Did the Department of Justice Stir Up Trayvon Martin Riots?

Today Judicial Watch released a set of documents that it obtained from multiple government sources relating to the role of the Department of Justice in demonstrations relating to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. This is how Judicial Watch described the documents:

Judicial Watch announced today that it has obtained documents in response to local, state, and federal records requests revealing that a little-known unit of the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Community Relations Service (CRS), was deployed to Sanford, FL, following the Trayvon Martin shooting to help organize and manage rallies and protests against George Zimmerman. …

Though the agency claims to use “impartial mediation practices and conflict resolution procedures,” press reports along with the documents obtained by Judicial Watch suggest that the unit deployed to Sanford, FL, took an active role in working with those demanding the prosecution of Zimmerman. …

“These documents detail the extraordinary intervention by the Justice Department in the pressure campaign leading to the prosecution of George Zimmerman,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “My guess is that most Americans would rightly object to taxpayers paying government employees to help organize racially-charged demonstrations.”

No one would put this sort of partisanship past Eric Holder’s Justice Department, but are these characterizations fair? As a starting point, what it the DOJ’s Community Relations Service, anyway? I confess that I was completely unaware of it. This is how CRS’s web site describes the organization:

The Community Relations Service is the Department’s “peacemaker” for community conflicts and tensions arising from differences of race, color, and national origin. Created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, CRS is the only Federal agency dedicated to assist State and local units of government, private and public organizations, and community groups with preventing and resolving racial and ethnic tensions, incidents, and civil disorders, and in restoring racial stability and harmony.

With passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, CRS also works with communities to employ strategies to prevent and respond to alleged violent hate crimes committed on the basis of actual or perceived race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or disability. CRS facilitates the development of viable, mutual understandings and agreements as alternatives to coercion, violence, or litigation. It also assists communities in developing local mechanisms, conducting training, and other proactive measures to prevent racial/ethnic tension and violent hate crimes committed on the basis of actual or perceived race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or disability. CRS does not take sides among disputing parties and, in promoting the principles and ideals of non-discrimination, applies skills that allow parties to come to their own agreement. …

CRS lends its services when requested or accepted by the parties.

There is much more, but you get the picture. Given the organization’s mission, it is not surprising that it had some involvement in the Trayvon Martin demonstrations. Theoretically, CRS is supposed to work with both sides to channel protests, etc., in a peaceful and constructive rather than a violent direction. Actually, the story that Judicial Watch reported today is not new, as JW acknowledged. It was first reported, more than a year ago by the Orlando Sentinel and Keith Koffler. In fact, most of what Judicial Watch said today had already been reported by Koffler:

A largely unknown group of Justice Department officials has inserted itself into the local Florida protest movement surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin, assisting the protestors and attending their meetings and rallies.

While the officials are tasked with preventing racial violence, it appears that in carrying out their duties, they have provided significant assistance to those protesting the killing of Martin, who black, by George Zimmerman, who is half white and half Hispanic. …

According to the Orlando Sentinel, The Peacemakers have ended up offering advice and assistance to the protestors. … The Peacemakers are viewed by the protestors as a quietly protective, on-the-ground force, the Sentinel story makes clear.

So DOJ staff went to Florida and cozied up to the protesters. Among other things, they “arranged a police escort for college students to ensure safe passage for their 40-mile march from Daytona Beach to Sanford to demand justice.” According to JW, these students then “barricaded the entrance to the police department demanding [Police Chief Bill] Lee be fired.” He was.

Does today’s release of documents by Judicial Watch add anything new? Not much. The six documents that JW made public are all travel reimbursement forms, ranging in amount from $552 to $1,307. They contain brief descriptions of the purpose of the CRS employees’ travel to Florida:

On March 25-28, 2012, CRS was in Sanford, FL to work marches, demonstrations and rallies related to the shooting and death of an African American teen by a neighborhood watch captain.

That’s the Trayvon party line, of course: teen vs. neighborhood watch captain. But the JW documents also indicate that it was the City of Sanford, not the protesters, who requested CRS involvement:

On April 3-12, 2012, CRS was in Sanford, FL to provide technical assistance, conciliation and onsite mediation during demonstrations planned in Sanford. The City of Sanford requested CRS technical assistance in response to an anticipated….[the rest of the description is not visible on the form].

And the expense reimbursement forms suggest that CRS employees worked with all parties, not just the protesters:

On March 30-April 1, 2012, CRS was in Sanford, FL to provide technical assistance to the City of Sanford, event organizers, and law enforcement agencies for the march and rally on March 31.

So, do we have on our hands here another Obama administration scandal, featuring Eric Holder’s DOJ? To me, it doesn’t look that way. I don’t doubt that the DOJ employees worked hand in glove with the protesters, but there is little reason to doubt that they at least purported to carry out their statutory peacemaking role by working with all parties. And there is no reason to think that the pro-Trayvon demonstrations wouldn’t have happened, or would have been significantly different, without whatever aid they got from DOJ.

My overriding reaction is, why are we taxpayers paying for a goofy mediation service within the Department of Justice? Is it conceivable that this unit does any measurable good, or any good that couldn’t be at least duplicated by any private mediation service? I don’t think so. When the sequester was in the news, we kept hearing about vital governmental services that were at risk: No more meat inspectors! No more air traffic controllers! How about no more DOJ employees who do this for a living?

CRS improves community response mechanisms, by facilitating the development of community capacity to help prevent hate crimes with services and programs that include: conciliation, mediation, training, technical assistance, and other tension reduction techniques.

I could use some tension reduction whenever I look at my federal tax return. Why don’t we start by eliminating the CRS?

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