Did Justice Department support anti-Zimmerman protests after Martin shooting?

Published July 10, 2013

| FoxNews.com

A conservative watchdog group accused the Justice Department of helping manage the "pressure campaign" last year against George Zimmerman in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, citing documents that show an obscure agency spent thousands assisting local demonstrations. 

The little-known agency, the Community Relations Service, is described by the Justice Department as their "peacemaker" for community conflicts over race. 

The protests last spring over Martin's death certainly qualified as such a conflict. But while the department claims its "peacemaker" agency does not "take sides" in such disputes, Judicial Watch said the documents and public accounts show otherwise. 

"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. 

The documents the group received -- and has since published online -- show the CRS agency filing a series of expenses incurred during the late March and early April demonstrations. 

One filing from late March recorded $674 in expenses for their deployment 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." 

That description could only apply to the Trayvon Martin killing, for which Zimmerman is currently on trial. The heated protests and national media attention helped build the pressure last year for Zimmeran's arrest -- he was not initially charged after claiming self-defense. 

When reached for comment, DOJ spokesperson Dena Iverson said, "The Community Relations Service was in Sanford, Florida fulfilling their mandated mission." 

A DOJ official also told Fox News that the unit was only in Sanford to support local efforts aimed at "reducing tensions and the potential for violence." 

"For more than 49 years CRS has done significant work in a variety of conflicts, disputes, demonstrations and protests in communities across the country," the official said. 

The filings by the Justice Department agency detailing their involvement are all similar. They mostly cite work on "support" and "technical assistance" for organizers and law enforcement agencies, as well as "onsite mediation." 

Judicial Watch, in claiming the agency crossed a line by aiding the anti-Zimmerman events, points to an April 2012 article in the Orlando Sentinel

That article detailed the role the CRS unit played during the protests. In one case, the Sentinel said they helped "set up a meeting between the local NAACP and elected officials that led to the temporary resignation of police Chief Bill Lee." 

In another, the article said they arranged an escort for college students for a 40-mile march to "demand justice." One church leader was quoted as saying, "They were there for us." 

But it's not clear from the article whether the unit's involvement crossed the line from mediation to advocacy. The article generally described their role as teaching civil-rights organizers how to manage crowds and easing tensions. An agency official said their goal was to "build local capacity to deal with these issues." 

The Justice Department did not respond Wednesday to requests from Fox News for comment on the Judicial Watch documents. 

The CRS unit was established under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 

"For more than 45 years, CRS has been asked to provide its experienced mediators to help local communities resolve conflicts and disturbances relating to race, color, or national origin," the department says on its website.

Fox News' Jake Gibson contributed to this report

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