This Conversation with Arissa appears in the newest print volume of Gossamer, but we’ve decided to run it online ahead of schedule to help spotlight the incredible work she and her organization do—now and all the time. To pre-order Volume Five, go here. We are continuing to donate 5% of all sales to non-profit bailout groups all across the country, as well as organizations dedicated to dismantling systemic racism as we know it. If you’d like to donate directly, we recommend National Bail Out, Fair Fight, and Black Visions Collective, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can suggest others.
Life started on Long Island. I am the granddaughter of black migrants in the south who came up from South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia in the ’60s. Both of my parents are born and raised New Yorkers. Family is really important to me, and I try to be really intentional in building and maintaining relationships with them. But I also have family outside of blood based in deep friendship.
I always say that I was born on Long Island, but I was raised in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is where I would go and hang out as a teenager, and where I came into myself and my being. It’s where I first experienced the diversity of Blackness, and where I first came into my queerness. Brooklyn very much raised me.
Brooklyn is also where I first started community organizing, when I cofounded Sunset Park Cop Watch with some friends in the neighborhood. It was during the time after Trayvon Martin and the killing of Eric Garner, so there was a lot of political unrest and a lot of attention paid to gratuitous violence and brutality by police officers on Black folks. I was working in Harlem at an affordable housing development called Broadway Housing Communities, thinking about gentrification, cultivated spaces, and what it means to be able to live and sustain yourself in New York City as Black and Latinx people. And not have to pay most of your salary to do that.
My friend and I were living together in Sunset Park, which is a predominantly Asian and Latinx community, and we recognized that we were newcomers to that neighborhood. We were asking ourselves, “What does that mean? What is our position as Black folks new to the neighborhood?” But also thinking about how we could be useful in the communities where we were laying our heads.
I was already coming into my own political identity at the time, and my friend was dating this guy who was an organizer and had a relationship with Cop Watch of New York City. We started doing study groups, and he invited me to a Know Your Rights training. They suggested we start a Cop Watch in Sunset Park, and so we did.
We got together with other like-minded folks from the community and we started patrolling the streets, watching cops, and watching how they interacted with people in the neighborhood. We’d tell folks, “If you have a police interaction, this is how you can engage or choose not to engage with them, and how you can document what that looks like, etc.” It’s harm reduction, right? Especially for Black and Latinx communities, for whom the police are constantly a threat. We know that harm is inevitable most of the time, but how can we reduce that harm with the knowledge that we have?
I’m the great-granddaughter of a sharecropper. He passed away when he was around 105 years old and I was in my early 20s. We were very close. His father was an ex-slave whose name was Friday because he was born on a Friday. So growing up, I had a very keen awareness of Blackness, of Black struggle and resilience, and also of the ways in which Black folk have been oppressed. Just from being in the deep South with my family, coming from a lineage of sharecroppers and slaves, and not being disconnected from that. It was not a far-off idea. Most people talk about slavery like it was a long, long time ago. And it’s like, “Oh, no. My grandad’s father was enslaved.” It was very real and tangible.
I didn’t start college until I was 20, so I had the opportunity to work and learn and understand what I really wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be a doctor—I actually studied biology. But I switched to studying humanities with a concentration in Africana studies because I wanted to continue to learn and be vigorous in my knowledge about the ways in which our people have lived and survived and died. I started witnessing more and more police violence, more and more oppression, more and more resilience, and more and more organizing.
Most people talk about slavery like it was a long, long time ago. And it’s like, “Oh, no. My grandad’s father was a slave.”
I’ve always been interested in shifting and changing things, even if it wasn’t specifically around Black liberation. I had a blood transfusion as a baby, so I’ve always been an avid blood donor. And I was told that Black folks don’t usually have that much access to blood or give that much blood even though we need it, especially with diseases we’re most impacted by, like sickle cell. I was like, Oh, we need to be doing it, we need to be donating blood. So I organized a blood drive in our community.
Being able to identify a problem and also identify or create a solution, I think that’s just always been a thing of mine. I’ve always been someone who has stood up for what I believe. I’m also a Libra; that might be part of it.
In January of 2017, I was working with bail funds across the country to skill up and politicize themselves. I got invited to a meeting for people organizing or interested in organizing around money bail held by the Movement for Black Lives Policy Table and Color of Change. There were maybe 20 organizations from all across the U.S. in that room. I was also pregnant at the time—like months pregnant.
I’ve always been someone who has stood up for what I believe. I’m also a Libra; that might be part of it.
I tend to say things like, “What can we do together that we cannot do ourselves?” and someone suggested doing an organized bailout specifically for Black mamas. Because the travesty about bail is that it works so differently depending on where you are. And because part of my work was researching and understanding bail practices in different jurisdictions across the country, I was considered an expert there. So when someone said we should bail out Black mamas, there was a resounding yes, but I was like, how? And somebody said, “Oh, Arissa, you can take the lead because you do this, right?”
I said, “To my knowledge and in my understanding of recent history, no one has done a mass bailout at the same time across the country before.” So I was tasked with figuring out what we needed to know, what the questions were that the organizations involved needed to answer to be able to do this, how we were going to raise the money, and how feasible it was.
It was through answering those questions and trying to figure out the nuts and bolts that it actually came together. We realized we needed to be a collective. We needed to fundraise constantly and recognize that we have a big organization. It wasn’t going to be through the national foundations that we know, but instead it was going to be deeply rooted in local organizing. It was going to be a collective that is for and by local organizations doing this work. And that was the birth of the National Bail Out collective.
When a Black mama or caregiver is inside of a cage, the whole family is impacted.
What we do is bail out Black mamas and caregivers in time for Mother’s Day so they can be home with their families and communities. And we decided to focus on Black mamas and caregivers because we know that Black people and women are the fastest growing population of incarcerated people in the U.S., but that’s not a narrative that is often told. Usually, we only talk about social justice, criminal justice, and the legal system as a very masculine matter. We talk a lot about Black men, whom we know are also overrepresented, but we don’t really talk about the impact on Black women. We know that Black mamas and caregivers are the holders of our community. When a Black mama or caregiver is inside of a cage, the whole family is impacted. If they are in a cage, the family is going to pay the price for it.
We really wanted to uplift the narrative of how the incarceration of Black women and Black femmes impacts our communities, especially as Black feminists. And even when they aren’t incarcerated—and it’s Black men or a masculine person who’s in a cage—the person who’s usually holding it down and taking care of the family is a Black woman. So they are continuously impacted by incarceration in various ways.
We also wanted to organize it around a “holiday,” and we know that the Hallmark holiday of Mother’s Day is something that is widely celebrated. But also we know that when we talk about Mother’s Day, it’s not ours. We have a very narrow view of mothers, generally, and it doesn’t usually include Black mamas and mamas who are incarcerated and mamas sitting on the margins. We have a very hetereonormative and white view of which moms need to be celebrated and amplified and given their flowers and cards on that day. We wanted to change that narrative and show that Black folks mother in different ways, and we were really intentional in making sure that when we spoke about mamas and caregivers that we are not only speaking about biological mamas, but that we are talking about aunties and grandmamas and house mothers and all the mamas in our community.
We have a very narrow view of mothers, generally, and it doesn’t usually include Black mamas and mamas who are incarcerated and mamas sitting on the margins.
Most of us really believe that the system itself is rotten and needs to be transformed, and that we need to build new things so we can live brighter lives. We recognize that this is a tactic, but we need that money now because one of the main drivers of incarceration—outside of racist policies, obviously—is being held in detention. Money bail is usually what determines whether or not you’re going to spend time in a cage.
Our impact has been deep and wide. Most of the over $2,000,000 that we’ve raised to date has come from people, not from foundations or grants. It’s come from everyday people saying yes. Every single day people say, “I’ve got five on it. I’ve got a dollar on it.” It’s literally people saying, “This is something that I’m committed to.” It’s been a joy of Mama’s Day to be able to change people’s material condition so quickly. From being inside of a cage, to out of a cage.
For most of the people that we bail out, we also provide support. That’s housing, transportation, childcare, and food. Anything from helping them obtain jobs to emotional and spiritual support. We recognize that as essential. People have needs, right? Needs that have been created by the state and created by society.
We started a fellowship to engage and develop the leadership of those whom we bail out, which has been beautiful. And a lot of folks that have been in our fellowship have then gone on to bail out other mamas. It’s a big family. It’s been really, really beautiful to witness.
We’re trying to plug into the talent and resources that folks have to share. Folks may have retreat spaces that they can lend, folks who want to help organize a homecoming for mamas we bail out. Or if you have things to give our people, our organizers. We’ve been thinking a lot about self-care and recognizing that this space is burdensome at times. It’s traumatizing, not only for our mamas, but for our organizers as well. So if your organization can donate things to help, anything from a spa day to tampons, anything for them to feel cared for and loved on, get in touch with us.
This can be really heavy work. It’s a constant struggle because it’s always like, “How can I stop?” Especially because my work is my community at this point. It’s beautiful, but it’s also daunting, to be honest, because my friends are my comrades and we do this together. How can we shut off? How do we shut off when these are our people and they are separated? I recognize that my liberation is connected to others. It’s very difficult, but I’m in a continuous practice to try to push through that and to find things to ease my mind.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Arissa Hall photographed by Daveed Baptiste at her home in New York. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies.