On May 30, 2020, Brooklyn attorneys, Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman, were arrested for throwing a Molotov Cocktail into a New York Police Department vehicle. CNN reported that Urooj approached an empty police car with a broken window and threw the “explosive device.” Shortly after, the police stopped the vehicle and found “precursor items” to build explosives, including a lighter, a Bud Light bottle stuffed with toilet paper and a gasoline tank. Both Mattis and Rahman have been sentenced to prison for the use of explosives, arson and civil disorder. However, their alleged actions do not correlate with their nature at all. Mattis and Rahman are social justice advocates with interests in civil rights and police reform.
During his youth, Colinford Mattis worked as a home health aide and youth counselor at a group home. After, he went on to practice corporate law in Manhattan, graduating from Princeton and New York University.
Rahman went to Fordham law school, and became deeply interested in refugee rights and international human rights, winning a fellowship to work as a lawyer in Turkey, where she helped asylum-seekers in Istanbul, and then did similar work in Cairo for a group called Saint Andrew’s Refugee Services. More recently, Rahman had been working for Bronx Legal Services, where she fought evictions for impoverished tenants in housing court. Rahman was always helping underprivileged people.
Both Mattis and Rahman are two well-educated young lawyers who have no criminal history or violent records.
Destruction of property is nothing compared to the murder of a human life.
Since the protests, a video appeared online of Urooj saying, “This has got to stop, and the only way they hear us is through violence, through the means that they use.” She also stated, “Gotta use the master’s tools, that’s what my friend always says.” And then, “What I saw was targeting property, and no property is above a human life. Destruction of property is nothing compared to the murder of a human life. So I understand why people are doing it. It’s a way to show their pain, their anger, because it just never stops.”
Her lawyer, Paul Shechtman, said that it was “an aberrant act in the heat of the civil protests that have swept the country over police violence and systemic racism. Viewed in the context of her life, violence is clearly not Ms. Rahman’s way.”
All of this has alarmed their friends as well. “They’re just amazing people,” said Rizvi. “They’re really kind-hearted and they do not deserve to be in jail right now. They are not a threat.” In addition, the Center for Constitutional Rights — along with a coalition of other civil rights organizations — released an open letter demanding that Urooj Rahman and Colin Mattis be released immediately and that the excessive and politically motivated charges against them be dropped.
The letter reads:
The undersigned civil and human rights organizations, legal associations, and policy institutes condemn the excessive and politically-motivated charges that the federal government is leveling against two members of our community, Colin Mattis and Urooj Rahman, and its aggressive effort to keep them imprisoned and separated from their families pending trial. In its attempt to use the courts and a case of alleged property damage to stifle a historic popular mobilization against systemic anti-Black racism, the United States Attorney’s Office only further exposes the injustices that gave rise to and sustain the mass protests. …
The legal system is treating two protesters of color demanding racial justice more harshly for an alleged property crime than it treats a White police officer charged with the murder of a Black man.
It is evident that federal judges had decided Colin and Urooj could safely be released on bail, which they were, until the government made the decision to appeal their case. Meanwhile, the police officer who is charged with murdering George Floyd is currently out on bail. The legal system is treating two protesters of color demanding racial justice more harshly for an alleged property crime than it treats a White police officer charged with the murder of a Black man.
Federal prosecutors are insisting that the lawyers remain in permanent pre-trial detention in the Metropolitan Detention Complex (MDC) in Brooklyn. MDC is a federal jail known for its human rights abuses and inhumane conditions. The federal government’s decision to keep Colin and Urooj in prison pre-trial is racially motivated as Black and Brown defendants are far more likely to be held in pre-trial detention than White defendants. This is not only unethical, but also not necessary. Both Rahman and Mattis have pleaded not guilty to all charges and are due in court again in mid-July. Therefore, it is incumbent that all charges be dropped against Rahman and Mattis, until further evidence is put forth.
“In order for non-violence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”~Kwame Ture (formerly, Stokely Carmichael)
Maliya Naz is a Kashmiri/Pakistani American poet and human rights advocate. When she is not volunteering or translating Urdu ghazals, you can find her giving talks about all things Islam and spirituality.