TheBlaze's Jonathan M. Seidl contributed to this report.
Did a little-known division of the Department of Justice help organize pro-Trayvon Martin protests during the heat of the public outcry against George Zimmerman in 2012?
A report circulating today and gaining attention asserts that the group - identified as the Community Relations Service (CRS) - "actively worked to foment unrest, spending thousands of taxpayer dollars on travel and hotel rooms to train protestors throughout Florida."
That's an explosive charge. Is it true? Let's explore.
Holding an iced tea and Skittles in his hand, Marc Watkins gathers with thousands of protesters to rally at the Georgia State Capitol in memory of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin on March 26, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo: Getty Images)
The important history
First, it's important to realize that the story actually isn't new. Last April, TheBlaze brought you a report from the Orlando Sentinel regarding the work of the "peacemakers" in the CRS, who reportedly "labored away behind the scenes, quietly brokering deals between the city officials and residents to help prevent violence and lay the groundwork for peace."
The crux of that report was that the group was playing a role to actively prevent unrest and soothe racial tension. The Sentinel even used the headline: "DOJ 'peacemakers' helped Sanford stay cool amid rising tensions."
Still, at the time there were claims that the organization favored pro-Trayvon Martin protesters.
"They were there for us," Rev. Valarie Houston, whose church was active in the protests, said at the time. "We felt protected."
The Sentinel also reported the DOJ group "even arranged a police escort for college students to ensure safe passage for their 40-mile march from Daytona Beach to Sanford to demand justice."
So what, exactly, is the new information? According to Judicial Watch -- a watchdog group -- documents now seem to show the extent of the cost of the CRS's help.
The various expenses incurred by the taxpayer include:
- CRS employee spent $1,142.84 to travel to Sanford, Florida from March 25-28, 2012 “to work marches, demonstrations, and rallies”;
- CRS employee spent $751.60 to travel to Sanford, Florida from March 30-April 1, 2012 “to provide technical assistance to the City of Sanford, event organizers, and law enforcement agencies for the march and rally on March 31”;
- CRS employee spent $1,307.40 to travel to Sanford, Florida from April 3-12, 2012 “to provide technical assistance, conciliation, and onsite mediation during demonstrations planned in Sanford”;
- CRS employee spent $672.24 to travel to Tampa, Florida from April 18-20, 2012 “to meet with RNC official related to possible protests and demonstrations during the RNC”
So what does it all mean?
Note that the costs above are wide-ranging. It shows that CRS was meeting with a variety of people, including law enforcement and, at one point, the RNC. Those expenses even include a reference to mediation.
And all that would seem to fulfill the mission of the group described on the CRS website [emphasis added]:
[The CRS] is the only Federal entity dedicated to assisting state and local government units, private and public organizations, and community groups with preventing and resolving racial and ethnic tensions, incidents, and civil disorders. The CRS works to restore stability and accord.
While that mission is not perfectly defined and leaves some room for interpretation, the expenses -- traveling "to work marches," "provide technical assistance," etc. -- are not unreasonable in that context: It is the purpose of the CRS to travel to such places and "work" the marches.
The ostensible job of the CRS is to act as a peacemaker for "community conflicts and tensions arising from differences of race, color, and national origin." They travel to the sources of conflict, using "impartial mediation practices and conflict resolution procedures" to restore peace and harmony.
To be fair, the new report also described emails between a Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board Program Officer Amy Carswell and Thomas Battles, regional director for CRS. In those exchanges, Carswell congratulates Battles and his colleagues after the Sentinel article "for their outstanding and ongoing efforts to reduce tensions and build bridges of understanding and respect in Sanford, Florida."
Battles responds: "Thank you Partner. You did lots of stuff behind the scene to make Miami a success. We will continue to work together.”
While some might take that as evidence of backroom deal-making, though, there is no solid evidence that the conversation wasn't completely above-board and in reference to their stated business.
In sum, without photos or video of compromising behavior that would show officials stirring up trouble, it seems an overreach to say the DOJ was actively involved in fomenting protests by citing their involvement in aspects surrounding them. Especially when that involvement appears to be fulfilling the group's mission.
Some may take umbrage with the CRS and its mission as a whole -- and valid critiques in general are healthy. But as long as that mission is in place, should the group really be targeted for being present and fulling it during the highly toxic time after the Trayvon Martin murder?
TheBlaze reached out to the Department of Justice for clarification, as well as to see if it plans to be present after the George Zimmerman verdict, but it was not immediately available to comment.
Department of Justice spokesperson Dena W. Iverson told TheBlaze "the Community Relations Service was in Florida as part of their mandated mission" and directed us to their official website for more information.
She said she is "checking" on their plans for after the Zimmerman verdict.
A report on Foxnews.com notes, "it's not clear from the [Orlando Sentinel] article whether the unit's involvement crossed the line from mediation to advocacy. The article generally described their role as teaching civil-rights organizers how to manage crowds and easing tensions."