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PolitiFact.com | Tampa Bay Times
Sorting out the truth in politics

PolitiFact: Conservative group says Department of Justice helped organize protests against George Zimmerman

To the right-leaning crowd, it's the latest blight against the Obama administration.

Citing a public records haul, Judicial Watch says the Justice Department's "Community Relations Service" responded to escalating racial tension in Sanford, Fla., following Trayvon Martin's shooting death by helping "organize and manage rallies and protests against George Zimmerman," his shooter.

Sanford police did not arrest Zimmerman because he said he was acting in self defense, churning outrage among the African-American community and national civil rights leaders. But two months later, a special prosecutor appointed by Gov. Rick Scott announced second-degree murder charges against Zimmerman. His trial on those charges was this week, and a verdict is expected soon.

Amid the trial, Judicial Watch released the results of federal and state public-information requests it received regarding CRS involvement in Sanford.

CRS workers applied for various reimbursements for working in Sanford from March 25-April 12, 2012, Judicial Watch announced July 10, 2013. The group said it obtained the information from a Freedom of Information Act request filed around that time.

In a separate "investigative bulletin" post touting the findings, the group went further, saying the "group actively worked to forment (sic) unrest, spending thousands of taxpayer dollars on travel and hotel rooms to train protesters throughout Florida."

"These documents detail the extraordinary intervention by the Justice Department in the pressure campaign leading to the prosecution of George Zimmerman," president Tom Fitton states in a news release. "My guess is that most Americans would rightly object to taxpayers paying government employees to help organize racially-charged demonstrations."

The news sparked outrage among conservative sites, including the Heritage Foundation and The Daily Caller, and attracted mainstream attention at CNN. The Rush Limbaugh Show went with the headline "Obama Regime Organized Trayvon Protests."

We wanted to take a closer look. Did the Justice Department team really organize rallies against Zimmerman?

The Community Relations Service bills itself as the Justice Department's "peacemaker," established in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and intended to resolve local conflicts grounded in race. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009 broadened the agency's charge to include unrest dealing with sexual orientation, religious bigotry or disability. CRS requested a $12 million budget for 61 positions for the 2012-13 fiscal year.

Responding to hate crimes and police-community relations typically dominate the agency's work, according to annual reports. After the Sept. 11 attacks, for example, CRS employees responded to attacks against Muslim and Arab-American communities. Some of the ways the unit works to calm potential riots is by sending its employees to help officials or volunteers manage tense situations when police use force against citizens or when there are major demonstrations or school disruptions, according to the agency's website. Sometimes they draw up mediation agreements to help parties move forward.

News accounts portray CRS employees responding to trouble as inconspicuous, secretive bystanders. They're not part of the chaos, but quietly monitoring it (usually in navy blue windbreakers, dark sunglasses and caps embroidered with the DOJ logo, according to the Orlando Sentinel).

Judicial Watch includes links to travel vouchers it received as part of its FOIA request to build the case that the DOJ team helped organize anti-Zimmerman rallies. The vouchers do not include much information beyond travel and lodging expenses, the date and location of the trip, and a short description of the purpose. The employee's name is among redacted information.

In an interview, Fitton said the voucher costs seem reasonable, but his group still objects to public funds being used to deploy the CRS to Sanford in connection with the protests.

Here's a sampling:

• "On March 25-27, 2012, CRS 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." Amount paid to voucher: $674.14.

• A similar itinerary for March 30-April 1, 2012, says, "CRS was in Sanford, FL to provide technical assistance to the City of Sanford, event organizers, and law enforcement agencies for the march and rally on March 31." Voucher cost: $751.60.

• CRS went to Altamonte Springs on March 30-April 1, 2012, "to provide interregional support for protest deployment in Florida." Total voucher: $751.60.

• "On April 3-12, 2012, CRS was in Sanford, FL to provide technical assistance, conciliation, and onsite mediation during demonstrations planned in Sanford." Total voucher: $1,307.40.

The CRS was contacted by a senior project manager for the city of Sanford as community dissent reared up, according to news reports.

A key player in the Sanford controversy is Thomas Battles, the CRS southeastern regional director who has acted as a neutral party in dicey racial issues for three decades, including the Elián González custody case. He does not talk to the media, per CRS policy, but his work has not gone unnoticed. The mayor of Sanford called him "a voice of reason" in the tumultuous weeks following Martin's death, according to a Miami Herald profile of Battles.

Battles did not organize protests, as Judicial Watch claims. His team did meet with organizers and city officials to make sure protests happened peacefully, news stories show, and he helped the city draft a nine-point plan aiming to foster better communications between police and residents.

As Judicial Watch points this out, Florida newspapers report he also secured police protection for a group of students who marched 40 miles from Daytona to Sanford over three days. The student group staged a sit-in in front of the Sanford police department's doors, causing it to shut down for the day. Fitton said helping them get there was inappropriate.

Battles also organized a league of local pastors, known as Sanford Pastors Connecting, to help the community move on regardless of the verdict in Zimmerman's case.

Fitton said he remains convinced the Department of Justice unit went too far in siding with the Zimmerman protesters. He pointed to a local pastor's comments in the Orlando Sentinel about the peacekeepers, saying, "They were there for us," and "We felt protected."

But the point of the program was to take steps to avoid exacerbated confrontation that could have cost the taxpayer even more money in the long run, said Robin Davis, director of the University of Florida's Institute for Dispute Resolution.

"I don't think there's any cause and effect between this mediation and the prosecution going forth," she said.

Our ruling

Armed with public documents, Judicial Watch said the Department of Justice sent the Community Relations Service to Sanford in the wake of Martin's death "to help organize and manage rallies and protests against George Zimmerman."

Judicial Watch's statement contends an element of truth: Justice Department employees were sent to Sanford, in part to deal with community uprising, including protests. But they were sent with the idea of keeping the situation peaceful and calm, not to instigate or condone protests or violence.

That's a critical distinction being ignored in this particular claim. We rate it Mostly False.

The statement

"A little-known unit of the Department of Justice, the Community Relations Service, was deployed to Sanford, FL, following the Trayvon Martin shooting to help organize and manage rallies and protests against George Zimmerman."

Judicial Watch, in a July 10 news release

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: Mostly False
Justice Department employees went to Sanford to deal with the community uprising, including protests. They were sent with the idea of keeping the situation peaceful and calm, not to instigate or condone protests or violence. That's a critical distinction being ignored in this particular claim. We rate it Mostly False.

PolitiFact: Conservative group says Department of Justice helped organize protests against George Zimmerman 07/12/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 5:31pm]
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