On the day of closing arguments in George Zimmerman’s trial for the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin, conservatives have circulated a new attack that the Department of Justice secretly organized rallies on behalf of Martin’s friends and family that helped elevate the issue to a national stage.
The conservative group Judicial Watch published records that show the Community Relations Service, a civil rights unit of the DOJ, helped with security for the rallies. Conservative groups have interpreted those records to mean there was wrongdoing; the Heritage Foundation has gone so far as to demand an oversight hearing for the Community Relations Service’s “potentially unethical involvement.” Fox News, Daily Caller, and other conservative media have taken up the same spin. CNN picked up the report, as well.
But the same documents show nothing inflammatory about the DOJ involvement, which was limited to ensuring security for the protests.
Judicial Watch lists documents showing standard travel expenses for Community Relations Service staff deployed to Sanford, Florida to prevent racial tensions from escalating into violence. Though a 2012 Orlando Sentinel article described the role Community Relations Service played as “secretive,” their work in Sanford, Florida was innocuous. DOJ sent staff at the height of community tensions over police mishandling of the case, when large-scale protests demanded justice for Martin. The same article described how DOJ staff simply taught civil rights organizers how to peacefully manage large crowds and ensured the safety for people expressing their First Amendment rights. Because of the DOJ, a Church pastor said “we felt protected.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 established the Community Relations Service as the only federal agency charged with “preventing and resolving racial and ethnic tensions, incidents, and civil disorders, and in restoring racial stability and harmony.” And as CNN reports, DOJ conciliators are frequently involved in a range of protests, “including those that occur every four years at the Democratic and Republican political conventions.”