Politics & Policy

Molotov-Cocktail-Throwing Lawyers Are the Left’s New Civil-Rights Heroes

Protesters gather around after setting fire to the entrance of a police station as demonstrations continue after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., May 28, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman aren’t outliers; they’re living examples of how hatred of Trump has morphed into a willingness to justify the unjustifiable.

In the two months since the death of George Floyd, the nation has been beset by often-violent protests and riots. Yet the mainstream media and Democratic politicians have tended to describe the demonstrations as “mostly peaceful,” and to rationalize and minimize them. For many on the left, the real story has not been the violence directed at law-enforcement personnel, the assaults on federal courthouses and police precincts, the toppling of statues, or the destruction of private property; it’s been the use of federal personnel in response.

It is only in that context that we can hope to understand the sympathy being generated for Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman.

Mattis and Rahman are the lawyers who were caught on camera throwing a Molotov cocktail into an empty, already-vandalized NYPD patrol car in Brooklyn. After setting the vehicle on fire in full of view of the cops, they drove away in Mattis’s van and were quickly chased down and arrested. In their possession, officers found yet another Bud Light bottle turned into a homemade incendiary device and the makings of more in the back seat. Prosecutors later said Rahman had offered Molotov cocktails to other protesters, as well.

There could hardly be any doubt about their guilt. In addition to the police video of the firebombing itself, a photographer actually snapped a picture of Rahman, a 31-year-old attorney for Bronx Legal Services, leaning out of the window of the car holding an unlit Molotov cocktail. And shortly before the incident, Rahman gave a filmed interview to a journalist in which she vented her rage at the Floyd killing:

This sh** won’t ever stop unless we fu**ing take it all down. We’re all in so much pain from how fu**ed 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.

In the background of the interview footage, Mattis, a 32-year-old attorney, can be seen exiting a 7-Eleven carrying two bags that likely contain the beer bottles that would be used for the car bombing.

As subsequent coverage pointed out, the two are unlikely criminals. Though they come from impoverished, immigrant backgrounds — Rahman arrived from Pakistan with her parents at the age of four while Mattis’s mother was an immigrant from Jamaica — they have both attained substantial educational and professional success. Mattis earned a scholarship to a private prep school, attended Princeton University, and then graduated from New York University Law School before becoming a highly paid attorney at a Manhattan law firm. Rahman went to one of the most select public high schools in New York before attending Fordham University for her undergraduate degree and then law school.

As lawyers, both knew what they were doing was against the law and what the consequences would be. But as the initial coverage of their case showed, and a highly sympathetic profile published by New York magazine this week confirmed, some on the left see the prosecution of the pair in a different light:

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 claim that federal authorities are seeking to make examples of the pair is not without justification. Few among the mobs that have set America’s cities aflame and looted private property since Floyd’s killing have been held accountable by the law. Local authorities have too often stood down and let the rioters do as they like, and in those instances where offenders were arrested, most have not faced serious consequences.

But Rahman and Mattis were caught in the act of committing a crime that carries the most severe consequences. They face seven federal charges, including arson, conspiracy, and the commission of a “crime of violence” employing what the law defines as a “destructive device.” That last charge means that if they are convicted they will have to automatically serve a sentence that is three times longer than if they had used a gun: a mandatory minimum term of 30 years. With the other charges thrown in, each is looking at the possibility of “non-negotiable” sentences of 45 years to life in prison (though, as New York points out, they have a reasonable hope that the charges against them will be either drastically reduced or dismissed if the Justice Department reverts to Democratic control in January).

The possibility of such draconian sentences is part of what is generating support for the pair. But, as the New York profile reveals, the effort to turn them into anti-Trump martyrs is connected to the broader justifications for the protests. For those who have watched in frustration as rioters run amok, their comeuppance is satisfying. For those who share their politics, on the other hand, their serious crimes are a justified effort to bring attention to the alleged evil done by the police and the government.

Thus the prosecution of what is, on its face, an open-and-shut case of domestic terrorism has become like everything else in this year of pandemics and unrest: a referendum on the legitimacy of the Trump administration and America’s past. In that way, even privileged lawyers can earn a pass from the Left for brazen violence that in any other context would be damned as criminal behavior worthy of significant jail time. The two lawyers aren’t outliers; they’re living examples of how hatred of Trump has morphed into a willingness to justify the unjustifiable.

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