They were New York’s answer to the American dream: a couple of Brooklyn kids who clawed their way from humble beginnings to top law schools, good jobs and valued volunteer work.
Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis may have put a match to it all last week, when they joined the first wave of George Floyd protests sweeping the city — and allegedly tossed a Molotov cocktail at an empty NYPD patrol car parked near the 88th Precinct stationhouse in Fort Greene.
No one was hurt. The two were quickly scooped up nearby by Brooklyn cops, who claimed they found the makings of more incendiary devices inside Mattis’ tan minivan when they were pulled over just before 1 a.m. on May 30.
Rahman, who was photographed in the vehicle holding an unlit Bud Light bottle bomb while covering her face with a Palestinian keffiyeh, was caught on surveillance video setting the cop car ablaze, prosecutors said. Mattis was behind the wheel. Now both face a maximum of 20 years in prison on federal charges.
An upswell of friends and family stepped forward to vouch for Rahman and Mattis in court, where they were initially granted home confinement while their case is pending.
Outraged prosecutors repeatedly appealed the decision.
Recounting Mattis’ “extraordinary career” and Ivy League education, prosecutor Ian Richardson pointed out during one bail hearing how the young lawyer “risked everything, everything, to drive around in a car with Molotov cocktails attacking police vehicles. That is not the action of a rational person.”
Assistant US Attorney David Kessler later argued Rahman and Mattis didn’t just toss their own burning cocktails, but “played bomb-maker for others to do the same.”
On Friday, the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, deciding to throw the two in jail.
The real Molotov mystery is what sparked the seemingly upstanding legal eagles to throw away their lives.
Associates of the pair interviewed by The Post described them as near-saintly. But a video interview with Rahman during the protests before her arrest shows her vehemence for violent action.
“This s–t won’t ever stop unless we take it all down and that’s why anger is being expressed tonight in this way,” she said. “People are angry because the police are never held accountable. The only way they hear us is through violence, through the means that they use. … You’ve got to use the master’s tools.’”
Their attitudes have apparently changed behind bars.
“They’re nervous, I can tell you that,” said Salmah Rizvi, a former Obama administration official who knows Rahman and Mattis, and helped guarantee Rahman’s $250,000 bail.
Rizvi, Rahman and Mattis were among a network of lawyers of color who got together at events in the city as well as their homes, where Rahman would dance to Bollywood tunes as they cooked, said Rizvi, who once served in the US State and Defense departments.
Rizvi, a 32-year-old litigator at white-shoe firm Ropes & Gray, called Rahman her “best friend” during a Brooklyn Federal Court hearing.
Rahman and Mattis, she told The Post, are “calm, collected attorneys.”
“Neither … is a child of privilege,” insisted Rahman’s lawyer Paul Shectman in court papers unsuccessfully arguing for the two to be confined to their homes.
The pair, who met through Rizvi, apparently weren’t lovers. Yet they made for an odd couple.
The Pakistani-born Rahman, 31, who grew up in Bay Ridge and was educated at Fordham University and its law school, is a fiery social-justice activist whose work took her to Istanbul, Turkey, where she helped refugees find permanent housing; Egypt; South Africa; and to Israel’s West Bank, where she wrote about the harsh treatment of Palestinians.
“This is why I find it ridiculous when people claim that ‘Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East,’” Rahman wrote in a since-deleted post on Fordham’s Leitner Center for International Law and Justice website after a two-month trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2014. “This is a blatant lie. Israel is nothing of the sort.
“I … witnessed brutality perpetrated by the Israeli Occupational Forces (aka the Israel Defense Forces) as well as by right-wing Zionist settlers on Palestinians who resist the illegal occupation of their land,” she wrote.
Back home in New York, Rahman, who still lives with her mother in Bay Ridge, campaigned against police brutality and most recently, put in long hours at her job at Bronx Legal Services, helping low-income tenants in housing court avoid eviction.
“Urooj was patient, soft, elegant, empathetic and a really good listener,” the Indonesia-born Rizvi told The Post. “She was my sous-chef at dinner parties. She’d cut the onions for me.”
Robert Gangi, a longtime prison-inmate advocate who founded the Police Reform Organizing Project, met Rahman when she worked on his mayoral campaign in 2017. He called her “thoughtful” and said she “got along with everyone.”
“I almost feel she must have been set up,” Gangi said. “The police claim they have a video. Let’s see it.”
Mattis, 32, in contrast to Rahman’s legal-aid career, was employed at a corporate law firm pulling down an estimated $250,000 a year.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Mattis grew up in East New York, graduated from Princeton University, where he headed the African American student union, and NYU Law School. He landed jobs as an associate at big Manhattan firms like Holland & Knight and Pryor Cashman, where he worked on dry legal issues like corporate governance, mergers and acquisitions, and securities.
He also interned around the country, including at the San Francisco mayor’s office; a state senator in Colorado; Microsoft; and Teach for America in New Orleans, according to his LinkedIn page.
“Colin was your average kid from East New York who loved his city,” his friend Miriam Camara told the Post.
Camara, an attorney for Warner Brothers music who met Mattis while they attended Princeton, said, “He was the opposite of someone who divided people.”
Both lawyers maintain strong family and community ties, say those who know them: Rahman is the main caretaker for her elderly, ill mom, with whom she shares a Brooklyn apartment. Mattis lives with his sister and is adopting some of the many foster children his mother, who died last year, had taken in. His father was reportedly stabbed to death in Jamaica when Mattis was a child.
He was recognized by the nonprofit Her Justice last year, after having volunteered “long hours” to help a single mom get better child support, director Amy Barasch told Gothamist. Mattis, who was on furlough from Pryor Cashman before his arrest and was suspended afterward, had been a member of Brooklyn’s Community Board 5, but was removed by the borough president for lack of attendance, according to board chair Andre Mitchell.
“Colin was compassionate and gentle,” Rizvi said. “His mother was the same way. I was at her deathbed last year and she was reaching out to me, asking if I was OK, even then.”
She said Mattis was a Bernie Sanders supporter, loved music and was a fan of the leftist Jacobin magazine.
“Everyone loved him,” recalled Camara. “I was super shy and self-conscious about being a black girl from Staten Island when I got to Princeton. He invited me to the coolest eating club and I blew him off because I was scared. But he persuaded me to go in with him and it was wonderful. … He took care of everyone.”
Camara told The Post she never saw Mattis post anything political on social media, even after Floyd’s May 25 death. His profile, which is set to private, features a famous image of a Baton Rouge protester in a flowing summer dress standing solemnly in front of two officers dressed in riot gear.
Another Mattis friend, Taylor, 27, who did not want her last name used, said he was the one who checked in with her when she was grieving the loss of her great-grandmother.
“That was him,” Taylor said. “He was the best. I’m not even reading the news about what happened. … I just know him.”
Camara, angry with news reports which didn’t make it clear that Mattis had apparently not thrown the Molotov cocktails, defended her friend in a Facebook video.
“They won’t tell you how hard he fought to get to Princeton while they use our school for clickbait,” Camara said. “They won’t tell you how the school system wrote him off in second grade for literacy issues but that he made it to the top after that. They’re just piling on him and hiding the level of his involvement.”
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