These Two Lawyers Face Up To Life In Prison For Allegedly Burning An Empty Cop Car

The federal case against the lawyers Colin Mattis and Urooj Rahman is a stark example of how the Trump administration is cracking down on Black Lives Matter protesters.

A graphic illustration shows Colinford Mattis on the right and Urooj Rahman on the left

The NYPD van on a Brooklyn street was banged up and empty, a battered steel shell with shattered windows and a mask of spray paint. Shortly before 1 a.m. on Saturday, May 30, the fourth straight night of nationwide protests against police brutality, a Molotov cocktail set it ablaze.

A surveillance camera perched outside the NYPD’s 88th Precinct down the block captured the incident, including a tan Town & Country minivan at the scene. Around 10 minutes later, officers pulled over a vehicle fitting that description. Colinford Mattis, 32, was at the wheel, and Urooj Rahman, 31, was in the passenger seat. Officers found a lighter, a tank of gasoline, and a bottle stuffed with toilet paper in the backseat. Rahman and Mattis were handcuffed and transported into holding cells at NYPD headquarters, two of 23 people arrested in Brooklyn that night for actions connected to the protests against police brutality.

Brooklyn’s district attorney's office handled most of those cases, which prosecutors processed through the night as the arrests poured in. Ten people were released without charges, and most others were hit with low-level infractions, such as criminal mischief or disorderly conduct. A few faced allegations as severe as illegal gun possession.

The case against Rahman and Mattis, however, took a different track. Because the incident involved an explosive device, a specialized unit of NYPD officers and FBI agents, called the Joint Terrorism Task Force — formed in 1980 to root out threats to national security — spearheaded the investigation. Within hours of the arrest, before Brooklyn prosecutors had even begun writing up charges, FBI agent Kyle Johnson submitted a criminal complaint in federal court, and federal prosecutors informed local authorities that the US attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York was taking over the case. No one knew it at the time, but this was one of the early moves in a widening federal crackdown against Black Lives Matter protesters across the country.

By June 4, federal prosecutors had pursued charges against 51 people linked to the protests. In the weeks that followed, US Park Police cleared protesters in Washington, DC, with tear gas, and Border Patrol agents detained demonstrators in Portland, Oregon, by shoving them into unmarked cars. President Donald Trump issued an executive order stating that the Department of Justice would prosecute “to the fullest extent permitted” anyone who vandalizes public monuments, claiming this was necessary because of “local public officials’ abdication of their law enforcement responsibilities.”

When it came to Rahman and Mattis and the alleged crime of burning an empty and already damaged police vehicle, the US attorney’s office brought charges so severe they carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 45 years in prison and a maximum of life — a potential punishment one former federal prosecutor called “ridiculous,” another called “out of hand,” and a third described as an “extreme” tactic to “send a message” to other protesters.

“It’s batshit,” said a fourth former federal prosecutor, who requested anonymity because he continues to work on cases with the US attorney’s office, “and I’m a pretty law-and-order guy.”

At a bail hearing two days after the arrest, prosecutors argued that Rahman and Mattis embodied just the sort of threat Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr have warned against: radicals committed to inciting violence against US institutions, all the more dangerous amid the unrest simmering across the country. Unlike high-profile cases against the Weather Underground or Black Panther members in the 1970s, Rahman and Mattis are not accused of killing or hurting anyone, but the reaction to their case carries a similar tone. “The attacks on the police department are alone sufficient to warrant extraordinary concern here,” Assistant US Attorney Ian Richardson said at the hearing, calling on the judge to order the defendants jailed while awaiting trial. “This is not the environment into which we want to release bomb-throwers.”

“It’s batshit,” said a fourth former federal prosecutor, “and I’m a pretty law-and-order guy.”

Well-respected lawyers who had met at a birthday party in 2014, Rahman and Mattis are both in their early thirties, with large social circles and close-knit families, living the American dream their immigrant parents had aspired for them. Rahman defended tenants facing evictions, and Mattis did pro bono work representing women with low incomes in family court while practicing corporate law at a prestigious firm. They had become attorneys in hopes of using the law to help balance the scales of a justice system that, in their eyes, favored rich over poor, white over Black, citizen over refugee.

“It’s very easy to suggest they could have reacted differently from what’s alleged, but what’s being expressed in the streets is a hurt people of color have had to hold for generations,” said a friend of both who requested anonymity for fear of losing her government job for speaking up about the case. “Before they’re attorneys, they’re human, they’re people of color, and they see their fellow people of color suffering.”

Their case heads to court at a moment when political tensions over demonstrations are at perhaps an all-time high in this country — one of the central issues in the presidential campaign, at times eclipsing the pandemic. Following violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon, Trump has sought to paint protesters as lawless thugs out to destroy America, while his challenger, Joe Biden, has accused the president of inciting violence. Early this month, Trump threatened to cut federal funding from “anarchist jurisdictions” that he said “have permitted violence and the destruction of property to persist.” Last week alone, federal prosecutors intervened in cases against at least four protesters accused of violence against police officers or police vehicles.

Now a federal court will get one of its first opportunities to weigh in on the meaning of these warring interpretations of protest in America. The fate of two young lawyers hangs in the balance.

Right: Mattis smiles as a child; left: a young Rahman holds up two certificates

Rahman and Mattis both grew up in New York City, in families that set their sights on America based on a vision of the country that didn’t match the reality they encountered on the ground. Neither Rahman nor Mattis would speak to BuzzFeed News — their lawyers advised against it. This story is based on hundreds of pages of legal documents, excerpts of their own writing dating back to high school, and interviews with 28 friends, classmates, and colleagues. (One of the reporters for this story, Ruby Cramer, attended the same high school as Mattis, and they graduated two years apart.)

Mattis’s mother, Edith Watson, arrived from Jamaica in the late 1970s, worked as a youth counselor at a group home and later a home health aide, and over the years took in more than two dozen foster children. His father, King Colinford Mattis, arrived in 1971 and got a union job as a paint worker; he was among the hands hired to apply a fresh coat to the Statue of Liberty in the ’80s. They settled in East New York, a sprawling Brooklyn neighborhood of brick rowhouses, wide boulevards, and towering project buildings.

The city had selected eastern Brooklyn as the location for a dense concentration of public housing, but the buildings soon deteriorated from government neglect. Racist mortgage policies and rental practices restricted Black residents to lower-income neighborhoods like East New York, where a lack of private and public investment left the neighborhood dotted with abandoned, burned-out buildings that white landlords had torched for insurance money.

By the time Mattis was born in 1987, the crack epidemic was near its peak and the neighborhood had one of the highest murder rates in the city.

Rahman’s family arrived from Pakistan in 1993, when she was 4, and moved to Bay Ridge, a southwest Brooklyn neighborhood that drew immigrants from Italy and Ireland, then Russia and Poland, then China and, more recently, the Middle East. As in many neighborhoods that were once nearly all white, the influx of non-European immigrants brought a backlash. “Police identified loose gangs of white middle-class teenagers ... who engage in everything from innocuous rowdiness in local parks to the menacing of unsuspecting neighbors, often immigrants or minorities,” according to a 1994 New York Times story. That same year, a group of white high schoolers beat an Ecuadorian immigrant to death.

Rahman, who was 5 at the time, began school around then. Like Mattis, she entered a public school system that had become stratified from years of defunding and an allocation formula that resulted in larger education budgets for wealthier neighborhoods. While kids in lower-income neighborhoods often had no choice but to attend the lowest-achieving schools, the city offered a path to elite education for its most exceptional pupils.

Rahman was at the top of her class through middle school and scored well enough on standardized tests to get into Brooklyn Tech, one of the city’s nine “specialized” public high schools, which are known for providing the best free education but enroll fewer than 5% of the city’s students. Though two-thirds of all public school students in the city are Black or Latinx, most of her classmates at Brooklyn Tech were white or Asian, a disparity that remains to this day.

“It’s very easy to suggest they could have reacted differently from what’s alleged, but what’s being expressed in the streets is a hurt people of color have had to hold for generations."

By 11th grade, Rahman was pointing out the school’s racial disparities in conversation with classmates. One friend, Andrea Wangsanata, recalled a discussion with Rahman about affirmative action. Wangsanata, who is East Asian, was against it, citing claims she’d heard that the policy discriminated against Asian students. But by the end of the talk, “Urooj got me to the other side,” she said, persuaded by the argument that the education they were able to get should be accessible to all. Rahman gained a reputation for being outspoken, her warm demeanor quickly turning fiery when she had to “shut someone down” for arguing that the city should ban a Muslim community organization from building a mosque near the former site of the World Trade Center towers, for example. “From the get-go you knew she was dedicated to human rights, helping and serving others,” said Wangsanata.

Though Mattis and Rahman didn’t know each other at the time, they followed parallel trails on their ascent up the education system, bringing them into spaces where they were usually around white kids who came from more affluent circumstances — experiences that made it clear to them that the opportunities they found weren’t available to most of the neighbors they grew up with.

Mattis was chosen to participate in Prep for Prep, a New York City program that helps steer high-achieving lower-income students of color to private schools. Through the program, he earned a scholarship to St. Andrew’s School, a tiny co-ed boarding school situated on a nature preserve in rural Delaware. He was 150 miles from home, but the distance felt wider. It took some getting used to at first, but within a year or two he would develop what a friend, Olivia Ensign, recalled as “the ability to kind of navigate between the two worlds.”

In his spare hours at boarding school, he read voraciously, built computers with parts he bought off eBay, and held court in the boys’ dorm, leading debates on race and class until 2 a.m. According to former classmates, he was loud and hilarious and had an infectious positivity that filled the room and maybe only briefly disguised his deep intellectual curiosity. When students were given the opportunity to hold their own seminar discussions, Mattis volunteered twice, leading one class on a Kanye West song about the exploitative diamond industry and a second on the “Racial Draft” sketch from Chappelle’s Show. As a senior at the mostly white academy, Mattis took younger Black students under his wing, stepping in to resolve conflicts between white and Black classmates as needed.

After college (Princeton for Mattis, Fordham for Rahman) both enrolled in law school in the early 2010s, Rahman continuing at Fordham and Mattis returning to his hometown for classes at New York University. The city they explored as adults looked much different from what surrounded them as children.

During Rahman's and Mattis’s years in school, crime rates dropped sharply across America, most dramatically in New York City, which transformed from one of the most dangerous big cities in the country to one of the safest. Several theories attempt to explain this shift — from the reduced use of lead-based paint to an improving economy. But public officials have most often credited law enforcement’s role. The theory that more cops lead to safer streets and better communities was popular in every corner of the country, but perhaps nowhere more than New York City. Amid corruption scandals in the 1970s, the NYPD placed a new emphasis on “professionalism” and a data-driven culture wholly committed to fighting crime. At the same time, facing fiscal crises, city, state, and federal officials across the country slashed funding for housing programs, mental health services, and public education, and during these years the national crime rate began to rise dramatically.

“Whenever they cut something, they basically promise there will be services provided on a local level, but it just never gets funded,” Bernard Parks, who was LAPD’s first police Black chief and later a city council member, told BuzzFeed News. “So jail and arrests become generally the response to any problem.”

Under NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, officers cracked down on low-level offenses, such as fare dodging and vandalism, part of a “broken windows” policing philosophy that theorized people are more likely to commit serious crimes if they see nothing being done about milder crimes. The strategy became gospel within the law enforcement community, adopted at departments across the country and often executed through stop-and-frisk practices disproportionately applied against Black people.

“From the get-go you knew she was dedicated to human rights, helping and serving others.” 

Even in jurisdictions obsessed with cutting taxes, law enforcement remained popular. Police forces expanded. In New York City, the force grew from around 22,000 officers in 1981 to 38,000 in 1996. The city’s population grew only 5% in that time.

Rahman was in a middle school classroom in Bay Ridge when planes hit the World Trade Center towers 6 miles north in September 2001, marking the start of a law enforcement pivot from a war on drugs to a war on terror. In the years that followed, the city would receive around $600 million annually in federal funding for counterterrorism operations, and the NYPD developed a sophisticated intelligence unit aimed at identifying possible threats to public safety before they could cause harm. Within months of the attack, the NYPD began spying on and infiltrating Muslim communities, including in Bay Ridge, where residents suspected early on that they were being surveilled — suspicions revealed to be accurate when a local resident was arrested in 2004 and convicted on charges of plotting to blow up a Manhattan subway station based on evidence collected by undercover officers. Among the sites the undercover officers frequented was a shisha café where Rahman and her neighborhood friends liked to hang out.

The police presence in Mattis’s East New York was more visible. During his teenage years and into his early adulthood, from 2002 to 2012, the number of annual NYPD street stops increased by more than 400%, with the largest share taking place in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Most of those stopped in the city were Black or Latinx, and around 90% of them were let go without any arrest or ticket. Multiple studies on the practice found it had little impact on public safety.

Growing up in New York City, Rahman and Mattis were exposed early on to high-profile incidents of police brutality, which were splashed on local tabloids, led news broadcasts, and sparked protests: An officer choked Anthony Baez to death after a football he was playing with accidentally hit a police car in 1994; officers sodomized Abner Louima with a toilet plunger handle in a Brooklyn police station in 1997; cops fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo after he pulled a wallet from his pocket in 1999; and officers in Queens killed Sean Bell the night before his wedding, piercing his car with 50 bullets in 2006.

With crime rates reaching new lows over the first two decades of the 21st century, some policymakers around the country began an effort to roll back the tough-on-crime tactics that disproportionately imprisoned Black and Latinx people, who often served decades behind bars for nonviolent crimes and were, in many cases, wrongfully convicted. But proposals to reshape the justice system went up against a long-standing paradigm that cast law enforcement as the only thing keeping the dam of public safety from breaking. Even with national crime rates less than half of what they were a generation ago, memories of the bad old days loom large.

During the 2013 New York City mayoral race, television ads for Republican candidate Joe Lhota flashed a montage of images from the ’70s and ’80s — young Black and Latinx men hurling bottles, a subway car splashed with graffiti, an overturned police cruiser, a body bag, a frightened-looking elderly white lady — warning that his Democrat opponent Bill de Blasio’s “recklessly dangerous agenda on crime will take us back to this…”

The following summer, two weeks after Black Lives Matter protesters took the streets in Ferguson and a month after an NYPD officer choked Eric Garner to death, New York City’s two biggest police unions took out a newspaper ad declaring that the city was "lurching backwards to the bad old days of high crime." Officers publicly protested de Blasio in his first year in office and participated in an intentional “slowdown” in arrests and summonses to punish the mayor for speaking out about Garner.

Bill Bratton, now a law enforcement consultant after another tour as police commissioner under de Blasio, tweeted about the “bad old days” three times last year, and twice more this year. “If the groups who want to undo the lawful efforts of NYPD cops have their way, the bad old days of the eighties and early nineties will come roaring back,” he posted in March 2019 in response to criticism of the NYPD’s use of surveillance.

Mattis and Rahman would each, separately and then together, come to very different interpretations.

During her 2014 spring semester at Fordham Law School, Rahman signed up for a human rights clinic tasked with drafting a report that created a “blueprint for sweeping reform” in the NYPD. The news that the department had been spying on Muslim New Yorkers had stuck with Rahman, implanting in her a belief that expanding police powers meant expanding police abuses of power. She was one of four law students who partnered with advocates at the Police Reform Organizing Project, a nonprofit that monitors NYPD practices. Over long discussions that sometimes stretched into the night, the students and advocates typically fell into two camps: those proposing “surgical legal reforms” and those pushing for a more fundamental reduction of the role of police in the city, recalled Justin Brown, one of the law students in the clinic. Rahman was often the leading voice for the latter group.

Months later, the Ferguson uprising brought that debate to center stage, sparking nationwide changes to de-escalation training and investment in more body cameras. But the modest shifts did little to alter police tactics or hold officers accountable for excessive force.

In 2017, Bob Gangi, the executive director of the Police Reform Organizing Project who often sided with Rahman during those discussions at Fordham, announced he was running for New York City mayor, challenging the incumbent de Blasio in the Democratic primary. He asked Rahman to work full time as his policy director. She had spent the previous year in Turkey providing legal guidance to Syrian migrants, but she was glad for the chance to make an impact back home. She threw herself into building out Gangi’s platform.

Gangi was a single-issue candidate whose agenda centered on “effectively dismantling the police apparatus.” He had spent many years studying this issue but was less sure-footed on other topics, so he delegated Rahman to the task of determining his campaign’s positions on housing, education, transportation, and anything else that came up.

Without the burden of trying to win — the campaign’s goal was to “affect the public discourse,” Gangi said — Rahman was free to lay out her vision of the city, which included requiring private developers to provide more affordable housing units, reallocating police funding to hire more teachers in order to reduce class sizes at public schools, and creating a new unit in the city government specifically assigned to investigate landlord abuses.

Gangi’s insurgent campaign began with high hopes but quickly crashed into the walls of establishment politics. Gangi didn’t qualify for the main debates against de Blasio because he was unable to raise the $175,000 required, leaving him and his message relegated to the margins. After Gangi’s campaign bid petered out, Alicia Bella, the campaign manager, expressed how frustrated and discouraged she was one night at a staff dinner. “I freaked out because politics is so corrupt,” she recalled. Rahman pulled her aside into a hallway and gave her a pep talk.

Rahman was familiar with the challenge of keeping faith even when the world’s problems seemed too entrenched to root out. During a recent summer in Greece leading legal clinics for refugees seeking asylum, Rahman sometimes ended the nights crying at a pub, overwhelmed by the mass suffering she was witnessing. She found a reservoir of resiliency by focusing her energy on the individual cases where she could make an impact. Trying to lift Bella’s spirits, Rahman reminded her “of all the people that we inspired,” declaring her faith in humanity’s capacity to spark progress.

“She was very sensitive, and it was like, ‘I understand this beat us down and can make you feel hopeless, but we have to think about the bigger picture,’” Bella said. “She was always the one who reminded us why we’re doing this work.”

In his college admissions essay, Mattis wrote that “learning compels people to act, and if they don’t act, what is the point of learning at all?”

During his time at Princeton, in late-night talks on dorm room couches, he wrestled with the question of what that action should look like. While many of his friends exuded the idealism common to young people who’d seen the world work out for them so far, Mattis held onto a pragmatism that left him ambivalent about the altruistic mindset and aspects of privilege that charged the central current of civil rights advocacy. He had grown up around those who struggled, went to school with those who vowed to help them, and recognized that the distance between the hard-timers and do-gooders tended to create an “air of saviorship” around the latter, a “righteousness that's off-putting” and often “leads to a dehumanization process,” as he once put it in a written journal entry to one of his professors. He didn’t think people needed saving; they just needed a fair shot.

He sought purpose in the most direct action possible. After college graduation, he tried teaching at first, through Teach for America. Working as a middle school science and math teacher in New Orleans showed him that even the most committed educators could only do so much to help low-income students struggling against so much systemic adversity.

He knew he wanted to be home, in East New York. And it occurred to him that, perhaps, when you boiled it all down and took an honest look at what was feasible, the way to fix complex problems in America was, actually, quite simple: money. Money to sway lawmakers. Money to fund scholarships like the ones he got. Money to invest in businesses so that kids in East New York would see more than liquor stores and check-cashing joints on their walk to school. Money to pay off his mom’s house and ensure his siblings didn’t have to rely on the same roll of the dice that happened to land in his favor.

“Always there, always solid and engaged, not trying to take over or put the spotlight on him.”

He decided to become an attorney because the profession offered a range of career paths that suited his aims. Entering NYU law school in 2013, he found himself surrounded by a cohort of like-minded bleeding hearts vowing to serve the oppressed as human rights lawyers or public defenders or elected officials. But Mattis took a different track. Maybe one day he’d specialize in the sort of civil rights law his peers were studying, but first he wanted to make money — to return to his neighborhood with capital, to get inside the rooms where the powerful few deliberated the fates of the many. “The students who pursue corporate law often are made to feel that they're selling out, but I don't think he ever felt that in his soul,” said Martin Guggenheim, one of his law professors. “He was comfortable with the choices he made and was making.” He wanted to know “how money is moved,” said his friend and Princeton classmate Eric Plummer. He signed up for classes in private equity, venture capital, and business contracts.

Mattis told his friends he wasn’t “gonna be a corporate lawyer forever,” his close friend since high school, Phil Wilson, recalled. He pursued pro bono work and, after a few years living in lower Manhattan and Crown Heights, moved back home to the rowhouse where he grew up in East New York. He joined the local community board, where he was seen as a “tempered and controlled” presence, said Bill Wilkins, another member of the board. “Always there, always solid and engaged, not trying to take over or put the spotlight on him.” His hope, said Plummer, the Princeton friend, was to “acquire that knowledge and share that knowledge back” with his Brooklyn community.

Mattis was still in his second year of law school when a police officer killed Eric Garner in Staten Island while detaining him for illegally selling cigarettes on the street. Mattis marched with nearly 40 of his friends and classmates through Washington Square Park and up Broadway, holding their hands in the air, shouting that Black lives matter.

A few months after the protest, Mattis held a joint birthday party with friends at (Le) Poisson Rouge, a bar and music venue near Washington Square Park. Sitting across from Mattis was a friendly and quick-witted student from Fordham who had recently returned from a summer protesting with Palestinians in Israel and hosting a legal clinic for sexual assault survivors in South Africa — Urooj Rahman. They got along instantly and soon became close, developing a friendship that would wind its way through good times at bars, bookstores, and apartment potlucks.

Six years later, George Floyd was killed, and protests returned to the streets of New York. Everyone in the friend group followed the news. Everyone was upset.

Mattis tried to make sense of things in hourslong phone calls with friends. He had time on his hands — he was furloughed from his job at a corporate law firm early in the pandemic, so he spent his days at home with the kids, three of his mother’s foster children whom he took as his own after she died last year. During the days, he helped them with schoolwork, even making recommendations to their school’s curriculum. At night, he watched Netflix documentaries while the kids played Fortnite on Xbox. They were all younger than 9. He was still trying to figure out how to explain everything to them. On a call with Ikenna Iheoma, his best friend since boarding school who protested with Mattis in summer 2014, he was his usual pragmatic self, wondering aloud things like, “What are the effective ways that we can try to affect change?”

It seemed so much simpler six years ago, when they were in their mid-twenties and the world seemed to be bending to their will, hearing their voices as they chanted on Broadway. But what had that done? The Louisville Police Department had spent millions of dollars on body cameras, but the unit that busted into Breonna Taylor’s house wasn’t wearing any. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had faced 17 complaints against him but received only a single reprimand before his final encounter with George Floyd. The tragedies played out like sadistic reruns in a country committed to denying its history even as it was repeating it.

Now that they were in their early thirties, with a little more money and many more battle scars, Mattis and Iheoma circled the question again and again: How can we affect change? “We never came to any resolution on that,” Iheoma recalled. They ended the conversation making plans to meet up that coming weekend so their dogs could play together.

Both Mattis and Rahman had seen how the pandemic had only exacerbated existing inequalities in the city. Mattis’s neighborhood, East New York, had the highest coronavirus death rate in the city, nearly a third higher than the next highest. Sirens wailed around the clock. Rahman’s clients in the Bronx continued to face eviction proceedings, and a growing share of the city’s residents had lost their jobs and were unable to pay bills, leading her and her colleagues to write an open letter calling for a moratorium on Housing Court cases and rent payments. Coupled with the spate of killings of unarmed Black people, they felt compelled to join the protests.

At the end of the fourth night, the two friends were booked into jail together.

Bookings photos of Mattis and Rahman, who is wearing a T-shirt that says "The struggle continues regardless" with a picture of a fist

Prosecutors have presented Rahman and Mattis not as vandals but as agents seeking to spread a web of destruction. They cited a witness, a photographer at the scene, who told officers that before throwing the bottle at the van, Rahman had offered her a Molotov cocktail as well. From this account, as well as the multiple bottles found in Mattis’s van, prosecutors described an effort “to equip others with such explosives and to encourage them to attack law enforcement,” as Ian Richardson, the assistant US attorney, said in court. “They carefully and rationally planned and executed this attack and played bomb-maker for others to do the same.”

Many local prosecutors were stunned by the severity of charges brought against the pair. If the case had stayed with the district attorney's office, local prosecutors likely would have filed charges carrying a substantially shorter sentence — such as criminal mischief or reckless endangerment, neither of which carries a mandatory minimum, or third-degree (because no one was in the burned property) arson, which carries a one-year minimum.

“It clearly is a local crime,” one former federal prosecutor said. “They’re just trying to grab jurisdiction.”

Though a judge released Rahman and Mattis on bail two days after their arrest, prosecutors appealed the decision and won. Three days after exiting jail, Rahman and Mattis were ordered back to the Metropolitan Detention Center.

As prosecutors framed it, all the good works, all the professional accolades, all the loved ones vouching for the character of Rahman and Mattis only strengthened the case against them. The request to let either of them out on bail hinged on “a critical assumption,” prosecutor Richardson said during Mattis’s bail hearing, “and that assumption is that he is a rational person.”

Mattis “attended prestigious universities” and had “an extraordinary career that was just starting,” Richardson said. “And yet he risked everything.”

“That is not the action of a rational person,” Richardson continued. “It is difficult for me, frankly, to comprehend how somebody in his position with his background would do what he did.”

After the appeals court judge ordered their bail to be revoked, Rahman and Mattis each waited at home for the police car to come pick them up.

Rahman whispered a dua she often turns to in moments of stress, a meditative recital of her blessings: Thank you, God, for the eyes to let me see...the nose to let me breathe…the mouth to let me speak...

Mattis read Psalm 7: Vindicate me, Lord, according to my righteousness, according to my integrity, O Most High. Bring to an end the violence of the wicked...

The Eastern District’s argument that a clean record and community ties should be grounds to keep defendants jailed before trial outraged lawyers around the country. Fifty-six former federal prosecutors signed onto an amicus brief declaring that the US attorney’s argument to deny Rahman and Mattis bail “runs contrary both to the law and to our collective decades of experience.” Four weeks after they returned to jail, a judge reversed the previous ruling, releasing Rahman and Mattis with an order for house arrest.

Two weeks later, the head US attorney of the Eastern District of New York, Richard Donoghue, who oversaw the case, left the office for a new job in Washington, DC. Attorney General Barr had promoted him to deputy attorney general.

In the weeks since they’ve returned home, friends have come to visit. Rahman’s mother would cook fish, lentils, rice, and veggies for guests while Rahman shuffled a deck of Monopoly Deal cards, her favorite game, while her cat, BFF (short for "Basil Faisal Fatima"), brushed up against her legs. Those who visited were struck by her spirits, which seemed no less goofy and eager than any other time they’d hung out — still the same old Rooji, “the person who will always drag you to the photo booth at a party,” as her college friend Amnah Almukhtar described her. When the conversation turned to her experience behind bars, Rahman “was able to turn it into a positive one,” noting that she made a lot of friends on the inside and had been touched by how the women she met there “really tried to support each other,” Almukhtar said. “So I was just surprised by how resilient she was. It felt like just a normal evening together. We had a lot of fun and we laughed.”

Mattis has spent the time reading, "keeping his mind sharp," friends said, making sure the kids are OK. Phil Wilson, the close high school friend, both could and could not believe how Mattis seemed to maintain that familiar and relentless posture of positivity through the crisis. In texts and calls, they talk about the new Nas album. About Chadwick Boseman. It's like nothing is different. "Honestly," said Wilson, "if I did not know his situation, I would not be aware of the situation when I talked to him. It's not like he doesn't understand the severity of it, it's just like his spirit is so strong and robust. He understands this is being politicized. When I talk to him, it's like talking to him before the incident happened." Mattis can't get into the details of the case — but when friends first came to visit him in East New York, he was marveling at how "mainstream" the protests had become while he’d been in jail, with every corporate entity now bending over backward to send a "Black lives matter" email, Iheoma recalled of a conversation with Mattis at his house in early June. "It was like, ‘Oh, maybe we can have some change. OK,’" he said.

 "He understands this is being politicized. When I talk to him, it's like talking to him before the incident happened."

Only the briefest flashes betrayed the fact that these visits were not normal, that Rahman and Mattis could not leave home, that a lifetime in prison hung over their heads, that for them, the stakes of the coming election were vastly higher because what happens to their case almost entirely depends on who is president. Friends know Mattis is keeping it together for his kids. They suspect Rahman puts on a smiling face for their benefit, empathetic as always to the feelings of others, refusing to let her troubles bring them down. They don’t tell her what they notice. A vacant stare before she catches herself. A laugh not quite as extravagant as in better days. A hint of melancholy in her eyes imperceptible to anyone who does not know her as well as her friends do. The moment always passes.

As they work to keep their spirits up, some of Rahman and Mattis’s supporters are also struggling to understand how their two friends, brilliant lawyers, rising professionals, have wound up in this predicament.

“How the alleged crime is being portrayed — that’s not the Colin I know,” said Wilson.

“I wouldn't have expected in my wildest imaginations that Urooj, the person I know, would be involved in what she’s charged with,” said Gangi, Rahman’s former boss.

Salmah Rizvi, a friend of both, dismissed any notion that their alleged actions meant that they had given up on the system they have long sought to change. “To be disillusioned, you have to be disengaged,” she said. “They actually really deeply care about this country and its well-being in the future — that's the only reason they're so engaged.”

Right before the alleged incident, Rahman gave her own account.

A videographer for an online breaking news channel stopped her on the sidewalk that night and recorded a short interview, which was uploaded to YouTube five days later.

“We’re all in so much pain from how fucked up this country is toward Black lives,” Rahman says, speaking into the camera. She wears a scarf around her face and holds her cellphone in one hand, which moves passionately as her words pour out.

“We saw that six years ago in this city, Eric Garner was murdered on camera and nothing happened to the cop. Nothing. He literally said the same words as George Floyd. It’s crazy,” she says.

The street behind her buzzes with shouts and the beating steps of demonstrators marching. In the background, Mattis is visible, walking across the sidewalk toward his parked minivan carrying a couple of plastic bags.

Then the interviewer asks how Rahman feels about protesters expressing themselves with acts of vandalism.

“Destruction of property is nothing compared to the murder of a human life,” Rahman says. “So I understand why people are doing it. It’s a way to show their pain, their anger. It just never stops. This is the way people show their anger and frustration. Nothing else works. Nothing else.

“‘Cause it keeps happening over and over again.” ●

Skip to footer