BROOKLYN — Forty-five years.
That’s how long Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis, two New York City lawyers, may spend in federal prison after throwing what authorities described as a Molotov cocktail into an empty New York Police Department car in the middle of an anti-police violence protest in late May.
Over the last week, both Rahman, 31, and Mattis, 32, have pleaded not guilty to seven federal charges, including arson and use of explosives. One of those charges is usually seen in cases of gang violence or terrorism, according Rahman’s lawyer, a former federal prosecutor.
Rahman and Mattis aren’t the only two facing federal charges in connection with the protests that erupted in late May after the police killing of George Floyd: VICE News has identified more than 70 cases where federal prosecutors filed criminal complaints in connection to the protests, including many where defendants have been charged with interfering with “interstate commerce” in some way — which lets federal prosecutors tackle a case rather than letting local enforcement handle it.
These cases represent an unusually harsh wave of federal prosecution for the kind of civil disturbances that career prosecutors say would normally be handled by more local jurisdictions. President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice has used tools developed to fight terrorists against those who stand accused of violence that has infrequently accompanied demonstrations against police brutality.
And these charges can come with lengthy prison terms.
For example, of the cases reviewed by VICE News, at least 12 involved situations where the defendants were accused of damaging property used in “interstate commerce,” such as a police car, or attempting to do so. In one case, in New Jersey, a 21-year-old accused of trying to light a cloth stuffed into a police car’s gas tank now faces up to 20 years in federal prison, according to government documents. In another, a 26-year-old who allegedly threw an accelerant on a burning cop car in Utah could spend a decade behind bars. He’s being held, without bail, until his trial.
Others were hit with federal charges for blocking cops’ ability to oversee interstate commerce, or because their alleged means of communication was inherently interstate, such as a man who was charged with threatening to start a riot on his social media posts.
When it comes to choosing which cases to pursue and which charges to apply, federal prosecutors have broad discretion. But usually, they don’t consider individual cases of vandalism, defacing property, or even rioting to be worthy of federal charges — or on par with terrorist acts, as the Trump administration has suggested.
“The politics of the defendants certainly sound like they are playing a role in the DOJ decisions as to who to target.”
“Those are traditionally treated as state crimes or normal federal crimes,” said Patrick Cotter, a former prosecutor from the Eastern District of New York. “The politics of the defendants certainly sound like they are playing a role in the DOJ decisions as to who to target. That, of course, is improper in the most profound sense. But not surprising for this DOJ.”
And it appears the DOJ is just getting started. On Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the Department of Justice “has arrested over 100 anarchists on charges of rioting and destruction of federal property,” and that the FBI has more than 200 ongoing investigations into what she called “domestic terrorism.”
The Trump administration has made no secret of its determination to prosecute people in connection to the protests, who its officials have repeatedly indicated are radical. (The vast majority of protests appear to be peaceful.) In late May, Attorney General Bill Barr said that federal law enforcement would deploy its network of FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces to identify what he called “criminal organizers and instigators” and baselessly attributed violence and vandalism to antifa.
“The violence instigated and carried out by antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly,” Barr said.
In a June 26 memo sent to the heads of all U.S. attorneys offices, he promised to use the FBI to “develop detailed information about violent anti-government extremist individuals, networks, and movements.”
In VICE News’ review of public documents from the cases, there is no evidence that any of the arrested people were connected to antifa.
None of the former federal prosecutors who spoke to VICE News thought that the Department of Justice was illegally charging protesters on the federal level. Because federal prosecutors have such a wide menu of charges to pick from, they can usually find ones that fit the alleged crime. What did surprise these experts is how frequently prosecutors are taking on what would otherwise be more local cases.
“It’s taking place on city property. It’s a city police car. There are local laws that deal with all of these things, and it just happens to happen in the course of a protest,” said Rachel Barkow, faculty director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law NYU School of Law. Barkow also previously served as a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
It’s usually very easy to establish a connection to “interstate commerce” in a case, legal experts said. But that doesn’t mean it’s always prudent to do so.
“These are laws that are out there that they can charge, but there’s a real question about whether they should, as an exercise of discretion. And that to me is what’s really disturbing about these cases. Why are they doing it? Because they don’t have to,” Barkow said. “By taking it federally and by bringing charges that have such grotesquely long punishments, it’s hard to read these cases as anything other than political theater.”
Paul Shechtman, Rahman’s attorney and a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, said that charges like the ones his client is facing are usually seen in cases involving gangs and organized crime.
“You don’t see it [in cases against] two people who, at worst, got caught up in the moment and where no one was harmed,” he said. Neither Rahman nor Mattis has a criminal record.
In her Monday press briefing, McEnany repeatedly tied protester violence to Democrats.
“The rampant destruction of statues is not a part of any ideology, but this anarchy is aided by failed Democrat leadership,” McEnany told reporters.
In fact, so far, the only instance where extremists with connections to an organized movement are facing federal charges for attempting to instigate violence amid the protests does not involve the far-left antifa movement. Instead, it involves three alleged far-right radicals — members of the so-called boogaloo movement, which has attempted to hijack Black Lives Matter protests to trigger a civil war. (These men, too, are facing charges linked to the attempted destruction of property used in interstate commerce.)
In his memo, Barr acknowledged that the DOJ had gone after Boogaloo Bois. But he also said that the DOJ had disrupted antifa, grouping under the radically oppositional ideologies under the catch-all phrase “anti-government extremists.”
Barbara McQuade, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, didn’t think that federal prosecutors’ focus on the protests was necessarily improper. The DOJ will sometimes launch initiatives to target certain types of crimes — such as drug dealing — for federal prosecutions. If the feds step in, the thinking goes, people may think twice before committing crimes.
Still, McQuade was surprised by Barr’s willingness to throw around the term “antifa” when there’s been no publicly available evidence that antifa has had any role in turning protests violent.
“If there are no allegations in any of these cases that antifa was involved, then it’s inappropriate for William Barr to be making statements about antifa’s involvement.”
“If there are no allegations in any of these cases that antifa was involved, then it’s inappropriate for William Barr to be making statements about antifa’s involvement,” McQuade said. “To suggest that he knows something you don’t know, without being able to back it up with filed criminal charges, is inappropriate.”
In its review, VICE News did find some charges where it’s less unusual for federal prosecutors to step in — some cases, for instance, involved charges for felons in possession of firearms, which the feds do traditionally handle. Others involved alleged destruction or attempted destruction of federal property.
Still, there’s a lopsidedness to the prosecutions. Over the last few months, multiple high-profile “anti-lockdown” protests have broken out over restrictions enacted to combat the coronavirus. In photos, many of those protesters — who were overwhelmingly white — were armed. Over the weekend, images of a white couple pointing firearms at anti-police violence protesters in St. Louis also went viral. In an incident report, police described the couple as the victims, according to the Washington Post.
In one criminal complaint reviewed by VICE News, police arrested a Texas man after he attended a protest holding a rifle pointed toward the ground. The man told police that he would protect protesters from counterprotesters. He was later charged with “threatening interstate communications,” because he posted what law enforcement said were threatening comments about “racists and MAGA people” on Facebook.
The DOJ didn’t respond to a VICE News inquiry about how its various U.S. attorneys general offices chose which protest-linked cases to pursue and how the offices coordinated their effort.
“I’d be curious how many ‘domestic terrorism’ cases they have opened against people who storm state houses while armed with weapons, or who threaten violence against ‘left’ protestors and politicians, or otherwise engage in organizations that preach race war and violence,” Cotter said.
Although a lower court ruled that Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis should be released under house arrest and electronic monitoring, federal prosecutors appealed that decision and sought to jail the pair until their trials.
“This is not a case about a youthful indiscretion or a crime of passion, it’s about a calculated, dangerous crime [that] risked the lives of innocent civilians and first responders,” prosecutor David Kessler told the judges at a hearing for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. While Mattis and Rahman may have previously been law-abiding citizens, he argued that their alleged crimes marked “a crossing of the Rubicon.”
On Tuesday night, however, the court rejected that argument and agreed to release Rahman and Mattis again.
“An individual is more than the crime of which that individual has been accused,” Judge Peter Hall wrote in the majority opinion.
The day before the decision came down, hundreds of people called into Rahman’s morning arraignment while the conference line was open and unmuted. Amid the chorus of well wishes, the voice of Rahman’s ailing mother kept breaking through. She wanted her daughter to know she was loved.
Her daughter responded in a calm, clear voice: “Love you, Mom.”
Cover: A New York Police Department car was set on fire during anti-police violence protests in late May in the southern Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush. (Joe Hill for VICE News)