According to authorities, on the night of May 29, while a Black Lives Matter protest raged through Downtown and Central Brooklyn, attorney Urooj Rahman—a keffiyeh drawn over the lower half of her face—set fire to a rag jammed in a Bud Lite bottle full of gasoline. She allegedly then tossed it through the already-shattered window of an empty police vehicle in the neighborhood of Fort Greene. She jumped into a minivan piloted by and belonging to her friend and fellow lawyer Colinford Mattis, who police say tried to drive off with the raw materials of more Molotov cocktails in the backseat. The NYPD intercepted them a short distance away.
The improvised explosive failed to fully alight, and only seared the cruiser’s console. Nobody got hurt. But the two face heavy sentences of up to 45 years or even life in prison if convicted, thanks to prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York deciding to try them federally rather than leaving the matter to local authorities. This makes their case one of roughly two dozen linked to recent anti-racist unrest nationwide in which the Department of Justice has intervened.
The two have pleaded not guilty to the charges, but the case will take some time to wind its way through the court system. Meanwhile, a pair of accounts on the cash-for-causes platform Fundrazr have amassed more than $480,000 to support them.
Crowdfunding efforts to underwrite bail costs for arrested demonstrators have proliferated across the internet in the weeks since Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd on May 25 and touched off a wave of public outrage. But the twin donation pages for Rahman and Mattis weren’t intended to ransom them from jail. As the founder of the Fundrazr page for Mattis noted, the two had already posted bond—only for the U.S. Attorney’s office to appeal their release and get them dragged back into custody.
“It’s for right now, whatever the needs of his family are right now,” Amara Nwannunu told The Daily Beast, noting Mattis had recently lost his mother, gotten furloughed from his corporate associate position at law firm Pryor Cashman, and has three foster children to care for. “He’s being locked up, he’s not able to provide for his family, and he was serving that primary role, that financial support role.”
The pair regained their freedom, in the short term, on June 30, after an appeals court affirmed a lower judge’s determination to grant them bail. Through a spokesperson, they both declined to comment for this article.
Nwannunu, who attended Princeton University with Mattis, declined to comment on what she thought of the allegations. But the Washington, D.C.-based attorney said that she did not start the Fundrazr page with the belief Mattis would be sent to prison for several decades. Rather, she imagined the money—which she said Mattis will ultimately decide how to spend—would sustain him and his foster children through a protracted legal battle.
“It’s going to be a long timeline that he’s going be dealing with the case,” Nwannunu said. “Money can’t change the case. Money can’t take away these charges. But it can help him meet his financial obligations while he’s dealing with this case.”
Nwannunu told The Daily Beast she and Mattis were not particularly close as undergraduates, but were part of what she described as “a pretty small community of Black students.” It was the news of the initial stay on the district court’s bail order last month, and of Mattis’s return to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, that Nwannunu said inspired her to reach out to other members of this intimate circle to try and help him.
She wound up making contact with “literally dozens of people” who had known Mattis. His early life took him from East New York in Brooklyn to the Prep for Prep program for disadvantaged youth and the prestigious St. Andrew’s School in Delaware, to the Ivy League and New York University Law School, to Teach for America in New Orleans and the elite legal world. Nwannunu set up the Fundrazr, while other friends created a landing page and activated a network of social media accounts to promote the campaign.
The landing page SupportColin.com links to SupportUrooj.com, but the Fundrazr tied to the former reports having rallied more than twice as much money to its cause: $331,169 from 7,474 donors compared to $157,503 from 4,535 as of Friday. Money came in so fast, according to Nwannunu, she quickly increased the goal from $200,00 to $350,000.
Rahman’s account, meanwhile, was still shooting for $200,000. The human rights attorney’s older sister, Shagufta Rahman Burgess, set up the Fundrazr but did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
However, the note atop the page—along with Rahman’s lawyer Paul Shechtman—confirmed that the dollars collected will also go to defray personal and family expenses, particularly those associated with her 74-year-old mother, with whom she resides.
“The money raised by these efforts will help support Urooj’s family, who are devastated by her detainment and need help during this difficult time,” Shechtman told The Daily Beast through a spokesperson. “She is deeply grateful for the support she has received.”
Many of the donations include personal notes, suggesting the contributors know the accused.
“Urooj, I’m so sorry that you’re in this predicament. You have my support, I literally just texted everyone I know to let them know what’s going on and to donate or dial in. I hope for the best for you,” one donor wrote.
At least one other contributor referenced Rahman’s alma mater, Fordham University, and Mattis’s account includes several shout-outs to St. Andrew’s School, NYU, and Princeton. But Nwannunu said many of the people who gave to her former classmate were unfamiliar, and both defendants appear to have received donations from prominent public figures, including several civil rights lawyers and employees of major tech firms.
“The charges against Colin seem incredibly unfair and outrageous. Would love to contribute to his freedom from federal suppression and oppression,” wrote an account under the name of Brianne Garcia Ziff, a designer and the wife of billionaire Daniel Ziff. Garcia Ziff did not respond to requests to confirm she was the one who had given $500 to the fund.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, law enforcement experts argue the efforts to bolster Mattis and Rahman are irresponsible. Specifically, they say, such campaigns risk further inflaming a policing culture war increasingly defined by enraged cop unions, threats of sickouts, escalating protest and counter-protest rhetoric, and calls to defund departments.
Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer and Brooklyn prosecutor, called the sentences the pair face “a gargantuan overstretch” and “grossly disproportionate” to their alleged offenses. Certainly, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice faculty member said, attacking an unoccupied cop car is less egregious than hurling a Molotov cocktail into one with four NYPD officers inside, as an upstate New York woman stands accused of doing in an unrelated incident the same night in May.
O’Donnell warned, though, that valorizing the duo could normalize dangerous and destructive acts and ultimately benefit hard-liners like President Donald Trump.
“Violence is a dangerous game. Supporting, countenancing violence is a dangerous game,” O’Donnell said. “This is tailor-made for the Trump base—including the fundraising part. Who raises money for people who set a police car on fire in a crowded urban area?”
But Nwannunu asserted that the support for Mattis reflects both his personal merits, and a larger reckoning with racial injustice.
“To an extent, it speaks to who he is on an individual level,” she said. “But it also speaks to this historic moment we’re in right now, with the focus on police violence against Black and brown people.”