A largely unknown group of Justice Department officials has inserted itself into the local Florida protest movement surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin, assisting the protestors and attending their meetings and rallies.
While the officials are tasked with preventing racial violence, it appears that in carrying out their duties, they have provided significant assistance to those protesting the killing of Martin, who black, by George Zimmerman, who is half white and half Hispanic.
The officials are members of the DOJ’s Community Relations Service, also known as “The Peacemakers,” a special unit established under the 1964 Civil Rights Act and empowered to act to mitigate local tensions between ethnic groups.
From the CRS website:
It is the only Federal entity dedicated to assisting state and local government units, private and public organizations, and community groups with preventing and resolving racial and ethnic tensions, incidents, and civil disorders. The CRS works to restore stability and accord.
Under President Obama, the group’s mission has expanded substantially. Officials are permitted to take on a more aggressive role, moving from a “reactionary” to a “preventative” stance, CRS Director Ondray Harris told the website Main Justice. And the categories that can bring in The Peacemakers now include gender, “gender identity,” sexual orientation, religion, and disability.
Martin’s killing set off vocal protests – led by Al Sharpton – demanding the arrest of Zimmerman. Faced with threats of escalating fury from the protestors, Florida officials arrested Zimmerman last week. Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have both suggested sympathy for the protestors or for Martin himself.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, The Peacemakers have ended up offering advice and assistance to the protestors.
When racial tensions flared in Sanford, a league of secretive peacemakers reached out to the city’s spiritual and civic leaders to help cool heated emotions after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in February.
When civil-rights organizers wanted to demonstrate, these federal workers taught them how to peacefully manage crowds.
They even arranged a police escort for college students to ensure safe passage for their 40-mile march from Daytona Beach to Sanford to demand justice.
The Peacemakers are viewed by the protestors as a quietly protective, on-the-ground force, the Sentinel story makes clear.
“They were there for us,” said the Rev. Valarie Houston, pastor of Allen Chapel AME Church, a focal point for the community after the unarmed teen’s death. She met the peacekeepers there for the first time during a March 20 town-hall meeting. “We felt protected,” she said.
Houston said the conciliators told her they act as the “eyes and ears of the community” and provided guidance about keeping their message about nonviolence clear.
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.
There is a secretive aspect to the group’s activities, although officials assert this is to facilitate participation in The Peacemakers mediation efforts. According to Main Justice, officials are barred from revealing the identity of parties participating in negotiations overseen by the CRS.