Why Is Biden’s DOJ Continuing This Trump-Era Witch Hunt?
As part of a push to present police reform protesters as the “real terrorists,” federal prosecutors made an example via a very local crime. Biden’s team is standing by it.
As of this writing, Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman are scheduled to go on trial in March 2022, and to face a jury tasked with deciding whether they will spend the next 45 years—the mandatory minimum in their case, with life being the maximum—behind bars in a federal jail.
The crime committed by the two New York City lawyers that warrants such a draconian sentence, according to the U.S. Department of Justice? In May 202o, amidst raging protests over the murder of George Floyd by police, Rahman allegedly threw a lit Molotov cocktail through the already broken window of an empty New York City police car, then left the scene in a mini-van driven and owned by Mattis. Cops who arrested the pair—the criminal complaint and DOJ press release state the crime was documented by “an NYPD surveillance camera” and on-site witnesses—claim Mattis and Rahman’s van cargo included another unlit homemade explosive, a lighter and a tank of gasoline. As for the tossed Molotov cocktail, it failed to fully ignite, causing minimal damage to the already vandalized, unoccupied squad car.
Typically, a case like this—which former federal public defender and law professor Lara Bazelon described to me as “a very serious form of vandalism and property destruction, which is normally very much a state court issue”—would be handled by local Brooklyn prosecutors. Instead, following their arrest, Mattis and Rahman were sent to the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal prison recently criticized for its “disgusting, inhuman” conditions by one New York federal judge, and government attorneys took over the case. On paper, Trump DOJ lawyers justified this unorthodox upcharge by asserting that the NYPD is “an institution and organization receiving federal financial assistance” and that its squad cars are “used in interstate and foreign commerce.” But as Bazelon told me, that still makes the alleged offense “a federal crime in the most attenuated way,” and suggests “a politically motivated power move” by the Trump administration “to have the federal government step in and take over a case that by all rights should be in state court.”
To put that in a way that Trump himself bandied about, the ongoing federal case against Mattis and Rahman is a witch hunt.
“It’s a remarkably aggressive assertion of federal jurisdiction that can only be read as the expression of a will to chill protest activity for racial justice. That's the only way to read that decision,” says Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York and founder of the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility Project. “When you look at the offenses underlying what these two people are alleged to have done, you would expect them to be charged in state court under state law, if at all, and I want to emphasize that. Because prosecutors have a great deal of discretion, and it would be perfectly reasonable for a prosecutor in this context to use her discretion not to charge at all. But if that conduct is charged, you’d expect to see those charges brought at a state court. For the government to make a federal case out of it, literally, bespeaks an intention to send a chilling message to anti-racist protesters nationwide who were part of this historically unprecedented Black-led movement for racial justice.”
The Justice Department under Trump—a president who retweeted footage of his supporters proudly shouting racist mantras and who once threatened to indiscriminately shoot Black Lives Matter protesters—made no secret of its intent to target BLM protesters. Attorney General Bill Barr’s response to 2020’s racial justice protests was to create a Task Force expressly dedicated to aggressively prosecuting violent “anti-government extremists,” whom the administration dramatically suggested might be aligned with “foreign entities seeking to sow chaos and disorder.” Since 2015, American intelligence agencies have known that the majority of anti-government extremist threats to national security are made by American white supremacist groups; less than a year before Barr’s memo, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report identifying right-wing extremists as the “most persistent and lethal threat” to the country; and mere weeks before Mattis and Rahman were arrested, Trump applauded mobs of armed white anti-COVID lockdown terrorists who stormed the Michigan statehouse.
But the government focused its punitive efforts on anti-racist protesters like Mattis and Rahman, whom the DOJ slapped with a staggering seven felony charges—“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”—and dialed up the scaremongering rhetoric by turning a dud explosive that charred a police dashboard into “an incendiary device” used in “a crime of violence.”
Rahman, a first generation Pakistani-American human rights lawyer who works for Bronx Legal Services, providing legal counsel for low-income folks facing eviction, is the caretaker of her elderly mother. Mattis, whose parents immigrated from the Caribbean, after graduating Princeton and attending New York University Law school, worked in corporate law, and was given an award in 2019 for his pro-bono efforts on behalf of an indigent client. He took over parenting duties for three children whom his mother had been fostering, all under the age of 11, after her death in 2019.
Neither Mattis nor Rahman had been arrested before. But federal lawyers argue that the contents of the mini-van the two were arrested in proved they planned to undertake more attacks, and to “incite others” to the same. They’ve also suggested the two attorneys’ support networks, careers and educational backgrounds are reasons to keep them locked up. At one bail hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian Richardson told the court that Mattis was not “a rational person” because despite having “attended prestigious universities” and possessing “extraordinary career,” he had “risked everything, everything, to drive around in a car with Molotov cocktails attacking police vehicles.” When a federal magistrate on June 1 released the two attorneys, after two days in jail, on $250,000 bond to home confinement with GPS monitoring, lawyers for the government twice appealed the decision, ultimately succeeded in having a three-judge panel of Trump appointees remand the two to confinement.
In response, 56 former federal prosecutors signed an amicus brief noting the government “appears to take the novel legal position that any facts that existed prior to a defendant’s alleged criminal conduct (and failed to prevent it)—such as strong family and community ties, stable employment, a stable address, and a lack of criminal history—are insufficient to assure the safety of the community and thus cannot support a bail order. This argument, offered without any reasoning that would limit its application to this particular case, amounts to a per se rule that runs contrary both to the law and to our collective decades of experience as federal prosecutors and should be rejected.”
Rahman and Mattis were finally rereleased on June 30, meaning they served nearly three weeks in jail, more time than many of the terrorists who waltzed into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, viciously beat up police, and threatened the lives of various lawmakers. Clearly, the administration’s “tough on crime” stance was pointedly weaponized solely toward Black and other anti-racist protesters, with the end result that Mattis and Rahman now face nearly half-a-century behind bars.
“Any fair-minded person thinks that there was overcharging here in order to send a message about the toughness of the federal government at the time,” Paul Shechtman, Rahman’s lawyer at Bracewell LLP, told me. “Wanting to be tough is not an excuse for exercising poor judgment.”
Last week, The Movement for Black Lives, in partnership with with the CUNY Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility Project—the group founded by Kassem—released a report that confirms the Trump administration “deliberately targeted supporters of the movement to defend Black lives during the summer of 2020 uprisings in order to disrupt and discourage Black organizing.” After studying 326 criminal cases brought by the feds against anti-racist protesters between between May 31 and Oct. 25, 2020, researchers found “the drive to use federal charges against protesters” like Mattis and Rahman “stemmed from “top-down directives from” Trump and Barr, and that the administration “greatly exaggerated the threat of violence,” leaning into rhetoric that would paint BLM protesters as “violent radicals.” Most anti-racist activists arrested and charged with federal crimes committed “non-violent offenses or offenses that were potentially hazardous but were restricted to property destruction,” and in fact, “the only two violent charges related to murder were brought against counter-protester members of the Boogaloo Bois, a far-right paramilitary faction that includes many white supremacists.”
The government’s hyper-prosecutorial stance resulted in federal charges in 93 percent of cases where “there were equivalent state level charges that could have been brought,” and in those cases, “88 percent of the federal criminal charges carried more severe potential sentences than the equivalent state criminal charges for the same or similar conduct.” In just over a quarter of the cases studied, federal prosecutors “stacked charges” against defendants, bringing “multiple redundant charges… arising from the same facts—leading to far more severe potential sentences against defendants.” (Numbers on race were only available for 27 percent of defendants, but in those cases, 52 percent of those charged were Black; within that majority, 91 percent were Black men.) As with Mattis and Rahman”—a Black man and Pakistani-American Muslim woman—22 percent of federal charges carried mandatory minimum sentences. And in one fifth of those prosecutions, “the defendant is alleged to have attempted, conspired, or aided and abetted an underlying crime without having actually committed the underlying criminal conduct.” Federal arson charges were the most commonly imposed.
“The way that the charges were brought in these cases was deliberately calculated, in my view, to send two messages to two different audiences,” Kassem told me. “The first message, of course, was to the defendants. The charges were structured to carry a 45-year mandatory minimum. And that creates incredible pressure on any defendant to accept a plea that would yield a smaller number of years behind bars rather than take the risk of going to trial and ending up with the mandatory minimum of 45 years, or maximum of life, in prison under these charges. The other message is the political message that was calculated to be sent to racial justice protesters all over the country that the federal government was going to very aggressively assert its jurisdiction to disrupt this unprecedented movement for racial justice.”
“It’s the kind of case the Trump administration wanted to take, because it helped promote their narrative that people who participate in Black Lives Matter protests are overwhelmingly violent and dangerous and a threat to national security," says Bazelon. "It was all about making the face of BLM into the face of scariness and out-of-control crime. The intended message was that what we really needed to be afraid of wasn’t white supremacy, but rather the people who were in the streets protesting it.”
Plea discussions in Mattis and Rahman’s case have slowed, though Shechtman told me that while those “talks have stalled, they are not over.” According to the AP, “Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian Richardson gave a Sept. 17 deadline for the lawyers to accept the government’s plea offers and warned they faced ‘far greater’ potential prison sentences if they rejected them and proceeded to trial.” I asked Bazelon and Kassem why the Biden administration hasn’t reined in the prosecution of Mattis and Rahman.
“You’re talking about line prosecutors and they’re still there. The same people who brought these charges are still in office, and they’re still very, very much invested in this case. So that’s the first thing,” Bazelon, who also heads the Criminal Juvenile Justice & Racial Justice Clinics at the University of San Francisco School of Law, told me. “The second thing is that the train has left the station. The charges have been filed. The evidence has been gathered. The federal government has all of its ducks in a row. And once that’s happened—once those big decisions have been made to exercise jurisdiction to take the case, to file the charges—it’s very hard to dial it back without looking like you’re doing some kind of huge undeserved favor to two people who many people in the public believe are undeserving of that kind of mercy. I think because this case is so high profile and so polarizing, I doubt that the administration wants to spend political capital intervening. I do think that probably whatever deal is on the table is far better than whatever deal would have been on the table had Donald Trump won reelection.”
Kassem offered a similar take. “No reason other than a disappointing lack of political will and vision. What the Biden administration folks are thinking, probably far too timidly, is that to do anything would be to interfere with the Justice Department’s workings. But that’s not the case. What happened in these cases is itself a distortion of what the Justice Department is supposed to be doing. Biden campaigned in part on a racial justice platform. And so he owes the voters a course correction here. For the Biden administration to intervene and rein in these overzealous, politically motivated prosecutions of racial justice protesters would be a necessary correction and an intervention that brought the Justice Department back to its normal track. The aberration would not be the Biden adminstration’s course correction. The aberration is the fact that these cases were brought in the first place, and that they continue to be prosecuted along lines that were drawn out by the Trump administration transparently to disrupt organizing by Black folks for racial justice.”
Shechtman, without revealing the substance of the plea discussions, did tell me the talks have “revealed that the government is less wildly aggressive than they were when this case first started” under Trump.
He added, “Urooj Rahman is anything but a terrorist. This was an aberrant act in the passion of the moment, and I’m still hoping the government will not treat her as if she were a terrorist.”