Attorney who helped firebomb NYPD car during BLM protests sentenced to prison

Colinford Mattis.
Colinford Mattis arrives at federal court in Brooklyn on Thursday. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
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BROOKLYN — In a dramatic hearing on Thursday, a federal judge sentenced a corporate attorney who firebombed a police car during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests to a year in jail, arguing that his prestigious education — boarding school, Princeton, a law degree from New York University — should have rendered him a peacekeeper, not an instigator.

“You’re not one of the oppressed. You’re one of the privileged,” senior Eastern District of New York Judge Brian Cogan told Colinford Mattis, even as he expressed admiration for what the 35-year-old had accomplished in his life.

The sentencing marked the culmination of a two-and-a-half-year legal battle that saw Mattis and his co-defendant, Urooj Rahman, become symbols of the nation’s political tumult and divisions. Spanning two presidential administrations, their case saw competing imperatives play out in public and in the courtroom, as well as in the media.

To the Heritage Foundation they were “terrorists,” while New York magazine allowed that they could be seen as “civil-rights heroes, even martyrs.” The Daily Mail called them “woke lawyers.” In the pages of the New York Times, they were described by a guest contributor as victims of “deeply ingrained injustices.”

The Justice Department under then-President Donald Trump sought to put them away for at least 45 years. But then Joe Biden became president, and in both cases the Justice Department settled for much less. They ended up pleading guilty last summer to conspiracy to commit arson. Both will lose their law licenses.

Booking photos of Mattis and Rahman.
Booking photos of Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman taken on May 30, 2020. (U.S. Attorney's Office via AP)

“You’re a good guy. No question,” Cogan told Mattis, dressed in a blue shirt and tan khakis. Before reading the sentence — 12 months and one day, a fine of $30,000 and one year of probation — the judge asked for a few moments of quiet contemplation, a final opportunity to think through a case that had become a topic of national interest and a referendum on racism and policing, privilege and justice, not to mention the coronavirus pandemic that seemed to bring those and other forces into inescapable public confrontation.

The facts of the case were never in dispute. But what those facts mean remains deeply unsettled, as the nation continues to struggle with racial and social divisions. Promising attorneys who seemed to embody a fundamental American promise, Mattis and Rahman both said in court that they had allowed anger to consume them.

“I’ll be spending every day for the rest of my life trying to make this right,” Rahman said at her sentencing. She will spend 15 months in jail. Standing before the same judge three months later, Mattis voiced the same sentiment. “I ruined my life with my conduct that night,” he said on Thursday.

In succumbing to anger at a time of profound division, fear and isolation, the two were perhaps no different from many other Americans who see no meaningful outlet for their frustration at what they see as society’s misguided direction. Political violence remains rare, but it is rising. For the most part, the perpetrators are far-right extremists. In this case, the malefactors were progressives, which may be why the case gained national attention.

Activists carry protest signs reading: I can't breathe and Defund the police.
Activists march in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn on May 31, 2020. (Kevin Hagen/AP)

It was Rahman, a social justice activist who worked in housing law, who threw a Bud Light bottle filled with gasoline — a wick of toilet paper served as the fuse — at an abandoned New York Police Department vehicle in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn in the early hours of May 30, 2020, as New York and many other cities, large and small, across the nation erupted in social justice protests.

Mattis drove the car. But it was he who purchased the gasoline used to make the flaming Molotov cocktail that Rahman threw.

Though generally peaceful, the ragged edges of that summer’s Black Lives Matter protests sometimes devolved into violence, mostly involving destruction of private property. Whereas more than a few defendants from the Jan. 6, 2021, pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol have achieved a measure of public notoriety — several have even run for public office — Rahman and Mattis are the rare social justice protesters privy to the same attention.

Cogan’s obviously genuine compassion for Mattis — who is raising three foster children, for whom he was left to care after his mother died from uterine cancer — was overcome by a sense that the vehement demonstrations that followed George Floyd’s killing needed attorneys to monitor police misconduct instead of partaking in misconduct of their own.

“We really needed you. We really needed the lawyers,” Cogan said as he mulled the “horrible night” that saw violence erupt all over New York. Several officers of the NYPD were accused of overly aggressive tactics in confronting protesters throughout late May and early June 2020.

Police officers stand off with protesters during a demonstration.
New York police officers push back protesters during a demonstration in Brooklyn on May 30, 2020. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Mattis’s defense attorney Sabrina Shroff argued that her client’s alcohol abuse and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, prevented him from thinking clearly. She said that late night calls with him could be something of an ordeal.

“He just sounded drunk,” Shroff said.

Cogan appeared unconvinced by appeals to neurodivergence or substance abuse, pointing to Mattis’s educational and professional record as evidence that he had more internal fortitude than Shroff suggested.

Still, the proceedings were informed by the knowledge that a much worse fate could have awaited Mattis and Rahman. In the broadest terms, it was the 2020 presidential election that came to their rescue.

Within hours of their arrest, the case was transferred from state to federal court, an unusual move for a crime that involved no bodily harm or loss of life. The police van they torched had already been vandalized. Trump’s Justice Department plainly wanted to make an example of the duo, as the unstinting June 11 indictment filed against them made clear.

Prosecutors also fought to keep them in pretrial detention, leading to a campaign on the imprisoned pair’s behalf. “The Trump Administration is wielding the punitive force of this system against Colin and Urooj, who are Black and South Asian, respectively, in order to chill popular protest against the unjust status quo,” read an open letter from civil rights and progressive advocacy groups. The letter said that “cruel and unnecessary” treatment the two experienced “reflects the Trump Administration’s animosity towards the powerful and growing Movement for Black Lives.”

Police officers in riot gear push back protesters as a police car with NYPD painted on the side burns during a demonstration.
Police officers push back protesters as a police car burns during a demonstration in Brooklyn on May 30, 2020. (Seth Wenig/AP)

A judge set them free on bond that June. Even then, they still faced a potential minimum 45-year prison sentence from prosecutors who seemed determined to see them as domestic terrorists, not hapless vandals. But then came the turnover of presidential administrations; almost exactly a year after the two were first arrested, federal prosecutors — now in Biden’s employ, not Trump’s — gave Mattis and Rahman a plea deal that, were they to accept it, would give them no more than two years in jail.

Conservatives were outraged, with a National Review editorial criticizing Biden for “shameful pandering.” That and similar charges seemed to ignore the fact that Mattis and Rahman have their professional and personal lives ruined for the foreseeable future — and perhaps for the rest of their lives.

Mattis’s defense attorney Shroff said on Thursday that the crime her client had committed was “going to forever mark him.” Speaking a few minutes later, Mattis described the family he was trying to build, the three children from whom he will be separated once his jail term begins in several weeks.

“I ruined that,” he said.