When the protests against racist police first erupted in New York City in late May, police initially responded with mass arrests, repression, and brutality, while the mayor responded by instituting a curfew and offering carte blanche to the NYPD to terrorize the people of New York. In recent weeks, police in New York and across the country have changed tactics from repression to co-optation, preferring to work with collaborators to pacify protests rather than beat and arrest the protesters. Yet three protesters arrested at the beginning the uprisings are still being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center. Here, the state is deploying another tactic: intimidating protesters by creating examples.
Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman are both first-generation Americans born and raised in the working class in Brooklyn. Both now work as lawyers in the city. Rahman is a public interest lawyer working for Bronx Legal Services. They are also both the primary caregivers for family members — foster siblings in Mattis’s case and an elderly mother in Rahman’s. They were arrested for allegedly throwing a Molotov cocktail through the window of an already broken and abandoned NYPD car on the night of May 29, when protests were raging all around New York and especially in the neighborhood of Fort Greene.
Samantha Shader was arrested separately the same night, also for allegedly throwing a Molotov cocktail. This one, which did not ignite, was aimed at a car with officers in it.
Unlike NYPD officers, Mattis, Rahman, and Shader did not hurt anyone that night. The only thing they could possibly be guilty of is attempting to damage property — which is exactly what the police were created to prevent, often at the expense of human life. Rahman herself analyzed this contrast succinctly in a video interview from just hours before her arrest:
What I saw was targeting of property, and no property is above 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.
Terrifyingly, the three are now facing life in prison, with a mandatory minimum of 45 years, for various federal crimes, including use of explosives, arson, use of explosives to commit a felony, arson conspiracy, use of a destructive device, civil disorder, and making or possessing a destructive device. Additionally, and unusually, all three are being held without bail, despite pleas from family, friends, community members, and even former federal prosecutors and despite the fact that Shader was injured during her arrest and is not currently receiving proper medical treatment.
“When you look at the offenses alleged against Ms. Rahman and Mr. Mattis, normally you’d expect them to be tried under state law in state court,” said Ramzi Kassem, a City University of New York School of Law professor in an interview with The Intercept. “The fact that the federal government has bent over backwards to find a federal-jurisdictional hook for such cases is intended to send a chilling message to activists.” Vincent Southerland, executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University’s law school, added, “In addition to the extremely harsh potential sentences, it is exceedingly rare for the Department of Justice to go to this extent to appeal the granting of bail. Altogether it suggests that the government is trying to make an example out of these people to send a message to the public — a message of fear with regards to the people taking part in these protests.”
This harshness is being directed by the Trump administration, which worked very hard to get the case moved from state to federal court on the extremely flimsy basis that since NYPD cars come from out of state, Mattis, Rahman, and Shader’s alleged crimes fall under federal jurisdiction. Trump and his allies have been talking up the case on social media, making it the poster child for their push against “antifa.”
Contrast the harsh charges and treatment Mattis, Rahman, and Shader are facing for alleged property destruction with how the United States justice system behaves towards police officers who have actually killed people. The state dragged its feet to arrest the cops who killed George Floyd until massive protests erupted, and even now one of the officers involved in the of murder has already been bailed out. The police who broke into Breonna Taylor’s home and murdered her in the middle of the night haven’t even been arrested. The NYPD officer who drove her car into protesters, and only through luck didn’t kill any of them, is not in prison. The officers in Buffalo who assaulted an old man were fired, and only after pressure from Governor Cuomo, were two officers charged. This is not to say that carceral solutions are the answer, but that there is a clear difference in treatment between those who threaten property in defense of Black lives and those who take Black lives.
Mattis, Rahman, and Shader are political prisoners. The exaggerated charges against them and the outrageous decision to not allow them bail are designed to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who would fight or protest against the state in any meaningful way. As socialists, we are all deeply aware that it could just as easily be us held in the Metropolitan Detention Center, just as easily us facing life in prison.
The government of New York State and the United States has made it clear that there is no acceptable way to fight against their murderous, racist regime. Instead of becoming terrified by the example they are trying to make, we should be inspired to fight harder — for Black liberation, for the freedom of all prisoners, and the abolition of the carceral state. A first step is to do everything in our power to make sure that the ridiculous charges are dropped, and that Mattis, Rahman, and Shader can be back on the streets fighting alongside us.
Update: on June 23, pack the court today at 10 am for Urooj and Colin’s virtual bail hearing! Let’s bring them home to their families http://bit.ly/bailoralargument
Arguments start at 10 am, Urooj and Colin’s cases are expected at around 11 am.