A surveillance camera is said to have recorded it all: a woman in a black t-shirt stepping out of a tan minivan; the lighting of a toilet-paper fuse, the arc of a beer bottle filled with fuel as it was thrown onto the dashboard of an empty police car. That act of vandalism, in the early hours of May 30, is why two Brooklyn lawyers are fighting federal explosives charges and could face as much as life in prison. They had been sitting in a New York jail until Tuesday night, after a government effort to keep them behind bars failed.
Federal prosecutors haven’t accused Urooj Rahman, 31, or Colinford Mattis, 32, of harming anyone that night. But they have indirectly cast the two defendants as characters in the favored Trump administration narrative that suggests that last month’s violent protests weren’t just an eruption of anger from peaceful protesters, but rather the work of dedicated extremists.
In a recent memo to U.S. Attorneys and department heads, Attorney General William Barr made clear how he expected the department to respond — in the same way it did to organized crime or terrorism “by disrupting their violent activities and ultimately dismantling their capability to threaten the rule of law.” Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis don’t claim to be members of any group; their friends say they aren’t people who espouse radical beliefs, but against this backdrop, they have been treated as if they are.
“This is not a case about youthful indiscretion or a crime of passion,” a government lawyer argued at a recent hearing in the case. “It is about a calculated, dangerous crime committed by adults who risked the lives of innocent civilians and first responders, who had more Molotov cocktails ready… These were lawyers in particular who had every reason to know what they were doing was wrong and knew the consequences. Committing this crime required a fundamental change in mindset for them.”
Barr has said publicly that the FBI is building cases against “a witches’ brew” of extremist groups who he claims hijacked the protests. “When we arrest people and charge them, at this stage anyway, we don’t charge them with being a member of Antifa,” Barr told NPR’s Steve Inskeep in an interview on June 25. “We charge them for throwing a Molotov cocktail, or we charge them for possession of a gun, or gasoline, or things to make bombs with. Those are the kinds of charges that are filed.”
By most accounts Rahman and Mattis were idealistic attorneys hoping to change the world. Government attorneys are trying to make the case that all changed on May 29th when the pair drove to a convenience store to buy beer bottles, gasoline, and toilet paper and built homemade explosives they intended to use. In doing that, they became part of Barr’s witches’ brew.
“These defendants allegedly hurled Molotov cocktails at NYPD vehicles without regard for the potentially deadly consequences,” the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, Richard Donoghue, said in a statement when he announced the charges against the two attorneys. “Such criminal acts should never be confused with legitimate protest. Those who carry out attacks on NYPD officers or vehicles are criminals, and they will be treated as such.”
The police say it is an open-and-shut case — a camera outside the 88th Precinct caught the entire episode; and, if that’s true, it is compelling evidence against Rahman and Mattis. What it doesn’t explain, though, is why their case has been treated so differently — so much more harshly — than other Molotov cocktail protester cases around the country.
Mandatory Minimum Sentences
Prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York decided to charge Rahman and Mattis federally and the charges read like a domestic terrorism case: arson, conspiracy, use of destructive device, civil disorder, making or possessing a destructive device, and the use of explosives during a crime of violence. That last charge alone – something called 924(c) in the criminal code – carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison.
NPR reviewed forty-seven recent federal cases filed against other protesters who threw Molotov cocktails or started fires damaging police property nationwide, and this case was the only instance in which 924(c) appears. (Prosecutors charged another woman, Samantha Shader, alongside Mattis and Rahman. Shader threw a Molotov cocktail at a police van filled with officers in another part of Brooklyn that night. It is unclear why they were charged together.)
Most protesters arrested for throwing Molotov cocktails are charged under 844(i) – malicious damage or destruction by fire or explosive. When asked why the Rahman-Mattis case was charged differently, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment. But two federal prosecutors who worked in the Eastern District and know the U.S. Attorney there well say the fact that the two were lawyers and knew better certainly played a role in the decision to level so many serious charges.
Defense Attorney Paul Shechtman, who represents Urooj Rahman, said he thinks federal prosecutors brought the case because they thought the local prosecutor in Brooklyn would be too lenient.
“Ever since it has been taken federally, it has been treated with a seriousness, a harshness unlike any I have ever seen,” Shechtman said.
Before all this happened, Rahman and Mattis were kids from immigrant families who were making good. Rahman, born to a Pakistani working-class family, grew up in Brooklyn and had gone to Fordham Law School. She had worked as a human rights lawyer overseas and was working for Bronx Legal Services helping tenants in Housing Court.
“She’s not a radical,” her friend Salmah Rizvi said. “She believes in our system. She’s not an anarchist or somebody on the fringe who is disconnected. No, she is quite the opposite.”
Mattis grew up in East New York, the son of Jamaican immigrants. With the help of a program called Prep for Prep, which places high-achieving minority students in private high schools, he attended St. Andrew’s, a boarding school in Delaware. He went on to graduate from Princeton University and NYU School of Law.
Until a few months ago, he was an associate at Pryor Cashman, a mid-level law firm in Manhattan. The company confirmed he had recently been laid off in COVID-19-related cutbacks.
“His mother had been fostering three children and when she died last year, Mattis stepped in. They’re all under the age of 11,” said Carolyn Chica, a mentor and advisor for Prep for Prep with Mattis. “And he’s a great dad.”
So Rahman was a public interest lawyer. Mattis was working at a corporate firm trying to raise three kids. Chica said no one would have imagined it would all come to this. “It’s just surreal,” she said.
The scene outside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on May 29th was raucous and chaotic. Thousands of chanting protesters filled the plaza in front of the arena; police in riot gear drew up next to them. Demonstrators threw water bottles and bricks at the cops on the line and when the police moved in to arrest them it was a clash that included swinging batons and pepper spray. Brooklyn Assemblywoman Diana Richardson was in the crowd and expressed anger at the police response. “The NYPD is being excessively aggressive with this crowd and it is inappropriate,” she told a reporter there. “I am an elected official and they just pepper-sprayed me.”
Urooj Rahman was there too. A local journalist interviewed her just outside the Barclays Center shortly after the police began their arrests. She wore a keffiyeh that she kept adjusting to cover her face. “I think this protest is a long time coming. I think the mayor should have held the police department back, like the mayor in Minneapolis did,” she began. “This s*** won’t ever stop unless we f***ing take it all down and that’s why the anger is being expressed in this way.” By then, protesters had started torching police cars, putting up barricades and mixing it up with authorities.
By night’s end, hundreds of protesters were arrested and some 400 NYPD officers were injured, some seriously. A handful of the cops are facing disciplinary action for their behavior. One waved a gun at crowds gathered in Greenwich Village, another pushed a protester to the pavement causing a concussion.
The short excerpt from Rahman’s interview was taken in the midst of all that. It first aired on a YouTube channel from a news outlet called LoudLabs, and eventually ricocheted around the Internet after the New York Daily News posted it on its website alongside with a mugshot of Rahman wearing a black t-shirt that read “The Struggle Continues.”
It went viral because not long after that interview, Rahman climbed into a van with Mattis, drove to the nearby neighborhood of Fort Greene and, police say, threw that Molotov cocktail into an abandoned, vandalized police car and tried to get away.
No one was around, according to defense attorney Shechtman, except for two police officers across the street. “They gave chase and Urooj and Colin were arrested,” he said.
NPR called more than two dozen federal law enforcement officials across the country to discuss their investigations into the recent violence. Without discussing individual cases in detail, they said that the Justice Department was making protester cases a priority and in the absence of finding cases linked to extremists groups, they’ve been told to pursue any protester cases that they do have aggressively — like the one in Brooklyn.
Alleged crimes like arson or vandalism are usually considered local crimes, charged and tried in local courts. But Rahman and Mattis are facing charges in federal court. To make that possible, prosecutors have to show a federal interest. It has to affect, for example, interstate commerce in some way. The way prosecutors in the Eastern District have done that in this case is by using the Commerce Clause.
“The theory in this case is because the New York Police Department receives federal funding, that’s a federal interest,” said Rachel Barkow, vice dean at NYU School of Law. Mattis was in her criminal law class in 2014, though Barkow says she doesn’t remember him and had to look him up in records to be sure..
“They are also arguing that the police car itself travels in the country, so that’s the other hook,” she said. “I believe it would pass constitutional muster. But if we’re asking, as a matter of discretion, is this the kind of thing that should be a federal crime? You know, no. This could have easily been handled by local prosecutors and it’s a bit odd that it’s been charged federally.”
Federal Prosecutors Appeal Bail
The aggressiveness of prosecutors in the Rahman-Mattis case goes beyond just the charges. The government is also fighting their pre-trial release on bail.
Most defendants who have no criminal history and can show strong ties to the community can generally work out a bail package with a judge. And initially, a Magistrate judge said both Rahman and Mattis could be released to home confinement, if they agreed to be electronically monitored and posted a $250,000 bond. Rahman and Mattis were released and were home for five days before they were rearrested.
The prosecution had appealed their bail package. A District judge reviewed the case a second time and also agreed the pair weren’t a danger to the community and could be released. Prosecutors appealed again, this time to a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court of Appeals. The crime was so serious, they argued, no bail package could be stringent enough. However Rahman and Mattis might have conducted themselves before May 29th didn’t matter, they said, because they had all the hallmarks of secure and stable life and yet still committed this crime.
Fifty-six former federal prosecutors were so alarmed by the government’s argument, they filed a friend of the court brief. Brian Jacobs, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York was one of them.
“Under the Bail Reform Act it is entirely appropriate for district judges and magistrate judges to consider a defendant’s history and characteristics in weighing whether there’s a bail package that could assure the safety of the community,” Jacobs said. “The position the government takes [in this case] is that if you have an alleged offense that reaches a certain level of seriousness, when you have a certain quantum of proof on the government’s side, the defendant’s history and characteristics no longer matter.”
A three judge panel heard the appeal last week and the government argued that the two judges who granted bail didn’t properly weigh the presumption that this kind of crime posed a danger of repeat behavior. Shechtman, for his part, said this was all about one night in which two good people lost their way.
Two of the three judges decided Tuesday night to reaffirm the decision of the lower court and ordered that Rahman and Mattis be released on bail. The two walked out of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn a few hours later, ending weeks of solitary confinement at the facility. They had been isolated in a bid to prevent them from catching COVID-19. It is unclear whether the government will appeal their bail again.
Both Rahman and Mattis have pleaded not guilty to all charges and are due in court again in mid-July.