The news rocketed across the rightosphere yesterday: the U.S. Department of Justice sent workers to involve themselves with protests against George Zimmerman and the Sanford, FL police department. (See Howard Portnoy’s wrap-up here.)
If you haven’t been following the growth of DOJ over the years, you probably didn’t know that it has an agency within it which is dedicated to performing this function. Well, not precisely this function – but for the purposes of the Obama Justice Department, in the era of the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act, it’s close enough.
“Office of Protest Support”?
The Community Relations Service (CRS) is a small federal agency created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to mediate and facilitate the resolution of local tensions. It was originally formed under the Department of Commerce, but Lyndon Johnson quickly moved it to DOJ. (Ironically, two weeks after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, the 1964 Harlem race riot began, sparking riots that summer in Rochester, Jersey City, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The Watts riot occurred the following summer.)
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The CRS mandate was expanded significantly by the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. Not only was it empowered by the act to involve itself in “conflicts involving discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, and disability,” as well as race, but its mandate shifted from a reactionary to a preventive operations profile. Thus, for example, according to Main Justice:
In the area of LGBT-related hate crimes, the agency has gotten high marks thus far. Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said last month that DOJ has been conducting “spectacular” community education about the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
In CRS’s budget request for 2011, the agency anticipated a rise in the conflicts it would need to involve itself in if immigration reform moves forward:
“[E]xperience suggests that we will see an increase in discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin” against either immigrants or those perceived to be immigrants.
So CRS’s mandate now includes anticipating discrimination, as opposed to responding to cases of actual conflict or violence. If you pay government employees to anticipate discrimination, they will.
As Main Justice puts it, meanwhile, “secrecy” is important to the success of the CRS. Its deliberations with the parties to a local conflict are to be kept confidential unless the parties agree to disclosure. Alert readers will note that “impartiality” is also stated to be important. But let’s be clear about that: we have no way, as the taxpaying public, to satisfy ourselves as to how impartial the CRS is, given its mandate in law for secrecy. It must be noted that the Eric Holder Justice Department has given us no reason to accept claims of impartiality on the part of any of its agencies.
In 2011, the CRS “responded to” 1100 cases under its new Hate Crimes Prevention Act mandate. Among the cases was the controversial Islamic center of Murfreesboro, TN, a 53,000-square foot facility being built for a congregation of 45 people (out of the 200-300 total Muslims in Murfreesboro). Opponents of the Islamic center cited concerns that a board member of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro had expressed support for Hamas, alongside reports of two pro-Hamas rallies being held in Murfreesboro in previous years. (The Islamic center opened for business in 2012.)
So we know that DOJ assumes any public concern about an Islamic center being built is an instance of social conflict, requiring mediation, rather than a homeland security issue. Couching things in these terms can serve lawlessness well.
With a nickname – the “Peacemakers” – guaranteed to become increasingly Orwellian over time, the CRS got plaudits from the mainstream media for its role in the Trayvon Martin protests. The rightosphere seems to have missed earlier references to it in the MSM, like the MSNBC link in the last paragraph, and an Orlando Sentinel report from April 2012.
Here is how the MSNBC report frames the incident in which CRS arranged a police escort for the “Dream Defenders” who barricaded the police department in Sanford:
[The CRS] team fanned out to meet privately with local law enforcement and a group of college students who had blockaded the local police department.
In other words, MSNBC doesn’t mention at all that during the timeframe of the Dream Defender protest (8-9 April 2012), the CRS spent $1,307.40 in taxpayer funds to “provide technical assistance, conciliation, and onsite mediation during demonstrations planned in Sanford,” some of that going to arranging the police escort. (This might be because MSNBC was fed only laudatory material about CRS’s role in Sanford – although the information about the police escort came from the Sentinel.)
Omission of this crucial piece of information matters, especially because the mediation business is uniquely susceptible to becoming a shakedown racket. Even when there is no reason to suspect that those involved have a shakedown in mind, “mediation” sets up alternatives to the normal processes of law – in particular, non-accountable alternatives – and that phenomenon has been rampant in the Martin-Zimmerman case.
A Third Way?
Less than a month after the shooting on 26 February 2012, Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett and his city manager went to Washington to meet with Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Triplett, a political novice and “part-time mayor,” had been induced to join U.S. Representative Corrine Brown in a request for the U.S. DOJ to intervene in the case.
Such an intervention would not have represented a proper use of federal power, of course, and to the extent that the threat of it prompted the state of Florida to bring a weak case for murder two against Zimmerman, it had a malign effect.
There is context for this development, however, which in retrospect is illuminating. In April 2012, a third member of the Sanford city government, Andrew Thomas, spoke at a community meeting attended by the mayor and city manager. Thomas is Sanford’s Community Development & Neighborhood Programs Coordinator, managing block grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
At a community meeting on 19 April 2012, 10 days after the Dream Defenders protest and eight days after charges were brought against George Zimmerman, Mr. Thomas presented a nine-point plan for the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Point one was:
1. Request an investigation by the Department of Justice.
Point nine was:
9. Request that the Department of Justice Communications Department facilitate future meetings and engage in community building in Sanford.
This last point may or may not have been a garbled reference to the CRS; in any case, the DOJ Office of Communications would field questions from the public about DOJ assistance programs.
It is not fully clear why it was Thomas who made this presentation; perhaps because of a good reputation with the citizens of Sanford, a characteristic the mayor and city manager notably lacked at the time. It turns out, however, that Thomas is an extensively credentialed mediation professional, with, among other things, 26 years as the executive director of the non-profit Center for Dispute Settlement in western New York. He is a certified Florida Supreme Court County Court Mediator, as well as a Trainer and Mediator for the U.S. Postal Service.
Is he the proverbial man with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail? Possibly. There is nothing wrong with mediation in principle, and no reason to suspect Thomas of any motives other than honest ones. But when there is a threat to public safety after a teenager has been killed under questionable circumstances, is preemptive mediation really the right way to address the problem – and is the U.S. Justice Department the right mediator?
Assault on the rule of law
These are serious and important questions, given the extent to which our federal government is investing in mediation within communities. Leveraging DOJ into the mix in a state criminal process, through the back door of “mediation,” muddies the waters of law and justice. The option of appeal at the federal level is a core element of the protections we afford for individuals’ rights against government; but when the federal government creeps into a state law-enforcement issue during the legal process, by the back door of a mediation mandate, it amounts, as much as threats do, to the feds putting their thumb on the scales of justice.
That the feds will misuse this opportunity is clear from the Judicial Watch report cited at PJ Media. It is undoubtedly a misuse of the CRS mandate for it to arrange a police escort for protesters. The potential for corruption is very high, considering that mediation, by its nature, is about heading off predicted consequences. It is always easy to present mediation as preferable to dire catastrophe; it is equally easy to cloak it in the robe of peacemaking, especially if the burden of the conflict is becoming onerous. If the mediator can actually help make the burden more onerous, he increases his leverage as well as the value of his role.
It is antithetical to the rule of law for the United States to create a federal agency that has the resources to do this, and, in particular, one with a mandate to mediate in secret. Mediation implies, after all, a moral equivalence between the opponents. In this case, it posits that those who propose to riot have the same standing before the law as those who don’t.
It is fatal to public order for the authorities to respond to threats against it with “mediation.” The government’s job is to protect the streets from rioters, using the resources the law-abiding citizen pays for. Threatening to riot should never be a means of leveraging anything by way of government mediation.
Moreover, non-binding, unenforceable outreaches between ethnic and religious groups should be respected by government, but not arranged or brokered by it. Certainly, such outreaches, with their voluntary aspect, are the best vehicles for achieving social harmony. But that is precisely why they cannot be organized by government, which is about enforcement, and which in multiple ways is inherently partisan. It is impossible for government of any kind to be “impartial” in this matter, or to credibly claim to achieve voluntary rapprochement between parties. Government cannot be the author of social concord. (Its role is to administer enforceable law. What it can do is refrain from being the author of social discord; e.g., it should treat citizens justly and equally in doing its own business.)
But the problem created by CRS goes beyond the hazards of the mediation model. As mentioned above, its new charter entails prevention as well as reaction. We should reflect on what that means, given the CRS’s mode of operation: CRS personnel going around America having confidential discussions with whoever wants to contact them about “preventing hate crimes” – crimes in a poorly defined category that haven’t even happened yet.
At this point, refusing to recognize the outlines of proto-Stalinism in this specter of confidential activism is a failure of nerve, not a form of rational argument. Those who favor making end-runs around the rule of law always insist that that’s not what they’re doing – until the day when it doesn’t matter what the public thinks any more.