These women are disproportionately penalized by the system.
Mary Hooks (L), Kate Shapiro (R). Photo by Torraine Walker
The first woman released from the Fulton County Jail on a hot afternoon had a wide smile as she was guided to a table set up at a small, shaded rest area near the entrance. She was greeted with hugs, given a brown bag lunch and bottled water, then invited to sit and eat while “Fight the Power” and “Freedom” played on loudspeakers. Later, she was given a transit card and a ride to a nearby station by a volunteer.
Over the course of the afternoon, more and more women emerged from the jail and received the same treatment. They all had similar stories: They had been arrested for petty offenses like trespassing, loitering, and urban camping. They were all unable to make bail. And they were all black.
The action was part of the Black Mamas Bail Out, an initiative started by several groups including Black Lives Matter, Color of Change, and Southerners On New Ground (SONG) to bail out black mothers in time for Mother’s Day weekend, women who the groups feel are disproportionately penalized by the system of cash bail.
“We talk about what it means to organize not from a place of anger all the time, although we have every reason to be,” said Mary Hooks, codirector of SONG. “We wanted to embody our vision of liberation without wading through long policy fights. There are tangible things we can do right now to change the material conditions of our peoples’ lives and we explored the issues around cash money bail: what it means for people to have to sit in cages because they can't afford to pay. We moved in the spirit of our ancestors who used the tradition of buying each other’s freedom and we thought, Why not try it?”
In lower-income black families, women are often the sole provider. The poverty rate for African-American single mother headed households is 39.9 percent, and the effects of an arrest and extended jail stay can be devastating on these families.
“People are losing their jobs, people are losing their children, people are losing their homes, simply because they can't post bail.” said Kate Shapiro, SONG membership director. “There are other policies that would eliminate some of the real human costs of incarceration. It's a bleeding point in a broken system.”
The move to end cash bail has gained recent victories. In January, the New Orleans city council voted to end cash bail for minor offenses, and a similar measure is due to be voted on in Houston.
“Unfortunately in Fulton County, the bond process can take a while,” said Mawuli Davis, an attorney with Davis Bozeman Law of Atlanta. “First they have to identify the bond amount, you have to then provide that amount, and then they have to be processed out through Fulton County’s system. We have had it take up to 24 hours before someone has gotten out.”
Davis’ firm trains attorneys and activists to work with marginalized communities.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]When black mothers are in cages, everybody suffers.[/quote]
“In our practice we have found that people miss support systems,” Davis said. “They’re out here feeling alone, and when you can show someone that somebody cares about them, I believe it will increase the likelihood of them getting out and staying out.”
One freed mother mentioned that when she was arrested, her children were struggling to find money to bail her out because her family would always come together for Mother’s Day. She told them not to worry, because her “sisters outside” would take care of her.
“It's also an opportunity for us to expand what we mean when we talk about black mamas,” said Hooks. “We’re not just talking about those who gave birth. It’s those who mother the queer and trans folks in the ball and club scene. It’s the transgender women. It’s church mothers, it’s the mothers on the street holding down young people who don't have anyone else. So it's not just about blood family, it's about chosen family. When black mothers are in cages, everybody suffers.”