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.
But the timeline, now revealed by Judicial Watch, actually complicated the matter. Trayvon Martin was killed on Feb. 26, 2012. The Stanford police (i.e., Bill Lee) handed the case over to the state on March 12. That was when the media frenzy started to build. On March 23 and 24, students at 34 Miami schools walked out of class to protest Zimmerman’s non-arrest. The Judicial Watch documents have the CRS workers on the scene after this, starting on March 25.
“The walkout was what put it on the radar,” says Amy Carswell, the program officer of the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board.
Her board, which you could call “little-known,” is a 30-member bureaucracy designed to alert the city to developments in the racially diverse county. Carswell’s been embroiled in the new story because—after the glowing Sentinel write-up—she emailed CRS regional director Thomas Battles to thank him for “outstanding and ongoing efforts to reduce tensions and build bridges of understanding and respect.” According to Carswell, board members had known Battles for 20 years, and this round of mediation was mostly notable for the media attention it drew.
“Zimmerman was never really the focus,” she says. “We try to keep away from vilification, any of that stuff.”
But on the right, it’s becoming conventional wisdom that the Justice Department worked to bring down Zimmerman. “Eric Holder's Department of Justice took an active role in racially charged rallies,” writes Stranahan. “Why are we taxpayers paying for a goofy mediation service within the Department of Justice?” asks John Hinderaker, a lawyer and writer for PowerLine, named Time’s 2004 “blog of the year” for its coverage of the story that destroyed Dan Rather.
Right now the most dedicated critic in what Stranahan calls “Trayvongate” is J. Christian Adams. In 2005 Adams was hired by the Bush administration’s Department of Justice. In 2008 Adams built the DOJ’s case against the very black supremacist, very fringe New Black Panther Party, after two of its members had skulked outside a polling place brandishing nightsticks. (One signal of their strategic intelligence: The polling place they chose was overwhelmingly black and Democratic.) When the Obama administration didn’t pursue the case, Adams quit and started writing and speaking about the racial “politicization” of Eric Holder’s Justice Department.
“One might ponder why the Justice Department Civil Rights Division rushed to Florida in the first place and took sides once the racial furnace was sufficiently stoked,” Adams wrote last month, before the Judicial Watch release. “When Eric Holder’s old pal from D.C. (and a Philadelphia court case), New Black Panther chieftain Malik Zulu Shabazz, called for a 10,000 strong black-male mob to seize George Zimmerman, we knew what was in store.”
A careful reader might notice something here. There was no “10,000 strong black-male mob” that seized George Zimmerman. At the time of the mediations, sure, the going theory in some conservative media was that the DOJ was stepping aside and letting people fly their freak flags. “Maybe what happened here was that somebody came down hard on them,” Glenn Beck told listeners in April 2012, after he noticed the New Black Panthers and Al Sharpton toning down their rhetoric. “It certainly wasn’t the Justice Department, because where was Eric Holder yesterday? Eric Holder was at a fundraiser for Al Sharpton.”
Oops. The DOJ did mediate; the result was peaceful rallies, after which a police chief resigned and Zimmerman was charged. The argument on the right now is that even this mediation tipped the scales.
“The CRS’s participation in these meetings appears to be intimidating,” says Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “You got these guys in dark glasses and hats in the back of rooms, I just don't see that as neutral advocacy. It seems they were focusing the anger of the activists who wanted the prosecution of Zimmerman, and making sure those activists were talking to the right people. If they were impartial, why weren’t they talking to Zimmerman’s family?”
That’s almost an existential question. If you think the government should materialize when some racial controversy starts boiling, you have no problem with the CRS. But if you think Obama and Holder are habitual race-baiters, the CRS’s Sanford adventure fits into a pattern. Instead of nailing the New Black Panthers, Obama’s saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” and Holder’s calling America “a nation of cowards on race.” That’s why they went after Zimmerman. That’s why you can’t trust the Obama regime.
“I think stoking the racial stuff is the way Obama was raised,” Rush Limbaugh told his listeners this week, after telling them about the CRS documents. “He was raised to believe this country was founded unjustly and immorally and slavery this and slavery that. This country, he's got a chip on his shoulder about it, and he's here to square the deal. And Holder, too.”