The New York media is titillated, mystified and horrified all at the same time. Why did two seemingly promising young lawyers allegedly carry out a Molotov cocktail attack on an New York Police Department police car? How is it possible that they would cross the line over to violence, upend their lives, and jeopardize their legal careers?
On May 30, in the first days of protests and looting in New York City following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Urooj Rahman and her friend Colinford Mattis allegedly gathered gasoline and other materials in order to construct Molotov cocktails. According to court documents, they brought the homemade bombs to the protest, and Rahman is accused of hurling a Molotov cocktail inside the broken window of a police car. The pair also reportedly attempted to distribute the Molotov cocktails to others to encourage them to do the same. After initially being released on bail, the court on Friday ordered both of them back to jail. If convicted, they could face between 5 and 20 years in federal prison and be disbarred.
During her attack on the police car, Rahman wore a Palestinian keffiya covering her nose and mouth in imitation of Palestinian protesters. A photo of her that appears in court papers shows her brandishing a Molotov cocktail in one hand while holding the keffiya over the lower part of her face with the other hand. In a video interview with Loudlabs News conducted on a Brooklyn street, Rahman wears a blue medical mask and additionally wraps her keffiya around the back of her neck and over her lower face. This imitation of Palestinian protesters does not appear to be accidental.
During the interview, Rahman justified the violence taking place against the police. People are so angry and frustrated over the deaths of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and too many others, she said, that the only answer is violence: "This s--t won't ever stop unless we f—king take it all down, and that's why the anger is being expressed tonight in this way. These people have so much pain – we all have so much pain from how f—ked up this country is towards black lives. This has to stop. And the only way they hear, the only way they hear us is through violence, through the means that they use. We've got to use the [slave] master's tools, that's what my friend always says."
When asked if she had heard that some police officers were hurt that night, Rahman again justified violence and blamed the mayor for not pulling the police back. Violence would continue, she warned, because "nothing else works." She also asserted that no reform of the police would be sufficient and declared, "It's not gonna be enough until they defund the police."
Rahman has a history as both a supporter of the Palestinian cause and an anti-police activist from her student days at Fordham Law. She was awarded a Tollan fellowship which enabled her to spend the summer of 2014 working in Haifa and the West Bank. There, she was a legal intern at Mada Al-Carmel, the Arab Center for Applied Social Science Research/ Palestine Works, engaging in "research, fact-finding and advocacy work on political, social, economic and legal issues affecting Palestinian citizens of Israel." In September 2016, Rahman authored an article in the Fordham Leitner Center Interns Blog describing her experiences titled, "Witnessing occupation, apartheid and resistance in Palestine/Israel."
"My fieldwork confirmed for me that the lives of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as inside Israel are seen as expendable and less valued by the Israeli government," she wrote. "The systematic oppression they face is viewed as a necessary consequence to keep the Israeli military state in power and to assert dominance over the indigenous Palestinian population."
Rahman described joining thousands of people in a 2014 Palestinian protest in the West Bank town of Qalandiya. While Rahman claimed the demonstration was peaceful, media reports indicate that it was violent and included displays of mock rocket launchers glorifying those used by Hamas against Israeli civilians.
In another piece, Rahman claims that "Palestinian citizens [inside Israel] are also often denied their 'democratic' [sic] right to protest." Yet she describes taking part in a demonstration in Haifa together with both Palestinian Arab and Jewish Israelis, which was organized and led by Arab members of the Israeli parliament who opposed the policies of the Israeli government. She neglects to mention that the protesters clashed with police.
In 2014, she helped to produce a report jointly published by Robert Gangi's Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) and the Leitner International Human Rights Clinic at Fordham Law. Rahman's research for the project is acknowledged at the end of the document.
Gangi is a longtime critic of the NYPD and an advocate for prison inmates who heads PROP, which aims to "to stop the current wasteful, ineffective, unjust, illegal, bullying, homophobic, transphobic, and racially biased practices of the NYPD."
PROP's recommendations concerning the relationship of the New York Police Department towards the Muslim community echo those of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)-New York Anti-Surveillance Project, which claims that the NYPD is "inherently biased" against Muslims. PROP similarly wants the mayor and police commissioner to end what it calls the "suspicion-less surveillance of MuslimAmericans, starting by having the NYPD disavow its "radicalization" theory, on which discriminatory surveillance is based." These claims continue to be promoted by CAIR despite recent significant policy changes made by Mayor Bill de Blasio to improve relations with the Muslim community.
Several years after working on the PROP paper, Rahman was described as a "Pakistani-American activist" who served as a policy coordinator for Gangi's unsuccessful 2017 mayoral primary challenge to de Blasio. Gangi defended Rahman after her arrest and claimed, "I almost feel she must have been set up."
Another of Rahman's unwavering defenders since her arrest is Salmah Rizvi. Rizvi is a former intelligence analyst who worked as a Truman Fellow in the State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism and in the Defense Department during the Obama administration. Rizvi posted bail for Rahman on June 1 and described her to the court as "my best friend."
Rahman has also signaled admiration for female revolutionaries by tweeting an article link titled "10 Female Revolutionaries That You Won't Hear About in History Class."
Among them were Tawakkol Karman, the 2011 Nobel laureate who gained prominence as a leader of Al-Islah, the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood. Following her acceptance of the prize, she was feted in Qatar by the extremist and anti-Semitic Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. Also featured was American revolutionary Kathleen Cleaver, formerly communications secretary for the Black Panther Party in the United States and now a law professor. Cleaver is pictured in her revolutionary days standing in a combat pose wielding a long gun.
Since the emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States, supporters of the Palestinian cause have sought to draw parallels between BLM and the Palestinians. They have attempted to coopt symbols of the movement to serve two purposes: to show solidarity with BLM but also to advance their own cause. A recent example is the work of Palestinian artist Walid Ayyoub, who depicts George Floyd wearing a keffiya around his neck with a Palestinian flag serving as a backdrop.
Similarly, while Rahman expressed solidarity with BLM on her home turf in Brooklyn, she was simultaneously signaling her support for the Palestinian cause with her keffiya. Her reported use of a Molotov cocktail, also seemingly in imitation of Palestinian terrorist tactics, together with her pronouncements condoning violence and apparent admiration for female revolutionaries demonstrate her desire to put words into action.
So it is perhaps not surprising that Rahman chose to outfit herself in a keffiya and a T-shirt proclaiming "The Struggle Will Continue Regardless."