(RNS) — Since the arrest Monday (Jan. 4) of Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio in connection with the destruction of a Washington, D.C., church’s Black Lives Matter sign late last year, more than $100,000 has been raised for his legal defense on the self-described Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo.
Tarrio’s is not the only campaign hosted on the site for people identified as members of the far-right Proud Boys, the organization President Donald Trump told to “stand back and stand by” during his first presidential debate against now President-elect Joe Biden.
People have used GiveSendGo to contribute nearly $5,000 to fundraisers for both the central Texas and central Washington Proud Boys. “Our state is under attack by overt and covert communist groups like antifa and BLM,” reads the central Texas campaign page. “They have billionaire donors and leftist politicians to help fund their destruction. We have YOU to help prevent it!”
There are also GiveSendGo campaigns for people and groups hoping to attend the Stop the Steal marches taking place in D.C. on Wednesday, protesting the validity of the 2020 presidential election results. Others are collecting to uncover supposed voter fraud directly, including at least two in support of Mellissa Carone, who appeared as a witness next to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani at a Michigan legislative hearing on election fraud.
GiveSendGo, which drew criticism in August for hosting a legal defense fundraising campaign for Kenosha, Wisconsin, shooting suspect Kyle Rittenhouse, describes itself as the “#1 free Christian crowdfunding site,” and has categories for campaigns that include “Mission,” “Medical,” “Memorial” and “Church,” among others.
Heather Wilson, who founded GiveSendGo with her brother Jacob Wells, acknowledged their site has more campaigns that lean toward the right — often the far right — than to the left. She believes that’s due to censorship at other crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe.
“GoFundMe decided they’re not going to allow certain campaigns,” Wilson told Religion News Service. “So guess who gets the kickback of the campaigns that won’t be allowed on GoFundMe. They come to us now.”
Wilson and Wells insist hosting a campaign is not tantamount to endorsement. “You don’t think when you post on Twitter, that somehow Twitter aligns itself with everything that you say,” Wells told RNS, saying GiveSendGo, like Twitter or Facebook, is “just a venue for people to express their opinions and their personal ideas about things.”
The siblings are passionate about First Amendment rights and people’s right to raise money for a legal defense, no matter the type of crime. They won’t turn people away on either side, they said, even when they disagree with a campaign.
“It’s not our job to take a stand or a side,” said Wilson. “We’re not backing any campaigns, sharing any campaigns, giving to any campaigns. We’re just allowing the freedom.”
Tarrio’s GiveSendGo campaign page features a photo of him wearing the black and yellow colors associated with Proud Boys and holding both hands above his head, his index finger and thumb touching, in a sign now broadly associated with white supremacy. “I was arrested in Washington DC on 1/4/2021 this fund has been created to fund my legal defense and counter suit against the city of Washington DC,” the page reads.
The campaign quickly eclipsed its $100,000 goal and had more than 2,000 donors as of Tuesday evening.
Tarrio was charged with destruction of property related to an offense that occurred Dec. 12, 2020, according to a statement from Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department sent to RNS Monday. It stipulated the offense occurred on the same block as Asbury United Methodist Church, whose BLM sign was among many destroyed during the December unrest after a pro-Trump rally on the National Mall.
“At the time of his arrest, (Tarrio) was found to be in possession of two high capacity firearm magazines. He was additionally charged with Possession of High Capacity Feeding Device,” according to the MPD statement.
Metropolitan AME, a historic Black congregation in Washington, is suing the Proud Boys, claiming members of the group destroyed the church’s Black Lives Matter sign as thousands of Trump supporters descended on the nation’s capital to protest Biden’s victory. The city is preparing for the protest’s sequel on Wednesday, with some churches requesting police protection.
Both Wilson and Wells said they do not back groups like the Proud Boys and they “do not condone any illegal behavior.”
They see their site as modeling Jesus’ behavior in the Gospels.
“Jesus was ridiculed by the religious right, by the Pharisees, by the legalistic for hanging around with drunkards and sinners,” said Wilson. “And we look at that and say, OK, if what we have is a platform where quote-unquote, drunkards and sinners, are showing up — what an opportunity for us to actually share the hope of Jesus.”
The site offers opportunities for donors and supporters to send “prayers” for the campaigns and Wells said they try to actively engage with their community of donors — sending prayers and Bible verses via email. GiveSendGo promises to give back 10% of its donations each month to other active campaigns on the site.
The campaign for Rittenhouse, who pleaded not guilty Tuesday, has now raised more than $585,000.
The Illinois teenager is charged with first-degree homicide and one count of attempted homicide. He also faces charges of recklessly endangering two other victims and possessing a weapon while under the age of 18.
The shootings occurred in Kenosha in August during protests demanding justice for the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by Kenosha police. The officer who shot Blake will not be charged, according to an announcement Tuesday by Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley.
Jack Jenkins contributed to this report.