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Eastern Iowa nonprofit raises over $175,000 to pay protesters' bails

'We don't want to reproduce the existing unfairness'

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In Iowa City and beyond, racial justice protesters have written a phone number on their arms and painted the nine digits on poster board and car windows, just in case.

On the other end of the line is a volunteer for the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project, a nonprofit that in a matter of days raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay bail for arrested protesters in Iowa.

The fund hasn’t paid bail for the few arrested protesters in Iowa City or Cedar Rapids, as most were released on their own promise to return for court, project organizer Julia Zalenski said. However, the organization has doled out $47,000 to pay for 61 arrested protesters’ release from jails across Iowa in the group’s efforts to help people who don’t have the funds to pay to be released and support continuing Black Lives Matter protests.

The funds raised reflect a nationwide movement to donate to bail funds and organizations that offer masks, food, water and legal advice for Black Lives Matter protesters. The Minnesota Freedom Fund raised $20 million in four days as Minneapolis protests swelled and some clashes with law enforcement ended in arrests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer.

A groundswell of small-dollar donations padded the Eastern Iowa fund’s $175,000 raised in its “Free the Protesters” campaign, Zalenski said.

Only seven people were arrested between May 30 and June 9 in connection to or nearby Iowa City protests, which have drawn thousands of people, according to Iowa City data. In an email, Sgt. Brad Kunkel, public information officer for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, said five people had been arrested in connection to the Iowa City protests since June 1. In Johnson and Linn counties, jail officials have taken steps to reduce the number of inmates to stop the spread of COVID-19, including directing officers to reconsider arrests.

The bond project was created in 2017 after President Donald Trump’s election to fund bail for immigrant detainees. Since the group had the process and knowledge in place, Zalenski said organizers turned their energy to raising funds for future arrested protesters.

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Bail — or a bond arranged through a professional bail bondsman — is money or property that’s forfeited to the court if an accused person doesn’t appear for trial. Like a loan to the court, it’s returned if the person makes his or her court appearances.

Zalenski said that system stacks the cards against those who can’t afford to pay.

“When you pay a bond, you’re not getting someone out who would never have gotten out otherwise; you’re getting someone out who would get out if they were wealthier,” she said.

She said the organization has seen arrested protester bails ranging from $2,000 for criminal mischief to property damage at a felony level at $5,000. Simple misdemeanor bail amounts are set lower, typically $300, she said. Bail for an assault on an officer charge could be around $1,500 to $2,000, she said.

Due to the amount the group raised, it hasn’t set stipulations on which charges for which it would pay bail.

“We don’t want to reproduce the existing unfairness where a white protester does something that’s not perceived as assaultive behavior and a black protester does the exact same thing and it is perceived as assaultive behavior,” she said.

She said a core group of about six volunteers will wait for a call or text with a location and name, most often from protest organizers or leaders. Then they coordinate how much money is needed and identify someone who can pay the bail — which sometimes means a volunteer has to drive hours to the county where the person is being held.

Although most protesters’ charges are eventually dropped, Zalenski said fronting the cost to remove people from jail could reduce their risk of spreading COVID-19 in close-quartered spaces.

“It’s just double, triple, extra important to get people out right now, regardless of what they’re charged with,” Zalenski said.

Comments: (319) 398-8370; sarah.watson@thegazette.com

 

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