New York musicians and activists join brother of Kalief Browder in support of Let My People Go campaign to save incarcerated NYers from COVID-19.

NEW YORK CITY, April 10, 2020 – Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Never Again Action, New Sanctuary Coalition, and the New York Immigrant Freedom Fund joined forces to launch the Let My People Go campaign, to bail people out of jail and immigration detention, and demand that Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio free jailed and detained New Yorkers. We are also supporting COVID Bail Out NYC.

With the support of over 50 grassroots fundraisers, 2400 donors, and 20 synagogues and Jewish organizations, the Let My People Go campaign has raised over $250,000 and helped free New Yorkers from jails and ICE detention across three states. “Through Let My People Go, the New York Immigrant Freedom Fund has bonded out [35 people]. Almost all were bonded out of facilities where COVID-19 is rampant. Many of the people we got out had serious health issues like asthma and diabetes, or were over 60, and others urgently needed to get out to care for family members. For example, a man who we bonded out of Hudson last week got out just in time to see his father, who is dying of COVID-19 and on a ventilator, said Lee Wang, Director of the New York Immigrant Freedom Fund. A spokesperson for the community-led COVID Bail Out NYC effort confirmed that as of today, they had bailed out 70 people from New York jails, and raised $416,805, with the Let My People Go campaign helping to raise awareness and direct donors to their critical work.

With COVID-19 sweeping through incarcerated populations, more than fifty-thousand people imprisoned across New York State are helplessly awaiting a possible death sentence because of a virus they cannot escape. Just in time for the first night of Passover, nine musicians and over thirty singers came together to raise awareness and raise money to bail out our most vulnerable imprisoned neighbors. “We did not know when the video was released that it would explode on social media and get [74,700] Twitter and Facebook views, and [almost 3000] YouTube views in just a few days,” says Audrey Sasson, Executive Director of Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, “That might be a slow day for Beyoncé, but for us, that’s extraordinary."

Video links here:




Reacting quickly to the metastasizing crisis in our jails and ICE facilities, the team of professional artists, singers, activists, and ordinary New Yorkers wrote, recorded, and edited the video in exactly one week, despite the unorthodox constraints of social distancing and quarantine. Using phones, laptop cameras, and whatever recording devices they had at home, they reimagined the famous spiritual, Go Down, Moses, creating something that is at once deeply rooted in the histories of the Jewish and Black communities, and also fresh and unexpected. The ensemble of artists included Black Jews and other Jews of Color, professional singers and passionate amateurs, and people from every background — all united in outrage over the government’s indifference to the lives of incarcerated New Yorkers. "Themes of freedom are central to the Passover story and we know that many members of our community are outraged at the ongoing conditions in the prisons and jails during this deadly pandemic. Clearly the video is resonating as a powerful call to action — we’ve had TV stars, legal luminaries, and hundreds of ordinary people “like” and share our video,” said Sasson.

Instrumental to the effort was activist Akeem Browder, brother of Kalief Browder. Kalief died after spending years in Rikers because, as Mr. Browder states in the video, their family “couldn't afford bail, and the system thought he was disposable.” Last week, Raymond Rivera became the first inmate to die of COVID-19 at Rikers Island, and like Kalief, he died a tragically pointless death, imprisoned over a technical parole violation. Like Kalief Browder, he shouldn’t have been in jail at all. In the video, Akeem Browder reminds us that, “These are our brothers, our aunts, our neighbors, and none of them are disposable.” As of Wednesday morning, 441 Correction Department employees and 287 incarcerated New Yorkers had tested positive for COVID-19, and Rikers Island has the highest Coronavirus infection rate in the world.

The Let My People Go video includes disturbing clips from a video statement that was secreted out of an ICE detention facility in Louisiana. According to The Intercept, a group of women at the private prison “used the detention center’s ‘video visitation’ technology, using tablets provided by the detention center, to talk about their fears of contagion at the facility.” ICE detainees in Newark, Hudson County, Louisiana, and elsewhere are on hunger strike, demanding protection from COVID-19 using the only tool they have available — their own bodies. As of this January, the Trump administration continued to force-feed striking detainees, a practice considered tantamount to torture, and condemned by the World Medical Association, the American Medical Association, the Red Cross, and doctors everywhere.

On April 8th, the first night of Passover, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah published an op-ed reiterating our call to release ICE detainees during this unprecedented pandemic. Rabbi Kleinbaum writes, “As Jews, we are well acquainted with this country’s capacity for xenophobia. Scorn for peoples of color and later arrivals to American shores are nothing new to this nation, and the detention of immigrants and asylum seekers has always been a gross injustice. But with COVID-19 spreading, keeping people penned up while the rest of the country is urged to maintain “social distancing” is nothing short of inhumane.”

On March 17th, more than fifty organizations, including Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, called on Mayor de Blasio to suspend Broken Windows policing and arrests for low-level offenses to avoid further exacerbating the situation at Rikers Island and other jails, however the Mayor and police department remain lethally intransigent.


“Every day the first thing I do when I get up is look at the sky and thank God. Every day. For being free.” — “D” is 45 years old and she was in detention for 22 days until we paid her $10,000 bond.
“They gave us face masks, the normal ones, and gloves, if we needed to see our lawyers. But not much else changed. The beds are all bunk beds, about 60 in a big hall. We do the cleaning ourselves, in shifts, four bunk beds at a time, like that between all of us. They put up a sign warning about the virus, explaining the symptoms. The official kept telling us that we had to wash our hands well. They didn’t move the beds — they’re still close together. The bathroom, the eating area — all that stayed the same. I don’t know what they do for the guards, and I wonder, what are they bringing in, or what happens when they leave… Right now, I am so, so, so, so very grateful to be out, with my family again, to see them smile.” — After a routine traffic stop, J was held in a Pennsylvania ICE detention facility instead of at home with his sister and mother, who has Alzheimer’s and other serious health conditions. J recently returned home to them in New York City after we paid his $15,000 bond. ICE admits that dozens of people in their custody have COVID-19 — and we know that number is actually much higher--yet they refuse to release people. Social distancing is impossible in detention.
“As a Jew who longs every Passover for our community to live up to its highest values, and as a Black person, deeply concerned with our racist jail and immigration systems, creating this video — with my community — was a very moving experience. For many Black Jews, “Go Down, Moses” is a complicated, sometimes exhausting Passover tradition. Listening to white Jews sing this song, which comes out of the Black community, even when they often aren’t standing up for People of Color in their everyday lives — that can be painful and angering. So for me, and I think for some of the other Jews of Color in the video, this project was healing — an opportunity to reclaim the song, on our own terms, directly in service of saving lives. Plus, most of the time my role as a community organizer has me on the phone, digging through a spreadsheet, or shouting something on the steps of City Hall. So getting to use my background in music to advance this call to action was such a privilege.” — Leo Ferguson, Movement Building Organizer, Jews For Racial & Economic Justice.
“During the past month, the baseline dangerous conditions of ICE detention have turned acutely life-threatening due to the COVID-19 crisis. Yet, ICE’s response has been wholly inadequate. It’s more important than ever that we free people and reunite them with their families during this difficult and scary time while we continue to demand ICE take responsibility and free people from detention. The chorus of voices singing 'Let My People Go' illustrates how a community can come together to celebrate freedom and demand that our immigrant neighbors be freed. In addition to freeing as many people as we can as quickly as possible, the supportive emergency assistance we provide individuals after we pay their bond is also extremely important, especially when immigrants have been shut out from federal stimulus packages and resources like housing and medical care are critically limited.” — said Lee Wang, Director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund's New York Immigrant Freedom Fund program.
“COVID Bail Out NYC is a volunteer-led collective of individuals and organizations committed to bailing out as many people from NYC jails as possible. The facilities on Rikers Island and elsewhere in the city are not equipped to adequately protect our incarcerated neighbors from contracting the deadly virus; it is up to us as a community to get as many people out of harm’s way before the damage is done. JFREJ’s video is an urgent call to action and a reminder that we must continue to fight for our neighbors’ freedom until every one of them is out of custody and away from the life-threatening conditions in city jails.” — COVID Bail Out NYC
“It was a joy and an honor to collaborate with so many stellar artists and organizers and bring this project together on a short time-frame. Before this crisis struck I wouldn’t have believed you could coordinate nine musicians and over thirty vocalists using Zoom and cell phone videos, and create something beautiful and meaningful. I got to experience firsthand the ways that our Passover traditions are resilient and adaptable and continue to call us to do justice. I think many of us are hungry for ways to connect, to reinvent our work in this moment, and to be of use in a time where it's easy to feel helpless. If our voices and our music can contribute to freeing people right now whose lives are in danger, then it is our duty to so and it becomes that much more clear how vital art is in times of upheaval.” — Emma Alabaster, musician, co-organizer, and lead songwriter for the Let My People Go video
“My brother Kalief died after spending years in Rikers because we couldn't afford bail, and because the system thought he was disposable. Right now, Rikers Island has the highest Coronavirus infection rate in the world, and it's spreading like wildfire through prisons and immigration detention centers. These are our brothers, our sisters, our aunties, and our neighbors, and none of them are disposable. We have to Free Them All.” — Akeem Browder, Kalief Browder Foundation (from the video)


The Let My People Go Coalition:

Jews For Racial & Economic Justice

Brooklyn Community Bail Fund

Never Again Action

New Sanctuary Coalition

These additional organizations have been key partners in our campaign:

Justice for Migrant Families @JFMFofWNY: answered countless calls from detainees at Batavia and provided on-the-ground support to people after they got of detention including finding emergency housing

Hello Vuelo helped us to buy bus tickets to make sure everyone could get home safely

And the following three groups all helped us to post the bonds for these folks, waiting for hours in ICE offices at great personal risk to make sure that everyone got free:

Boston Immigrant Justice Accompaniment Network @BeyondBondBos

First Friends of NJ and NY @FirstFrndsnjny

Minnesota Freedom Fund @MNFreedomFund

Video Credits

Ganessa James - Guitar

Michael Winograd - Clarinet

Tova Harris - Violin

David Lusterman - Cello

Chanell Crichlow - Tuba & Flugabone

Jackie Coleman - Trumpet

Emma Alabaster - Upright Bass

Leo Ferguson - Drums & Percussion

Marques Hollie - Featured vocalist

Emma Alabaster - Vocal Arranging

Leo Ferguson - Arranging & Production

Lyrics adapted by Mare Berger, Emma Alabaster, Leo Ferguson, and Alicia Raquel Bauman Morales

Video edited by Drew Dickler

Directed by Emma Alabaster & Leo Ferguson

Special Thank You to Akeem Browder and The Kalief Browder Foundation. Additional thanks to Katie Schaffer, Sophie Ellman-Golan

Background on Go Down, Moses:

The earliest recorded use of the song, “Go Down, Moses,” was in 1862 after three enslaved people, Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory escaped from the Confederate army and set up a community for escaped slaves known as the Grand Contraband Camp on the Union side at Fort Monroe. The song was originally published as “The Song of the Contrabands: O Let My People Go.” Harriet Tubman said she used "Go Down Moses" even earlier as a code song for fugitive slaves to communicate when fleeing Maryland. The original lyrics tell the story of Exodus -- the Jews fleeing enslavement in Egypt. Although the song became known as a Christian hymn, it was included in a Passover Haggadah as early as 1941, with The New Haggadah by Mordecai Kaplan, Eugene Kohn and Ira Eisenstein. In 1969 Arthur Waskow designed the “Freedom Seder,” an event and a Haggadah to reassert connections between the Passover story and American slavery, the Southern Freedom Movement, and current struggles for liberation.