It’s now been more than two months since we learned the identities of the two New York City attorneys who blew up an NYPD vehicle with a Molotov cocktail on May 31st (and were caught on camera doing it). The details of their activities that evening were quickly ferreted out by investigators and they were arrested. But that doesn’t mean that Colinford Mattis, 32, and Urooj Rahman, 31, don’t still have their cheerleaders in the press. The pair are facing 45 years to life for the attack, but some observers seem to view them as misunderstood activists, lashing out at an unfair system. The first indication of this phenomenon that I noticed this week came from “militant non-racialist lawyer Rochard Spoor on Twitter.
A terribly sad story. Two young and idealistic lawyers, get wrapped up in the BLM protest movement. In a moment of madness they throw a Molotov cocktail into an abandoned police car and burn it. Now they face a minimum 35 years in a federal prison. https://t.co/o8aRqjOSwY
— Richard Spoor (@Richard_Spoor) August 5, 2020
A terribly sad story. Two young and idealistic lawyers, get wrapped up in the BLM protest movement. In a moment of madness they throw a Molotov cocktail into an abandoned police car and burn it. Now they face a minimum 35 years in a federal prison.
I nearly spit out my coffee when I saw that one. “Young and idealistic lawyers?” What Spoor was referring to was an article in New York Magazine by Lisa Miller. In a long and carefully crafted think piece, Miller builds a case for seeing Rahman and Mattis as misunderstood heroes for the marginalized and downtrodden. She tells their life stories, noting that both of them came from less than affluent backgrounds to obtain law degrees and good jobs in Gotham.
Then, dealing with the events of the night in question, Miller really pours on the sugar, describing how the police car they blew up had “already been vandalized” anyway, so it probably wasn’t such a big deal, right? And this “lapse in judgment” was actually admirable, with the punishment they are facing far exceeding the seriousness of the firebombing. And, of course, she claims that the Bad Orange Man and the police do far worse. (Emphasis added)
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.
It’s hard to know where to begin. Rahman and Mattis are (or were) both officers of the court. As such, they are held to a higher standard than most citizens in the first place. But pretending that this was some sort of “momentary” lapse of judgment in the heat of a frenzy of anger at racial injustice is simply a false narrative. No matter how challenging their early lives may have been or admirable some of their previous work was, this attack was no spur of the moment lapse. Miller herself points out the same thing John Sexton covered back in early June. Rahman gave an interview prior to the attack, saying “This s*** won’t ever stop unless we f***ing take it all down,” and “This has got to stop, and the only way they hear us is through violence, through the means that they use.”
Other factors Miller conveniently ignores include the video footage (and receipts!) of Mattis purchasing the materials needed to build the Molotovs. Prior to the actual attack, the pair were seen attempting to distribute the extra firebombs they created to other rioters on the street. And they successfully destroyed a police cruiser, even if some other rioters had already broken the windows on it.
Nearly everyone has had some “lapse in judgment” they probably regret over the course of their lives. You might raise your voice in anger at a friend or colleague in a fit of temper. You may have been tempted to experiment with some recreational substances in violation of the law. These things happen. But spending several hours constructing firebombs, attempting to distribute them to an angry mob and then blowing up an emergency response vehicle does not fall into that category. There are special laws against such actions for a reason.
The fact that these two were officers of the court only compounds their level of responsibility rather than mitigating it. They are facing a very severe penalty indeed, but they brought this on themselves. Too many of our cities are falling under mob rule and being gutted by rioters. Having attorneys abetting this destruction only hastens the decline we’re experiencing.