On Wednesday, July 10, the legal watchdog group Judicial Watch released documents from the Community Relations Service division of the United States Department of Justice, suggesting that CRS officials were in Sanford, Florida to facilitate and organize rallies and protests against George Zimmerman, the shooter in the Trayvon Martin case.
If true, the allegations that the Obama administration was actively promoting anti-Zimmerman protests would signal a significant overreach, one in which the federal government took sides in an investigation before it even went to trial.
Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Justice to obtain the documents, which do indeed reveal the time and money spent by CRS officials in relation to Zimmerman protests.
But the language of the documents doesn’t reveal specific intent of the CRS, nor does it suggest officials took sides during the protests. Judicial Watch may be jumping to conclusions when it interprets statements like “CRS deployed to Sanford, FL to work marches, demonstrations, and rallies related to the shooting and death of [Trayvon Martin]” to mean CRS officials were instigating and providing support for these protests. What it likely means, rather, is that CRS officials were on hand in Sanford to keep the peace — to ensure neither side got too rowdy or aggressive during the protests.
Indeed, an article in the Orlando Sentinel on April 15, 2012 points out that DOJ officials were there to “cool heated emotions” and to “help prevent violence and lay the groundwork for peace.” The article posits that the DOJ officials were simply there doing their job, from a “mandate outlined in the 1964 Civil Rights Act to go into conflict zones within American communities that perceive discrimination.”
Hasty accusations that CRS officials were in Sanford to support anti-Zimmerman protests stem from pre-conceived notions already in place by those investigating the DOJ involvement. Judicial Watch takes “to provide interregional support for protest deployment in Florida” to mean that the CRS was there to organize protests, when it’s far likelier the support was for officials already in place as a mediator between protesting groups, rather than the protesters themselves. Similarly, when Jessica Chasmar of The Washington Times writes that “press reports suggest that the unit deployed to Sanford took an active role in mobilizing against Mr. Zimmerman,” she overlooks the possibility that the CRS unit was there to facilitate between the two sides of the protests, to ensure nothing got out of hand.
The “extraordinary intervention” that Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton refers to seems like a gross exaggeration. The details from the very forms Judicial Watch released indicate that the CRS operations in Sanford were fairly routine – preventing organized protests from escalating into further conflict. Take from it what you will, but anyone looking here for another scandal from the Obama administration is likely just grasping at straws.