CREDIT: U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of New York
You may have seen this. It was filmed on May 29, as “peaceful” protests were underway in Brooklyn.
The person in the interview is 31-year-old Urooj Rahman. She is a lawyer with Bronx Legal Services who works to prevent evictions.
Shortly after the video, she and her friend, another lawyer named Colinford Mattis, were caught on video firebombing an NYPD car. Mattis, like Rahman, is an immigrant, Rahman from Pakistan, and Mattis from Jamaica. He’s a Harvard Law grad and was an associate in NYC law firm. Both have been charged with the crime and are facing a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison.
What this has spawned is an outpouring of offended and astonished commentary that two such perfect examples of what America should be could actually be made suffer for committing a violent and premeditated felony.
New York Magazine did a fawning profile of the two, probably nothing quite so obscene has been done with a violent criminal since Rolling Stone tried to make Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into some kind of hot, romantic muppet. Here’s a sampling:
It’s an audacious choice to pause in front of an Applebee’s restaurant on Flatbush Avenue and grant an impromptu interview to a video journalist shortly before you allegedly throw a Molotov cocktail into a police car. But the city was out of its collective mind that night, the Friday after the Monday George Floyd was killed. Urooj Rahman faced the camera looking high-strung and distracted, answering questions as her hands waved and flitted around her body and in front of her face as if they were birds escaping from a box. Rahman emigrated from Pakistan when she was 4 and now lives with her elderly mother in Bay Ridge; she works as an attorney at Legal Services in the Bronx, representing tenants without means in eviction proceedings. “This shit won’t ever stop unless we fucking take it all down,” she said. “We’re all in so much pain from how fucked up this country is toward Black lives. This has got to stop, and the only way they hear us is through violence, through the means that they use. ‘You got to use the master’s tools.’ That’s what my friend always says.”
But to work within that system is to understand just how capricious and brutal criminal justice can be — the enormous latitude given to prosecutors, the deference extended to judges and juries, and the procedural protocols and professional ethics that often merely cover for the status quo. And when a president and his advisers seem to regard the law as an obstacle course; when an attorney general metes out favors, not justice; and when immigrant children are held in cages and men are killed on video by police, some lawyers may want to embrace a more flexible definition of “lawless.” As recently as a few years ago, even a progressive-minded lawyer might have regarded fervent, visible participation in a political protest as professionally unbecoming. Today, some of Mattis and Rahman’s friends may concede in private that throwing a Molotov cocktail represents a lapse in judgment, but none are willing to discuss the degree to which their friends may have been ethically, professionally, morally, or legally out of bounds. Instead, they emphasize that violence against government property, especially in the midst of political upheaval, is not the same as violence against a person; that the prosecution of their friends for an act of what amounted to political vandalism is far more extreme than the crime itself; that it amounts to a criminalization of dissent and reflects a broader right-wing crusade against people of color and the progressive left — and, as such, demonstrates precisely the horror of the system they were out in the streets that night to protest. There is a version of the Rahman and Mattis story in which they are civil-rights heroes, even martyrs, instead of professionals who crossed a line.
…The federal indictment, filed on June 11, makes a case for domestic terrorism. It charges Mattis and Rahman with conspiracy. It describes the police car as a vehicle “used in interstate and foreign commerce.” It categorizes the Molotov cocktail as “an incendiary device,” which, in the legal code, includes homemade bombs along with grenades and missiles. The use of this type of “destructive device” in a “crime of violence,” with which Mattis and Rahman were also charged, carries a minimum sentence three times what it would have been if they had instead used a gun.
Rahman is taking it day by day, receiving occasional calls from her Sufi spiritual adviser, praying with him, trying to stay in the present moment and focus on gratitude. Her mother keeps saying, “Focus on today, focus on today, focus on today,” according to a friend who saw them recently. Mattis, though, is thinking about what he wants to do next. “I gave him a really, really long hug,” says Iheoma of his recent visit. Mattis being Mattis, he was hashing over all his future options, this or that, given the likelihood that he will be disbarred. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Iheoma says, “ ’maybe you could run for mayor one day.’ ”
You get the picture. Talented people. Great future ahead of them. They make one little boo-boo and The System comes down on them like an anvil on Wile E. Coyote.
This is the short version.
Most people, even good ones, do something stupid sometime. When that results in the ruining of their otherwise good and productive lives, it’s tragic. I have seen it many times. In legal systems like ours it can be mitigated, but in the US with harsh minimum sentences it can not.
— Richard Spoor (@Richard_Spoor) August 6, 2020
Yo, people are harsh. So many supporters of hangings, amputations and lengthy prison sentences.
Me, I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice. I have defended murderers and child abusers and I have never found mercy to be inappropriate.
— Richard Spoor (@Richard_Spoor) August 6, 2020
I really don’t think you can understand precisely how Donald Trump became president without understanding this impulse to excuse the behavior of two lawyers, both in their thirties, because they are of the same background, educational attainment, political leanings, and social class of the elites within our establishment.
Had Urooj Rahman been a 31-year-old roofer from Wheeling, WV, and firebombed a police car, no one would have said boo about sending him to prison for the rest of his life because the perception among our elites is that a lawyer who is a political terrorist is acting nobly to raise our consciousness and deserves only a mild reprimand that will not damage their passage to a Bill Ayers-esque future. The working class guy? Well, screw him. His life didn’t have much value, and he was probably going to die of a drug overdose anyway. Plus, you know how those people breed, so tossing him in prison is just improving the breed. No one at Rolling Stone or New York Magazine is going to waste any time bemoaning his fate.
This divide, this assumption that some members of society are more worthy of second chances than others and the subtext that the law is really made for the little people, not for members of our ruling class was at the heart of the Tea Party movement. The idea that we and our children are less worthy of mercy or consideration or just catching an even break than someone who has the right degree and right politics it what propelled Trump into the White House.
Rahman and Mattis are criminals. Their action fits the textbook definition of terrorism. Their act was premeditated. All that letting them off easy will accomplish is to encourage other similarly minded cretins to imitate them and draw upon this precedent as to why there should be few if any, consequences. Pour encouragement les autres, as they say, these two need to be hammered to deter this behavior and to begin to return us to a single standard of justice for all.
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