The Fight Against Cash Bail Is Officially Mainstream

Two weeks ago, Google announced that it would no longer allow bail bond providers to advertise on their platform. The company pointed out that the $2 billion bail bond industry profits off “communities of color and low-income neighborhoods when they are at their most vulnerable,” and said its decision will help protect users from “deceptive or harmful products.”

Google credited an odd arrangement of organizations for helping them with the decision, including the Essie Justice Group, a collective of women seeking to end mass incarceration, and Koch Industries, a multinational conglomerate run by the richest oil tycoons in the country.

Facebook announced later that day that it would also ban bail bond ads, but that the details were “still being worked out.”

Aside from predictable backlash from bail bond providers, the joint decision has been relatively uncontroversial. The bail bond industry is, truthfully, about as scummy as it gets. Bail bondsmen require clients who can’t afford bail to pay a non-refundable portion of the bail they owe (usually about 10 percent), and even after they meet all their court appearances and the money is returned, the clients get nothing back—and they’re often charged loan fees that accrue after their case is resolved, pushing them further into debt. The practice is so despised that the United States and the Philippines are the only two countries in the world that even allow for-profit bail businesses to exist.

It’s not yet clear how effective blocking these ads will be. However, Google and Facebook’s decision is significant not for the effect it’ll have, but for what it represents: The movement to end cash bail has built enough momentum to get two of the largest companies in the world on its side. Behind the tech giants’ decision is an army of grassroots groups leading local movements to end bail—and their weird, cutting-edge, creative methods of gaining popular support.

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One of the most persistent myths about America’s justice system is that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. In practice, the opposite is true: Defendants are assumed guilty, jailed, and only released before trial if they can afford to pay their bail.

Around 70 percent of the more than 700,000 prisoners in America’s jails have not been convicted of a crime. Most are in jail because they can’t afford to pay for their freedom, and they weren’t lucky enough to be released on “recognizance,” or without bail. In New York, only 1 in 10 defendants can afford to pay bail at arraignment. The rest are forced to await their trial behind bars, which can sometimes last years.

Defendants are assumed guilty, jailed, and only released before trial if they can afford to pay their bail

Even just one or two days in jail can have life-altering consequences. Ezra Ritchin, director of operations at The Bail Project and the former director of the Bronx Freedom Fund, an organization that pays bail for New Yorkers who can’t afford it, says, “A lot of the things you see in our justice system happen in those first few days.” If people don’t show up for work the next day, they could lose their job. If they’re homeless and don’t sign in for a shelter, they could lose their housing—and if just one family member doesn’t sign in because they’re in jail, their whole family could be living on the street. The first few days are also when people are most likely to die in jail, including by suicide, and it’s when inmates are most likely to be the victim of physical and sexual abuse.

Prosecutors use the threat of jail to force people into accepting plea deals, even if they’re innocent. More than 90 percent of New Yorkers who can’t afford bail will end up pleading guilty, even if they didn’t commit a crime, simply because they want to go home.

“You’re sitting in jail, and you’re told that if you maintain your innocence, then you have to stay in jail and wait it out,” explains Ritchin. “But if you plead guilty, you get to go home to your family and your community.”

Like all instruments of mass incarceration, bail takes the heaviest toll on black and brown communities. Black people are already much more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts for the same crime—up to 15 times more likely for certain low-level offenses like marijuana possession. They’re also less likely to be able to afford to pay for their freedom. The median bail for felony convictions is around $10,000, which is more than what most black women who can’t pay their bail made in the entire year before they were incarcerated. But even smaller bonds for misdemeanors are out of reach for most defendants: A 2012 report found that even when bail was set below $500, a majority of New York City defendants—almost 90 percent of whom are black or Hispanic—couldn’t afford it.

The Bronx Freedom Fund started out of the Bronx Defender’s Office in 2007, where public defenders witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of a system that incarcerates people for not having enough money. The Freedom Fund pays bail for people accused of misdemeanors so they can stay in their communities while they stand trial. In 2017, the fund bailed out almost 1,000 people, and more than 50 percent of them had their cases dismissed entirely.

Now, a growing number of people are recognizing the power of bail funds to directly fight against systemic racism. Ritchin says that a large part of the Freedom Fund’s donations come from people who “read some articles, see the website, and are looking to make a direct contribution to the fight against mass incarceration.”

“One really beautiful thing about a bail fund,” says Ritchin, “is that you get to say, ‘I’m interested in pushing back against mass incarceration, and now there’s one less person who’s sitting in jail.’” And bail fund money is revolving, so once someone meets all their court dates—as 96 percent of the Freedom Fund’s clients do—the money is returned and can be used to bail out someone else.

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Aside from Koch Industries and the Essie Justice Group, Google also credited another organization for influencing its decision to block bail bond ads: Color of Change. Color of Change is the country’s largest online racial justice organization, and a major partner of National Bail Out, a collective of black organizers working to end pretrial detention and mass incarceration. Last year, Color of Change worked with National Bail Out to raise money for Black Mama’s Bail Out Day, a campaign to bail out incarcerated mothers on Mother’s Day.

“Our ultimate goal is to end money bail,” said Clarice McCants, Color of Change’s criminal justice campaign director.

Last year, National Bail Out bailed out more than 120 mothers for Mother’s Day. This year, they bailed out mothers in 16 cities, saying “We will bail out mama’s in all of our varieties. Queer, trans, young, elder, and immigrant.”

National Bail Out has paid more than $600,000 in bail to a network of dozens of community bail funds that includes the Bronx Freedom Fund. As this network has grown in recent years, so, too has its methods of collecting donations. One of National Bail Out’s largest sources of funding is Appolition, an app that allows people to donate spare change from credit card purchases to help end mass incarceration. In its first five months, Appolition raised $130,000.

Another funding source that has sprung out of this movement is Bail Bloc, an app that runs in the background of your computer, mines cryptocurrency, sells it, and donates the funds to Bronx Freedom Fund.

“The system is unjust enough that it requires organizations to be attacking it from every angle”

“Bail is a form of currency mining,” explains Maya Binyam, editor at The New Inquiry and one of Bail Bloc’s co-leaders. She says that cryptocurrency mining bears a “rhetorical relation” to bail. “The state incarcerates people before they’ve been convicted of anything and then forces them to pay for their own release. Bail Bloc allows you to offer your computer as the target for that mining in their stead.”

The app uses about as much energy as running a YouTube video. If you have it open during business hours from Monday to Friday, it’ll up your electricity bill a few dollars per month, and generate roughly an equivalent amount of the cryptocurrency Monero—essentially shifting the burden of the donation from you to whoever pays for the electricity that you’re using.

On Christmas day, after three months of mining from roughly 1,000 daily users, Bail Bloc donated $3,333.77 to the Freedom Fund.

“We want this technology to be available to people who don’t have $100 to donate to a bail fund, but nevertheless use electricity at the institutions they move through—schools or gentrifying coffee shops,” explains Binyam. This is one of her favorite parts of the project. “I worked at a day job where I was one of the only people of color, and there were a bunch of racist people in the office. And I just downloaded it on a bunch of work computers, and it felt kind of like a good ‘fuck you.’”

The most common critique they’ve heard is that there are more efficient ways to donate toward ending mass incarceration than mining Monero—which Binyam sees as positive.  “Instead of saying, ‘Why are we donating money toward bail?’ people are saying, ‘There’s way more efficient ways to donate money toward bail,’” she says. “Which is kind of amazing.”

Binyam says that Bail Bloc was designed to court public opinion and lift up the work of activists leading the fight against cash bail, like National Bail Out and the Bronx Freedom Fund. Grayson Earl, one of the creators of Bail Bloc, says he was also inspired by Black Mama’s Bail Out—a common refrain in these types of movements. One campaign will inspire another, which inspires would-be organizers to start their own community group, then artists and techno-utopians add their own ironic twist, and pretty soon the movement has become so massive and culturally relevant that Google, Facebook, and Koch Industries are trying to get a piece of it.

“The system is unjust enough that it requires organizations to be attacking it from every angle,” says Ritchin. There may be plenty of groups that have joined the fight against mass incarceration, he says, “but there’s even more groups jailing people.”



Ohio Is Hoarding Money Meant for Poor Families

Last September, a bipartisan coalition of approximately 70 mayors across 13 counties in Appalachian Ohio had an idea: With so many people thrown off cash assistance (TANF) by the state in recent years, the coalition said that the Kasich administration was now sitting on more than $500 million in unused funds from the program’s block grant. So they requested $12 million to help their constituents, some of the poorest in Ohio: $8 million to prevent water shutoffs, and $4 million to purchase essential items like diapers, feminine hygiene products, first aid supplies, and over-the-counter medications.

“We’re just trying to make sure our constituents have the safe water and essential products in their homes that are needed for the health and safety of their families,” said Gary Goosman, Mayor of the village of Amesville, population 180, and president of the Mayors’ Partnership for Progress. “The state has more than enough resources to get this done.”

Since 2011, TANF caseloads in Ohio have been cut nearly in half, from 99,000 to 53,000 households. The drop isn’t because people are faring better, but largely due to the program’s inflexible work requirement that many struggle to meet when they can’t work, lack needed transportation to get to a job, or can’t get enough hours at the jobs they do have.

As a result, for every 100 families with children in poverty in the state, only about 22 now receive cash assistance—down from 29 in 2013, and 89 prior to bipartisan “welfare reform” in 1996. There are now many more children in Ohio living in households with zero cash income than there are children in families receiving cash assistance. (The Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services declined to provide an exact figure.) This is a problem nationwide, as evident in the rise in the number of households living on less than $2 per person, per day: from 636,000 in 1996 to nearly 1.5 million in 2011. Over the same period, the number of children in the United States living in $2-a-day poverty also doubled, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million.

Goosman said that this drain in assistance is having a significant effect on the local economies of many rural communities in Ohio. In the mayors’ region alone, there is now at least $50 million less annually in cash assistance and SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) benefits compared with 2011. The average SNAP benefit is just $1.40 per person, per meal—and, like TANF, the program has strict work requirements for certain recipients.

“An entire town can be impacted by the amount of money residents have to spend on groceries, or medications, or transportation. People are living closer to the edge,” said Goosman.

And yet, seven months after the mayors’ request, the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services (JFS) would only tell the coalition repeatedly that its proposal remained under consideration.

Finally, on May 4, JFS notified the mayors via email: In September—one year after its initial request—the coalition will receive $500,000 from the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) toward water bill assistance. In all, the grant will provide 2,450 households with a one-time payment of $200 “to ensure service will be maintained for a minimum of 30 days.” This seems a drop in the bucket in a state where 22 percent of neighborhoods have residents who are currently unable to cover their monthly water bill. The average water-sewer rate in Ohio in 2016 was $1,289 annually, which helps explain why the mayors were looking for individual payments of $500 to qualifying families living below 150 percent of the federal poverty line and a total of $8 million toward assistance. There was also no mention of the mayors’ $4 million funding request in support of the purchase of essential household items for cash-poor families.

JFS provided the bipartisan mayors group with no explanation as to how it reached its figure, or why the funds would be drawn from those already earmarked for cash-strapped community action agencies that provide local services like housing assistance, job training, energy assistance, child care, transportation, and more.

“It was a surprise,” said Goosman. “While we appreciate this funding and it will help us get a pilot program going, we weren’t asking for $500,000 from CSBG, we were asking for $12 million out of $570 million in unspent TANF funds.”

A lot of our child care facilities won’t even be able to afford the quality improvements the state is mandating

A spokesperson for JFS confirmed that there are indeed now $570.7 million in unused TANF funds. However, he said that those monies are committed to increased funding for child care facilities that are able to meet the state’s new quality standards in the future. But the mayors’ towns might not benefit from those funds either.

“In our region, a lot of our child care facilities won’t even be able to afford the quality improvements the state is mandating, so they will shut down,” said Jack Frech, an Americorps VISTA volunteer with the coalition who retired after 33 years as director of the Athens County Department of Jobs and Family Services. “So the TANF money intended for our poor and working-class families will instead go to facilities primarily serving wealthier kids.” (JFS declined to comment.)

It is also notable that a recent Congressional appropriation included an 80 percent increase in discretionary child care funding—enough that one might think the state need not force its mayors to choose between water now and child care in the future.

The bipartisan group of mayors met last week to discuss next steps. “We voted unanimously: We’re happy to have the $500,000 but we’re still requesting the $12 million from the state,” said Goosman.



First Person

I’m a Programmer in a Tech Mecca. I Still Have to Deliver Food to Make Rent.

10:45 a.m.

I wake up—I think I must have missed my alarm, or snoozed it too many times. I grab my phone to check the time. It’s late. I snap out of bed in a rush and curse myself for sleeping in.

I usually work as a freelance software engineer. Today, I’m a bike messenger. Thanks to a surprise layoff, I have to scramble to pay my rent and bills next month. For the last four days, I’ve worked 12 hours a day on my bike to hit an average of 18 deliveries a day. If I can do 20 more before midnight, I’ll earn a total of $1,100—just enough to tread water until my next gig pays out.

I still check my email compulsively to keep up with messages from the new client I just started working for. I can’t send them an invoice until the end of the month, and I won’t get the money until two weeks later. I need money now so I can afford to work, so I bike.

I had fantasies this week of getting up early, getting in a few hours of programming, working the rush hours for bike deliveries, and programming more in the lull between lunch and dinner. My body didn’t cooperate—it takes the entire day to do the number of deliveries I need, and it turns out I need recovery time after 12 hours of cycling up hills and in rush-hour traffic.

There’s part of me that knows this is a stupid situation. Everyone knows you should have three months of savings before you start freelancing, you should never depend on just one client, you should never treat a contracting gig like a full-time job no matter how much your client might want you to, and so on. But sometimes you make sacrifices. Sometimes you don’t want to just follow the money—you want to work on something you actually feel good about. You want fulfillment, and to feel like you’re making a real impact instead of just lining someone else’s pockets.

That’s why I went into debt to keep working on a project I really believed in, for a client who had trouble paying their bills on time, and who insisted that I treat the work as if it were my full-time job—even though the position didn’t come with benefits, legal protections, or even my usual rate for freelance work.

Sometimes it feels like it’s my fault for sticking around; like it’s my fault for expecting something as luxurious as “fulfillment” from my work. For people like me, first-generation college graduates without intergenerational wealth to insulate them from risk-taking, asking for “fulfillment” is being greedy.

I think about what it would take for me to become OK with giving up my dreams, and if that might make me happier.


11:12 a.m.

The rush hour alarm goes off. No time for contemplation now. Regardless of how I got into this, the only thing that matters now is paying the rent. Planning the next step can come later.

I get dressed in the same wool jersey and leggings I’ve been wearing for four days. I haven’t managed to do my laundry, either.


11:25 a.m.

I’m brushing my teeth when my first delivery notification goes off. I accept it without looking. I don’t know how the dispatch algorithm assigns work, and I worry that being too picky about which orders I take will reduce the total number I get. I can’t afford to be picky—20 deliveries is a lot, even on a good day. I rush out of my house and take off down the road.

I didn’t have time to stretch. All the muscles in my legs scream at me up that first hill. There’s nothing to do but keep pushing.


12:05 p.m.

I have time after the first delivery to grab a cup of coffee and a muffin for breakfast. I’m scrolling through Twitter on my phone—the big news today is at the Google I/O developer conference, where Google is announcing some fresh dystopian horror: a new tool that enables busy professionals to use robots with convincing human voices to take on the drudgery of interacting with service industry employees.

The job I’m doing right now isn’t all that different. I’m a buffer between the different castes in our economy: My deliveries bring people restaurant-quality food in their homes, without having to ever interact with an actual restaurant worker. This is supposed to be “innovation.” This is supposed to make people’s lives easier.

I think about inventions that are legitimately making my life easier today. This cafe has little plastic splash guards, so that when I inevitably have to take this coffee on the road with me, it won’t get all over my clothes. This is innovation.

I’ve just barely taken the first sip of my coffee when another delivery notification comes up. Thank God for splash guards.


12:34 p.m.

2/20 finished, now waiting for a restaurant to finish preparing my third of the day.

I examine the new EBT card in my wallet. I got up early yesterday morning before starting deliveries to go to the San Francisco Human Services Agency to sign up for MediCal (California’s version of Medicaid), and, while I was at it, CalFresh (California’s SNAP, or food stamps).

I haven’t seen a doctor in over two years. When I started freelancing full time in 2017, I was told that since I didn’t have any income yet, I qualified for Medicaid. By the time I tried to use my benefits, I was working part-time and earned too much to qualify. Because I had never actually “activated” my Medicaid benefits, losing Medicaid eligibility was not a “qualifying life event” enabling me to sign up for individual insurance. Or so I was told over the phone. I haven’t read the law.

So I waited. By the time open enrollment rolled around in 2017, I was working for a new client 40 hours a week, who assured me they would start regularly paying my invoices in full by mid-December. I signed up for health insurance, but mid-December came and went, my bills came due, and my invoices still weren’t paid. My client advanced me enough money to pay off the debt I’d incurred by working for them without pay, but not enough to pay my new insurance bill. My health insurance was withdrawn. I was told over the phone, basically, “better luck next year.”

My rent in San Francisco is $1,400 a month. The MediCal eligibility cutoff is $1,366 a month.

My invoices weren’t paid in full until April of this year. When I demanded a new contract with penalties for late payment of my invoices, I was told my services were no longer required.

It was bad news, but it gave me an opening—if I could claim zero income and get on MediCal, I might have a chance to get on Covered California (California’s health insurance exchange) before the end of the year. But it wouldn’t be easy. My rent in San Francisco is $1,400 a month. The MediCal eligibility cutoff is $1,366 a month. I asked my caseworker whether that meant I would make myself ineligible by earning enough to pay my rent, and she said, exasperated, “yes.”

That leaves me with a very short window of time to qualify for Medicaid, report myself for disqualification (or be accused of fraud), then take evidence of my disqualification to Covered California, which is, of course, managed by a separate agency.

The fact that I have to do any of this just to obtain the privilege of paying for health insurance is madness. A program like Medicare for All, without all the means-testing busywork, would smooth this out and make life many times easier for all the people stuck waiting in line at the county benefits office.

While I’m musing about this, I realize my order’s been up on the counter for a few minutes. I glare at the guy at the counter and he sheepishly brings it over to me. “How long has this been done?” I snap at him. “I’m working here.” I exit the restaurant, fuming, and take off down the road.


1:41 p.m.

Finished delivery 4/20. Grateful the customer ordered a drink in a bottle instead of from the fountain. People love having fountain drinks in flimsy plastic cups delivered by bicycle, but nobody thinks about how it’s done.


1:50 p.m.

I get in an argument with the manager of a restaurant that won’t accept orders from my delivery company.

“It’s not our problem,” the manager says. “We told them to take us off their website but they haven’t done it yet.”

I’m pissed. This restaurant was way out of my way in a less busy part of town.

“You know I don’t get paid for my time when you don’t take my orders, right?” I say, raising my voice. “You know that people like me are the ones you’re hurting, right?”

“I’m sorry sir, take it up with—”

Look at me,” I say, getting a little out of hand. “I’m the one you’re screwing here, not the delivery company. Think about who gets hurt when you do this shit.” I slam the door behind me and hate-bike away, back up the hill I just came from.


2:15 p.m.

As I’m riding to my next delivery I realize that if I finish 20 today, I’m already going to be cutting it close on my Medicaid eligibility. I’m going to have to get into the technical weeds on how to make the transition to individual insurance if I want coverage this year.

Delivery 5/20 is ready, and now instead of thinking about how to pull off the sleight-of-hand I need to go to the doctor, I’m thinking about how to transport this expensive, delicately plated avocado toast, through potholes and up and down 45-degree inclines to its destination at … an art school.

I am literally living one of those grouchy articles about #millennials. It doesn’t matter. I need the money. I pad my delivery bag carefully and take off.


3:00 p.m.

It’s a beautiful day out and my face hurts from scowling so much. I’m mad at everyone, my legs hurt, I’ve been sweating all day, and the orders won’t stop coming. I was hoping to take a break around now but I know I can’t afford it—I’m currently at 7/20. I can’t stop thinking about my bad interactions with restaurant workers today. I feel like I made a huge mistake.


4:05 p.m.

9/20 now. It’s been unusually busy. The wind has been at my back all day. So why am I so pissed off? I decide to turn off the delivery app and take my first real break since breakfast.

I read somewhere that drinking beer doesn’t really give you the kinds of carbs that you need for a long bike ride, but I’ve decided whoever wrote that is a liar. I order a beer and try to collect my thoughts.

One of the reasons doing this work is so jarring is because, when I was working in Startupland as an engineer, I was the one being served. Everything in this city was arranged for my comfort and convenience.

Now that I’m the one doing the serving, everything is different. Managers want me to stand in a different part of the restaurant. The doorman is suspicious of me by default. Everyone can afford to make me wait. I am part of the invisible support network, increasingly orchestrated by unaccountable algorithms.

This support network, this comfort machinery, is noisy, messy, ugly and dangerous. Everyone is hustling for every single dollar. You can measure your payout by the sweat on your back.

This is what startup founders like to make believe their lives are like. They’re not.

In Startupland, almost everyone is white and aged 21 to 45. The hours are long, but the pay is good and basic needs aren’t a concern. In service industry land, everyone speaks with a different accent, almost nobody is white and ages range from 16 to 70-something. Retirement isn’t an option, and making rent isn’t a given.

I know I’m just a tourist in service industry land. The last time I worked full-time in a restaurant was before college, and I don’t plan on going back. I’m never going to be as hard as the lifetime bicycle couriers, like all the cool kids that hang out at that one statue plaza along Market Street. The least I can do is remember that we have more in common with each other than any of us do with the people we’re serving, and act accordingly.

I am part of the invisible support network, increasingly orchestrated by unaccountable algorithms.

I finish my beer and go back online. My first order comes up almost immediately. I take a deep breath—I’m probably not getting another break until I finish for the night.


5:02 p.m.

A huge percentage of this job is delivering fast food hamburgers to the top floors of luxury apartment towers that are located within walking distance from world-class dining.


5:30 p.m.

I got another break, but now I’m getting nervous. It’s been an unusually long lull.


6:00 p.m.

Still nothing. This is supposed to be rush hour.


6:20 p.m.

Got another delivery, but I had to order from the restaurant and they’re taking their time. I try to remember that they’re doing their best. I go outside and look at the map on my app. It’s flooded with orders everywhere, but it’s slow for me. I worry that I’ve somehow angered The Algorithm. Maybe I jostled the garnish on the avocado toast too hard earlier and got a bad rating. I hope not. The next two hours are going to make or break my night.


6:24 p.m.

My order is finished, and as I’m riding away the little chime in my headphones lets me know my next delivery is already scheduled. Deliverance! The Algorithm smiles on me.


6:48 p.m.

13/20. There’s nothing worse than looking at your destination and seeing words like “Alta” or “Terrace” or “Heights.” Every time I deliver to the top of a hill, the customer always lives at the top floor of an old walkup and wants their food delivered to their door.


7:07 p.m.

The Algorithm stacked two massive orders on top of each other, so they both have to be carried in the same bag. “Doesn’t fit” isn’t a cancellation option, so I have to get creative with my delivery bag.

Thankfully, I’m in a part of town where everyone loves having food delivered to their houses from 4 blocks away. The decadence is irritating, but I can’t be mad about it right now.


7:49 p.m.

Another stacked delivery, another restaurant absolutely slammed with takeout orders they can’t get out fast enough. There’s a guy sitting behind me who’s picking up dinner for himself, puffing his chest up, getting ready to throw a fit about his order being late. I’m not happy either, but I’m keeping a lid on it. They get my order out first. I thank them and rush out the door.


8:06 p.m.

Two deliveries to damn near around the corner from the restaurant. God bless these people and their excess disposable income.


8:15 p.m.

Four deliveries right on top of each other, and now, nothing. The dinner rush is almost over. I need three more deliveries. I’m losing it. What have I done now to offend The Algorithm?


8:16 p.m.

18/20. Frozen yogurt delivery, straight up a hill. The fog rolled in an hour ago and it’s cold and drizzly, but sure, great time for frozen yogurt.


8:45 p.m.

19/20. Somebody ordered a single piece of garlic bread for $3.99 and paid me at least $5 to deliver it. Up six flights of stairs.


9:18 p.m.

20/20 COMPLETE! They were a model customer—met me outside the door of their luxury apartment tower instead of making me fight with the security guard, and offered me a cash tip.

Cash tips are strictly forbidden by lots of gig economy platforms, in part because keeping total control over the entire transaction makes it easier to discipline workers. If I depend on the app for my payout, I only serve one master, and if there’s a conflict between what the app wants and what the customer wants, the app wins.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter. I’ve paid cash for app-based rides before, and I tip in cash. But obviously I would never accept a cash tip in violation of the terms of service.


9:26 p.m.

I didn’t turn the app off quickly enough after I finished my last order, so I have one more to finish the night. It’s a single order of bubble tea from a brand new shop, on a gnarly stretch of 6th street just south of Market.

As I’m locking up my bike, somebody calls out to me: “Hey white boy, you all fucked up, right?” I look up and see an angry white guy, a little younger than me, aggressively walking toward me. “I said you’re all fucked up, right?”

I have no idea what he’s even asking me or what he wants. He gets six inches from my face. He’s glaring at me like he’s mad, or wants something from me. I can’t tell if this guy is high, or fucking with me, or what. I finish locking my bike and rush into the restaurant. I half expect him to run up behind me and attack me.

I’m a little shaken up. The bubble tea guy doesn’t say anything, but the guy who was yelling at me is still standing next to my bike. I’m trying to keep an eye on him.

My order comes up. I don’t see the guy out the door, but part of me assumes he’s around the corner. I step outside—he’s not there. I check my bike tires to see if he slashed them or something. They’re fine. I’m OK for now.

I strap my bag down and head south toward Mission Bay, the city’s fakest and least accessible neighborhood. All the buildings and roads are brand new—so new that Google Maps routes you to dead ends. I’ve been on this same road, an isolated stretch under several freeway overpasses, dozens of times this week. But this time, it’s unsettling. I’d never considered myself vulnerable on my bike until just now.


9:54 p.m.

I finish the delivery—naturally, on an upper floor of a luxury apartment building. I walk outside to my bike and lean against it. It’s a little early—I only had to work 10 hours today, better than the average of 12 hours it usually takes.

I get back on my bike and head toward my favorite dive bar. I get an hour or two to celebrate paying my rent. Tomorrow, I’m a software engineer again. I’m working with economists studying the behavior of consumers who are subject to major income shocks, and separately, working on open source software for Medicare and Medicaid provider screening. Fucking kismet.

I’m going to be busy trying to hit those deadlines. So busy I might even have to order delivery.



The Cost of Drug Testing Is Making It Harder for Poor People to Afford Treatment

When Laura Keck was pulled over for turning without a signal in Boulder, Colorado, her blood alcohol content was .08, just over the legal limit. She was a new grad student, still adjusting to the demanding schedule of academia. For the next two years, that would also include urinalysis tests up to six times per week as a result of her DUI charge—with out-of-pocket costs every time.

Across the United States, people are mandated to take drug tests for a variety of reasons, ranging from employment, to drug treatment, to probation. While employers and insurance companies typically cover these fees, court-ordered tests are often at the expense of the individual. The costs vary widely, and can result in hundreds of dollars of fees depending on type and location. For urine and saliva tests, costs run $25 to $80—though one facility in West Palm Beach, Florida is reported to charge as much as $2,300 for a urinalysis. Hair tests range from about $100 to $150 each. Regular breathalyzer tests are usually only a few dollars, but ignition interlock devices—the breathalyzer tests some people are required to install in their cars after getting a DUI—range from about $50 to $100 per month. As for how often individuals have to pay, it is entirely up to the courts. Most people are tested once or twice a week—or even just a few times a month, depending on the severity of the offense—but as Keck discovered, that number can go up drastically.

As part of her probation sentence, Keck was required to attend a Mothers Against Drunk Driving seminar but was given no formal treatment for alcoholism. The most demanding mandate was, by far, her drug tests. As she put it, “Basically all I had to do for a solid year was drug testing … There was no follow-up. They didn’t care if I was actually getting clean.”

Average urine tests can’t detect alcohol, so Keck was instructed to take an ethyl glucuronide urine test. Today these tests generally cost around $25 a piece, with some testing centers charging $75 to $100, but Keck was lucky—she only had to pay around $12 to $15 per test in 2012. It was the frequency of the tests that hit her pocketbook the most. Working as a waitress while also paying for living expenses, textbooks, and other school-related costs, Keck says she got by, but just barely.

Like many college students, Keck liked to drink with her friends. She says she was able to recognize that she was a problem drinker, but without any evidence-based treatment offered as part of her probation, she didn’t have much motivation or help discontinuing use. Instead of actually ceasing her drinking, she researched ways to get around the test. She discovered that if she drank about 10 cups of water before providing the sample, she could dilute her urine to the point that alcohol metabolites would be undetectable.

Instead of actually ceasing her drinking, she researched ways to get around the test

“I kept getting false negatives because I kept having diluted pee,” Keck admits. “Because of the false negatives I started having to go three to four times a week.” By the end of her probation she was required to test six days a week, costing her close to $100 weekly in drug testing fees alone. That doesn’t account for transportation costs or other probation fees, like the cost of classes and a mandatory donation to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Some might say it was Keck’s own fault that she had to test so much. After all, if she simply quit drinking, she could have passed without raising suspicions. But addiction is defined by the inability to stop despite negative consequences. It makes sense that someone faced with a penalty but no treatment would have difficulty discontinuing use.

“I’m not drinking and driving,” she says. “I don’t want to deal with that anymore. So at least that aspect worked out, I guess.” Nevertheless, she admits to nursing a hangover during the interview. Maybe there’s one less drunk driver on the streets—certainly a good thing—but it seems Keck’s money could have been better spent in a treatment program that provides real help for her problem drinking.

It’s not just people who “cheat the system” who are paying exorbitant costs. Kenny Ernst was placed on probation in Palm Beach County, Florida for one year in 2016 on a petty theft charge. He traded five years in prison and a felony larceny charge for the year of probation, which is a common trade-off among people who accept plea deals instead of going to trial. But unlike prison, probation shifts the financial burden of the sentence from the government to the probationer—and drug testing fees are no small part of that burden.

There are currently 3.7 million people on probation in the United States and 840,000 on parole. Arrest rates are already considerably higher for people of color and low-income individuals, especially for drug-related offenses. Because probation is often offered as part of a plea bargain, low-income offenders who can’t afford private lawyers or trial costs are more likely to become caught up in this financially demanding system.

Ernst, who studied photojournalism in college before becoming addicted to heroin, says he was stealing to fuel his addiction, which was in full swing when he was arrested. Opioid addiction is notoriously difficult to kick; in Ernst’s case this was one of many relapses during his long struggle for sobriety. Unlike Keck, Ernst entered a recovery program and managed to kick his habit in order to genuinely pass his drug tests. Unfortunately, the probation fees prevented him from enjoying the financial benefits that should accompany the cessation of an expensive drug habit.

“I paid 50 dollars a visit [to my probation officer],” he says, “and 25 whenever I had to be drug tested.” Probation drug tests are random, so Ernst essentially had to be ready with $75 at all times, just in case. He says he had to take up to three tests per month, in addition to regular probation visits.

In response to the question of whether probation helped his recovery, Ernst said “absolutely not.” “If anything, it made you want to use more. Imagine the pressure. Bills are hard enough to cover, then I have to go in and pay for a drug test.” He describes days when he would have $100 set aside for groceries, until he got the call that he needed to come in for a test. Suddenly that $100 was reduced to $25.

If someone doesn’t have the money for the drug test, probation officers get to decide whether or not to “violate” someone, which could lead to incarceration. The single time Ernst didn’t have the money for his test, his probation officer let him off the hook until he was able to borrow the $25. But that was a choice; if his probation officer had been in a bad mood or simply didn’t like him, Ernst could have been sent to jail or prison.

It’s supposed to be illegal to incarcerate people for being unable to pay debts, but court-ordered fees like probation and drug testing open the doors for exactly that. Human Rights Watch has published several reports following the stories of low-income people involved in probation who have experienced consequences like homelessness and imprisonment due to the cost demands of these programs.

Ernst and Keck were relatively lucky. Their finances were consumed by drug testing and other related fees, but they were able to pay. What about those who aren’t? Some judges will waive fees when clients can prove they are indigent, but again, that’s the judge’s choice. For many who are caught up in a substance use disorder, the difference between freedom and incarceration is little more than dollars and chance.



The New Poor People’s Campaign Wants to Change How We Think About Poverty

Yesterday, at a moment when people in poverty are facing unprecedented attacks on their basic living standards, a new Poor People’s Campaign launched.

It is reminiscent of the campaign Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began developing in 1967, five months prior to his assassination. King made his intention clear in his last sermon: “We are coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses … We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty.”

More than 50 years later, the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is coming to Washington. But it will be taking action in 39 states across the country, too. The first phase will be 40 days of direct actions, teach-ins, cultural events, and more.  The campaign will then transition into voter registration and mobilization.

Many people are familiar with campaign co-chair Reverend Dr. William Barber II, through his leadership of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina. Less well known is his co-chair, the Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis. Theoharis is the co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice.  She has worked as an organizer with people in poverty for the past two decades, collaborating with groups like the National Union of the Homeless, the National Welfare Rights Union, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

I spoke with Rev. Theoharis about how poverty is viewed in America, the contours of the campaign, the role of the media, and what organizers hope to achieve in the first 40 days and beyond. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Greg Kaufmann: Is this campaign trying to tell a different story about poverty in America?

Rev. Liz Theoharis: Yes; we are showing the deep reality of poverty where there are 140 million people who are poor or low-income in this country—where poverty affects close to half the U.S. population. It affects people across all races, nationalities, ethnicities, geographies, genders, sexualities, ages, and religions.

[We need] to break through the current narrative in our society. That narrative is one that blames poor people for their poverty, pits us against each other, and claims that there’s scarcity when we’re really living in a society and world of abundance. We are going to do a sustained season of organizing [for 40 days]; it’s both to connect up, and wake people up, and say that you’re not alone and there is a movement to join—and also to shift the narrative in our country right now.

Poverty affects close to half the U.S. population

And what does that narrative shift look like? What is a more authentic narrative?

I think what needs to happen first is for people to deal with the reality of the injustices that are happening, and the intersections of those injustices in people’s lives. And to see that coming out of deep pain and suffering are people who have a set of demands and a program of resolutions to the problems in their communities: we need single payer universal healthcare, we need full voting rights, we need decent housing for everyone, we need education that is equitable for our kids, we need higher education that’s free and available to anyone that wants it.

The story that we want to get out there is that right now there are 140 million people who are poor or low-income—that’s 43.5 percent of the population. So we’re not talking about some little group of people over there, and there is no small bandaid to fix it. We need a national discussion and national action in terms of policies that will lift people out of poverty, curb systemic racism, shift our war economy to a peace economy, and save the planet and everything living in it.

Have you run into any resistance to the word “poor?” In terms of people with low-incomes not wanting to identify as “poor,” or a feeling that it’s the wrong frame for a broad-based movement?  

It hasn’t been an issue among poor people who are calling for this campaign. But sometimes progressive religious folks, or people associated with colleges and universities worry about this. Our response is that the idea of a Poor People’s Campaign and a National Call for a Moral Revival is coming from poor people ourselves. Also, there is a rich history in terms of poor people organizing across color lines in the ’68 Campaign, and in other moments in U.S. history.

If we go back to our sacred texts and traditions—the bible is a form of mass media that talks more about uplifting the poor than any other topic. This 40 to 50 year attack on poor people, of blaming poor people for their and everyone’s problems—how you counter that isn’t by throwing out the word poor, or only talking about the middle class, only talking about economic insecurity, without naming the reality that almost half the population in the United States is experiencing.

A big part of this campaign is about people hearing their names and hearing their condition and coming forward and saying, “This doesn’t have to be and I’m going to stand up with other people and fight for justice.” If you look at our demands, some of them are about broadening our understanding of who is poor and why people are poor. Because right now in part due to how the media has portrayed poor people, a lot of times there is shame and blame associated with it. But as one of the steering committee leaders said, “I don’t feel ashamed that I’m poor—I grew up in the poorest census district in the country. I think our society should feel ashamed about the kind of deep poverty that exists and I had to live through.”

The Poor People’s Campaign intentionally didn’t reach out to national organizations until late in the organizing effort.  Can you talk about the reasons for that?

We believe this campaign is only going to be successful if it is a deep and wide organizing drive of poor people, of moral leaders, of all people of conscience, who think that these issues are a problem. And it has to come from the bottom-up. And so we really started with grassroots leaders who had been doing work for a long time in their communities, or had just emerged because certain struggles were happening in their communities so they stepped forward to respond. We built very diverse coordinating committees in 39 states. It really is being led by people who are most impacted.

After we launched officially on December 4, 2017, national organizations came forward wanting to endorse. We have more than 100 now—and it’s a meaningful endorsement. We see national not as doing work in D.C. or having a P.O. Box in D.C., but as nationalizing state-based movements.

‘I don’t feel ashamed that I’m poor ... I think our society should feel ashamed about the kind of deep poverty that exists and I had to live through.’

Can you walk us through the launch and the 40-day season of organizing?

Sunday we had a Mass Meeting—Rev. Barber and I led it—and some local D.C. folks were involved, and we livestreamed it nationally.  We’ll have these Mass Meetings on Sundays weekly. For 40 days, [direct] actions will continue to be on Mondays. On Tuesdays we’ll livestream teach-ins, on Thursdays we’ll nationally broadcast cultural events, and on [weekends] we’re in houses of worship and places of worship, where people will focus on weekly themes and get people involved. On June 23, we’ll launch the next stage in terms of people coming to D.C. for a massive mobilization and then going back to their homes to do organizing that is connected to voter registration and voter mobilization and education.

What can you tell me about what today—this first day of direct action—looks like ideally?

We will head from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church to the U.S. Capitol for a call to action, where leaders from different struggles around the country will have a chance to speak to why we’re building the campaign and what they campaign is calling for.  Then Rev. Barber and I will explain how the action will take place, and then throughout the afternoon people will have a chance to continue to make connections with others that are there. So the actions are happening at the U.S. Capitol and then simultaneously happening in more than 30 states.

What do you do to sustain the movement beyond these 40 days of action?

This is why the coordinating committees in the states have been set up for months now. The committees have connected with teams of lawyers, with teams that do non-violent direct action training, they’ve been doing a political education process amongst their own leadership so that folks understand not just how to do this but why we’re doing this and what is going to be needed for the long haul. And also identifying cultural leaders, and singers, and songwriters—components for what a state-based movement of people across all the different lines that divide us need in order to be successful.

Will the campaign be addressing some of the legislative fights going on right now—such as the proposed SNAP cuts and additional work requirements in the Farm Bill, Medicaid work requirements, and other issues that impact people’s basic needs?

We have posted a preliminary agenda and demands on the website, and they are a mix of federal and state policies. Some of them are reactive to current fights that are going on—from not cutting SNAP, not cutting [heating assistance], not having these work requirements. But then there are things that are more proactive—like single-payer universal health care, and automatic voter registration at the age of 18. So we are trying to be relevant and connected to the current fights that the people in this campaign are having to fight. Like currently in Michigan there is a water crisis, so if there is anything that can help people immediately, we have to take up that fight. But we also have to not just react—to put out visionary and necessary demands that would translate into making everybody’s lives better.

While the heart of the campaign is clearly consistent with Dr. King’s Poor People’s campaign—in looking at poverty, ecological destruction, militarism, and systemic racism—are there some key differences as well?

Yes. What Dr. King was talking about was bringing 3,000 of the poorest citizens from about 10 communities across the country to Washington, D.C. and staying there until people’s demands were met. It’s really important for us not to just have people come to D.C. but have people doing actions and organizing in their states. Also, we called for this 40 days, so we’re not staying until everything is met.

We’re doing something historic—historians have told us that there’s never been this kind of direct action at state capitols in a coordinated way for a sustained period of time.  And we’ve never had so many people go into the U.S. Capitol and engage in non-violent direct action, and then keep on returning. So, it’s not a one-off mobilization.

Dr. King called for a Poor People’s Campaign in December of ’67, and was killed in April of ’68.  The first meeting of the 25 different organizations and leaders—Native Americans, white Appalachians, Latino folks—it was two, maybe three weeks before King was killed.  So we also hope that we have more time to keep building these bonds across lines that divide us—especially race, geography, issue, gender and sexuality—and that we can mature in terms of a movement. 

The campaign is very clear that it is non-partisan—that the problems and solutions are not the domain of any single party.  That said, have you had conservatives turn out and participate?

Yes. Of the more than 1,000 people who have been engaged in the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina and gotten arrested, more than 11 percent of those folks were registered, active Republicans. In some of the homeless organizing and welfare rights organizing I come out of, we’ve had people from all kind of political beliefs who are impacted by poverty come forward and play leadership roles. And we’ve definitely experienced that in communities where Trump won by a lot, or where Mitch McConnell has dominated politics forever, people in those communities are saying, “We need this.  These issues have been going on for far too long, and people are being impacted, and dying because they don’t have healthcare.” It isn’t just uniting progressive people but instead uniting people around what’s right and wrong.

Anything I’ve not asked you about that you want people to know heading into May 14?

It’s really important to see the grassroots nature of this work and pay attention to the leaders in the more than 30 states across the country and in the District of Columbia who wake up every day thinking, “How do we build a poor people’s campaign?  How do we pull off a moral revival in this nation?” People like those in Lowndes County, Alabama who have raw sewage in their yards, and in El Paso, Texas who get four minutes—once every 15 years—to hug their relative in the Rio Grande. Or folks living in Grays Harbor, Washington in a homeless encampment of predominantly poor, white millennials.

Out of those struggles people are uniting and organizing and calling for real systemic change. It reminds me of this quote from Dr. King, when he said: “The poor of this nation live in a cruelly unjust society. If they could be helped to take action together they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.” And I think this new and unsettling force of poor people across race, geography, religion, gender, and sexuality—are rising in this non-violent army. I think something big is happening, and we need everyone to be a part of it.

Author’s note: To get involved, go to the website and sign up to connect with coordinating committee leaders in your state. Or check out the interactive map of where actions are taking place.

This interview was originally published on TheNation.com.