A prevailing critique of most online activism—the sort of work that gets maligned as “clicktivism”—is that it is apathetic. It’s too easy to retweet #BlackLivesMatter, add a name to a Change.org petition, or share the latest spectacle of structural violence. None of these acts are inherently instances of political apathy. Just because you do some easy online activism doesn’t mean you’re not also committed to the hard work of social change. But there’s no doubt that the mode, ease, and pace of so-called clicktivist engagement is ripe for producing the sort of political activity that is low stakes, fleeting, easily forgotten, and readily ignored.
This is exactly what The New Inquiry, an online journal of criticism, is relying on to get people out of jail.
Last week, the magazine—where I have contributed essays and worked as an editor at large in the past—launched Bail Bloc, a computer application that allows you to raise money to pay the bail funds of low-income individuals while you do absolutely nothing. Bail Bloc is running on my laptop as I type (as are nine other open tabs, two messaging apps, and a British cult film quietly torrenting). Aside from a tiny icon in my screen’s upper-right corner, I can’t notice Bail Bloc at all. Slacktivism par excellence. But that’s the idea: to get thousands of users running Bail Bloc in the background of their digital lives. The tool does all the work and its success is not predicated on you caring to do any more than download and run an app.
Bail Bloc is a cryptocurrency “mining” tool, which means it utilizes your computer’s unused processing power to, as The New Inquiry explained, mine “a popular cryptocurrency called Monero, which is secure, private, and untraceable.” The publication will then exchange the cryptocurrency for US dollars at the end of each month and donate all proceeds to the Bronx Freedom Fund, a nonprofit that has bailed out more than 1,200 people over the last 10 years and has recently launched a national bail-fund network.
There’s a knowing irony to a project premised on using “fake” money to challenge a system that runs on money that doesn’t exist. Cryptocurrency is not government-fiat currency like the dollar, but it has real currency exchange value. The bail system in its current iteration relies on hundreds of thousands of individuals’ not having the money that the court asks for: It is an operation by which low-income individuals are fed into the mass-incarceration machine, because they can’t afford a few hundred dollars. Bail gives the lie to the right to a fair trial. As the Bronx Freedom Fund highlights, 96 percent of their clients who had bail posted returned for all their court dates. Meanwhile, 90 percent of people who cannot pay bail end up pleading guilty under the coercive weight of detention. Currently, the US prison system is holding over 450,000 people in pretrial detention, not yet tried or convicted of a crime.