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Did the Justice Department incite the 2012 Trayvon Martin protests?
The conservative group Judicial Watch says it has documents proving active involvement by a DOJ civil mediation unit
 
A vast government conspiracy, according to some conservatives.
A vast government conspiracy, according to some conservatives. Roberto Gonzalez/Getty Images

As the George Zimmerman trial wraps up in Sanford, Fla., with the jury readying to decide if he murdered 17-year-old Trayvon Martin or shot him in self-defense, the conservative group Judicial Watch is taking us back to the events that led to the trial in the first place.

No, not the shooting death of Martin, as he was walking back to his father's apartment from the 7-Eleven. Rather, the national uproar that led to the arrest of Zimmerman, a month and a half after Martin's death.

Judicial Watch said Wednesday 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, Fla., following the Trayvon Martin shooting to help organize and manage rallies and protests against George Zimmerman."

That's a pretty explosive charge. "Not only did we have a public statement by the President that might have tainted the jury pool," says Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit, "but now we find the Department of Justice was involved in, basically, organizing a lynch mob?"

Here's what Judicial Watch obtained, among 347 pages of Justice Department documents:

  • March 25–27, 2012, CRS spent $674.14 upon being "deployed to Sanford, FL, to work marches, demonstrations, and rallies related to the shooting and death of an African-American teen by a neighborhood watch captain."
  • March 25–28, 2012, CRS spent $1,142.84 in Sanford "work marches, demonstrations, and rallies related to the shooting and death of an African-American teen by a neighborhood watch captain."
  • March 30–April 1, 2012, CRS spent $892.55 in Sanford "to provide support for protest deployment in Florida."
  • March 30–April 1, 2012, CRS spent an additional $751.60 in Sanford "to provide technical assistance to the City of Sanford, event organizers, and law enforcement agencies for the march and rally on March 31."
  • April 3–12, 2012, CRS spent $1,307.40 in Sanford "to provide technical assistance, conciliation, and onsite mediation during demonstrations planned in Sanford."
  • April 11–12, 2012, CRS spent $552.35 in Sanford "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."

Along with the $5,320 in expenses racked up by the CRS, Judicial Watch also obtained thousands of pages of emails from Florida officials, including an April 16, 2012, email from Miami-Dade County community officer Amy Carswell congratulating the CRS team "for their outstanding and ongoing efforts to reduce tensions and build bridges of understanding and respect in Sanford, Florida."

Finally, Judicial Watch points to an April 15, 2012, Orlando Sentinel story that alerted the world to the presence of CRS "secretive peacemakers" in Sanford. Here's how the Sentinel's Arelis R. Hernández describes the CRS's activities:

As national figures and sign-waving protesters grabbed the spotlight after Trayvon's death, federal workers from a little-known branch of the Department of Justice labored away behind the scenes, quietly brokering deals between the city officials and residents to help prevent violence and lay the groundwork for peace... City officials, local leaders and residents say these peacekeepers have played a key role in easing tensions during some of the most heated moments after Trayvon's shooting...

At every rally, community meeting and march, since the shooting, conciliators were there. In their Navy blue windbreakers, polo shirts and dark sunglasses, they look like federal agents. Their caps are embroidered with the Justice Department's seal. They watch and listen silently. But they say little publicly. When reporters try to chat them up, they remain stoic, saying simply they cannot talk to the media. [Orlando Sentinel]

The Judicial Watch documents add enough new information to the Sentinel story, says Ed Morrissey at Hot Air, that Congress should at least "look into the DOJ's actions to determine whether they were trying to calm the waters — or trying to bring them to a boil." From these expense reports, it looks like "the CRS was more of a participant and organizer of the protests than a mediator of them."

Is this really "another Obama administration scandal, featuring Eric Holder's DOJ?" asks John Hinderaker at PowerLine. "To me, it doesn't look that way." Sure, it's probable that the CRS "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." The biggest question from this episode, Hinderaker says, is "why are we taxpayers paying for a goofy mediation service within the Department of Justice?"

Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, and Rush Limbaugh don't see that as the biggest question, says David Weigel at Slate. "On the right, it's becoming conventional wisdom that the Justice Department worked to bring down Zimmerman" for racially motivated reasons, and Judicial Watch's narrative seems to fit the bill.

In fact, says Weigel, it undermines the charge that the Justice Department stirred the embers. The media frenzy started building March 12, and things exploded March 23-24 when students at 34 Miami schools walked out to protest Zimmerman not being arrested. Thanks to Judicial Watch, we now know the CRS didn't step in until March 25. How you see the CRS involvement in the Trayvon Martin ultimately depends on your political views:

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. [Slate]

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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