If last night you failed to watch the Fox News family of cable channels, you missed one hell of a scoop. Sean Hannity informed his audience of a story that was broken hours earlier by the legal watchdogs/gadflies (depending on your politics) at Judicial Watch. “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,” reported Judicial Watch. Its mission: “to help organize and manage rallies and protests against George Zimmerman.”
Hannity was shocked. “We learned today that [President Obama’s] Justice Department got involved in this case through their own Community Relations Service,” he told Pat Buchanan. “What does that say about the administration? Should they have been involved?”
“They should not,” pronounced Buchanan.
Over on the Fox Business Channel, another sage of interracial politics was fulminating about this “little-known unit” and its meddling.
“Instead of following their stated mission of preventing racial and ethnic tensions,” said Lou Dobbs, “they allegedly helped to organize anti-Zimmerman demonstrations. We have talked and reported to you a great deal on this broadcast about the politicization of the Justice Department, but I don't think anyone covering this story anticipated such a thing as what we have just reported to you.”
How did Dobbs know that the Justice Department had betrayed its mission? Well, he didn’t, and so far no one speculating about what the “little-known unit” did seems to possess much expertise about it. That’s almost immaterial. We’re one day out from jury deliberations in George Zimmerman’s case, and there’s considerable, reality-based worry that a “not guilty” verdict would spark violence in Sanford or Miami. That’s inspired conservatives to look back at how this became a national story in the first place—an inquest that leads them to Eric Holder’s doorstep.
Let’s fix the “little-known” problem first. The Community Relations Service was created 49 years ago, by the Civil Rights Act, at a time of steady conflict between the government and local law enforcement and white citizens groups. Its original mission was to swoop in and mediate when communities start roiling over “actions, policies, and practices that are perceived to be based on race, ethnicity, or national origin.”
This has only occasionally been controversial. The CRS’s budget request for 2013 was only $12,036,000, and no politician from either party made hay about cutting it. And that request was made after this “organizing anti-Zimmerman demonstrations” story was broken in conservative media, mostly by Breitbart.com’s Lee Stranahan and TheBlaze.com’s Erica Ritz. On April 17, 2012, Ritz reported that “a little-known” (that phrase again!) Justice Department outlet “has apparently been helping protesters angry over the Trayvon Martin shooting.”
Ritz’s revelation came after reading the Orlando Sentinel, which during that churn of daily Martin stories had profiled the “league of secretive peacemakers” working in Sanford and Miami. “In their Navy blue windbreakers, polo shirts and dark sunglasses, they look like federal agents,” reported Arelis Hernandez. The agents, according to local civil rights leaders, “helped set up a meeting between the local NAACP and elected officials that led to the temporary resignation of [Sanford] police Chief Bill Lee.”
In the Sentinel, this was a human interest story; online, it looked like a smoking gun. How could one branch of the Justice Department be investigating the case while another branch was shuttling activists to rallies? “Is the DOJ’s presence, seemingly in a supportive role of the protesters, working to undercut the very mission of the organization?” asked Ritz. The question answered itself.