The Justice Department on Thursday dismissed suggestions by a Washington-based watchdog group that it helped organize a “pressure campaign” last year against George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
Judicial Watch said earlier this week that Justice Department records obtained by the organization in response to local, state and federal public document requests showed that so-called “peacekeepers” from the department’s little-known Community Services Service had been dispatched to Florida to help organize “marches, demonstrations and rallies.”
The Community Relations Service is described by the Justice Department as its “peacemaker” for community conflicts over race, which the protests last spring over Trayvon’s death would seem to be. While the department claims its “peacemaker” agency does not “take sides” in such disputes, Judicial Watch said the documents and public accounts show otherwise.
But in a statement, the Justice Department said, “The Community Relations Service was in Sanford, Florida, fulfilling their mandated mission.”
Trayvon was fatally shot in February 2012 as he walked through a gated community. Mr. Zimmerman, a resident of the community and its neighborhood watch captain, is on trial in the death, although he has claimed he acted in self-defense.
“These documents detail the extraordinary intervention by the Justice Department in the pressure campaign leading to the prosecution of George Zimmerman,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said. “My guess is that most Americans would rightly object to taxpayers paying government employees to help organize racially charged demonstrations.”
Judicial Watch said the documents reveal that the Community Relations Service was deployed to Sanford, Fla., following the fatal shooting of the teenager to “help organize and manage rallies and protests against George Zimmerman.”
The documents included information that:
• In March 2012, CRS spent $674 on being “deployed to Sanford, Fla., to work marches, demonstrations and rallies related to the shooting and death of an African-American teen by a neighborhood watch captain.”
• In March 2012, CRS spent $1,142 “in Sanford, Fla., to work marches, demonstrations and rallies related to the shooting and death of an African-American teen by a neighborhood watch captain.
• In March 2012, CRS spent $892 in Sanford, Fla., “to provide support for protest deployment in Florida.”
• In March and April 2012, CRS spent $751 in Sanford, Fla., “to provide technical assistance to the City of Sanford, event organizers, and law enforcement agencies for the march and rally on March 31.”
• In April 2012, CRS spent $1,307 in Sanford, Fla. “to provide technical assistance, conciliation, and onsite mediation during demonstrations planned in Sanford.”
• In April 2012, CRS spent $552 in Sanford, Fla., “to provide technical assistance for the preparation of possible marches and rallies related to the fatal shooting of a 17 year old African American male.”
From a Florida Sunshine Law request filed April 23, 2012, Judicial Watch said it received thousands of pages of emails in which was found an email by Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board program officer Amy Carswell from April 16, 2012: “Congratulations to our partners, Thomas Battles, Regional Director, and Mildred De Robles, Miami-Dade Coordinator and their co-workers at the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service for their outstanding and ongoing efforts to reduce tensions and build bridges of understanding and respect in Sanford, Florida” following a news article in the Orlando Sentinel about the secretive “peacekeepers.”
In reply to that message, Mr. Battles said: “Thank you Partner. You did lots of stuff behind the scene to make Miami a success. We will continue to work together.” He signed the email simply “Tommy.”
Ms. Carswell responded: “That’s why we make the big bucks.”
Set up under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, CRS employees are required by law to “conduct their activities in confidence,” although the unit reportedly has greatly expanded its role under President Obama.
Mr. Fitton said that while the agency claims to use “impartial mediation practices and conflict resolution procedures,” press reports along with the documents obtained by his organization suggest the unit deployed to Sanford took an active role in working with those demanding that Mr. Zimmerman be prosecuted.
In April, the Orlando Sentinel reported that CRS had helped set up a meeting between the local NAACP and elected officials that led to the temporary resignation of police Chief Bill Lee — according to Turner Clayton, Seminole County chapter president of the NAACP.
The newspaper quoted the Rev. Valerie Houston, pastor of Allen Chapel AME Church, a focal point for protesters, as saying “They were there for us,” after a March 20 meeting with CRS agents.
Separately, in response to a Florida Sunshine Law request to the city of Sanford, Judicial Watch also obtained an audio recording of a “community meeting” held at Second Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Sanford on April 19, 2012.
The meeting was scheduled after a group of college students calling themselves the “Dream Defenders” barricaded the entrance to the police department demanding that Chief Lee be fired, as he later was. According to the Sentinel, CRS employees arranged a 40-mile police escort for the students from Daytona Beach to Sanford.