly transfer funds over $5,000 in Paypal or Venmo, do not just keep trying (like I did). Stop. The more you try, the more harm you do based on the algorithms supposedly established to catch money laundering, but also seem perfectly designed to track and stop grassroots bail fundraising. Once you have waited 48 hours, then talk to a bot and they will reset you and go from there.

Moving Forward

There are no local organizations currently in Lincoln able to deploy quickly (within 12-24 hours) to support local protesters arrested for nonviolent/misdemeanor crimes. We are unaware of any efforts from the ACLU or any other organization to quickly protect and defend peaceful protesters who happen to be arrested. There are no current bail funds for future actions that we are aware of that will help arrested, peaceful protesters. We relied on the good will of many individual actors scurrying to help, and that will be the case in the future if local organizations don’t do something soon to fill this gap in need.

Here is what we do know: there are individual activists in Lincoln across a number of local orgs who have been targeted in the past who show up and fight for people arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights. Generally, they are folks like myself and Natalie Weiss and Michael Marcheck and John Cartier who use the skills we have cultivated in this political climate to serve others who are targeted and arrested for their political beliefs. None of us need a thank you, but we hope our experience in these times can help inform organizational efforts to better support activists in Lincoln. We want future activists and powerful local political orgs to help to quickly leverage access to legal advice and funds so activists can fully exercise their rights to assemble and to free speech without spending days in jail, hours in court, and money in fees.