A tiny Minnesota nonprofit was caught at the center of an online firestorm Tuesday after left-wing activists and right-wing agitators both attacked a disclosure that the group had so far spent just $200,000 of some $35 million raised for a bail fund.
After three tumultuous weeks, the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a small local bail fund started in 2016, has found itself at the nexus of a massive surge in online fundraising and online misinformation about Black Lives Matter groups. A slew of far-right accounts boosted widespread fears of money stolen from the pockets of black organizers. The number “35 million” started trending. So did “#wheresthemoney.”
There was a simple explanation for the relatively small sum that the Minnesota Freedom Fund had spent on bail so far, said Jared Mollenkof, a board member: The group has had just a few weeks to build out a tiny operation.
Already, the fund has spent twice its typical annual budget. And, the fund says, it has bailed out all of the protesters it could find — every last one.
Groups associated with Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform have been on the receiving end of tens of millions of dollars after the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis last month touched off global protests over police brutality. But a vital influx of money has also come with serious hurdles, as organizations that once survived on shoestring budgets try to figure out how to use the staggering infusion of cash.
Such groups are beginning to feel pressure from new donors — an open letter to two other Minnesota nonprofits, Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective, called for increased transparency about how they would use the millions they had raised after Floyd’s death.
But pressure has also come from another place: Black Lives Matter opponents interested in making their work appear nefarious.
The Minnesota Freedom Fund had just a single paid full-time staffer when it raised nearly 350 times its annual budget almost overnight last month. After celebrities and others boosted it online, the nonprofit was so overwhelmed with donations that it shut them down altogether for several days, urging people to donate elsewhere.
“People think there are protesters we have chosen not to bail out, and that’s simply not the case,” said Mollenkof, who is Black and works as a public defender in Minneapolis.
“We have bailed out anyone and everyone that we’ve been told was arrested in relation to the protests.”
The remaining money will eventually go far beyond protesters and their legal costs, toward bailing out people across the state — “abolishing the cash bail system,” Mollenkof said, which has been the group’s mission since it was founded in 2017. That includes people in immigration detention centers.
But, Mollenkof pleaded, building that kind of operation without losing sight of donors’ intent for the money takes time. The group wants to keep its focus on “direct action,” rather than letting its mission creep into other areas.
“We’re trying to scale up with integrity,” he said.
The internet, however, didn’t want to wait.
The Minnesota Freedom Fund’s tweet Monday night announcing it had spent $200,000 so far spread like wildfire in two directions, said Jacquelyn Mason, an investigative researcher with the fact-checking nonprofit First Draft.
At first, the Minnesota Freedom Fund’s post spread as Black Lives Matter supporters and influencers reacted with concern over how little money had been spent, Mason said. A BuzzFeed story hours earlier had highlighted how an unaffiliated group, the Black Lives Matter Foundation, had siphoned millions of dollars of donations for a mission — “creating unity with the police” — at odds with the goals of the real Black Lives Matter.
Activists noticed that the Minnesota Freedom Fund’s board appeared to be entirely white and that the page showing their names had been quickly removed. And the fund’s statement, which used the phrase “y’all,” looked suspiciously to some like appropriation.
Mollenkof said that page was no longer accurate; four of the group’s seven board members are people of color, including the president, a Black woman. They had deleted the page when they realized it was spreading along with anti-Semitic tropes about board members.
Questions have been raised about the Freedom Fund’s single employee, Tonja Honsey, who an anonymous group alleged was lying about her identity as an Indigenous woman. It’s unclear if Honsey, who denied those allegations to the New York Times, still works with the Fund.
Many of the early viral tweets about the Freedom Fund — including one from an influencer that had garnered more than 50,000 retweets — were deleted.
But the damage had been done. Andy Ngô, Mike Cernovich, Charlie Kirk, and other right-wing voices had begun to amplify the discord.
“They love infighting — it’s gossip,” said Mason, of First Draft.
The uproar over Minnesota Freedom Fund, Mason noted, mingled quickly online with a longstanding conspiracy theory about ActBlue, a Democratic fundraising platform that funnels donations to left-wing candidates and groups.
False claims about ActBlue, which is essentially an intermediary, have caught fire in recent weeks. Candace Owens, a right-wing figure, falsely claimed Democrats “quite literally used #GeorgeFloyd’s death to emergency fundraise” for Joe Biden.
Isi Breen, who lives in Minneapolis and works for a local community nonprofit, Jewish Community Action, woke up Tuesday astonished to find the allegations of misuse spreading about the Minnesota Freedom Fund — a group he’d worked with in the past and found “unimpeachable.”
He began to “beg” people online to stop tweeting about the group — feeding what he saw as right-wing outrage.
“My immediate reaction was like, ‘I know this organization, I think they have two paid staff. Of course they haven’t spent the money yet — there’s no one else to bail out, and they got $35 million,’” Breen said. “It’s been two weeks!”
“What’s important for people to understand is that we did not set out to raise any money, and there was no attempt by us to raise any money at the beginning,” said Mollenkof, the board member. (Earlier this year, BuzzFeed News wrote about Mollenkof as he knocked on hundreds of doors for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.)
“I have no ill will against people that demand accountability when we’ve been entrusted with so much money,” Mollenkof said. “That’s appropriate, and I’d even say necessary. But I think there’s a fair distinction to be made between that and people who are agitating without a full picture of who we are and what our goals are.”