How a key federal civil rights agency was sidelined as historic protests erupted
In recent weeks, as protests against police violence and systemic racism have swept across the nation, a key federal civil rights agency — an agency created to bridge racial divides — has been largely absent.
Dubbed “America’s Peacemaker,” the Community Relations Service was established in 1964 as civil rights protesters across the South came under attack. The service, which is part of the Justice Department, is credited with helping to avert bloodshed during some of the most contentious demonstrations of the 1960s.
When Martin Luther King Jr. staged a march in Selma, Alabama in 1965 — just days after Alabama state troopers and local cops assaulted protesters in an infamous confrontation known as “Bloody Sunday” — it was CRS officials who worked to avert another round of violence.
More recently, in 2018, when Sacramento police shot to death Stephon Clarke, an African American man, a five-person CRS team was on the ground in less than 24 hours. The team helped to arrange an emergency meeting between the city council and a community furious over the killing of the unarmed 22-year-old.
“If you can get a conversation started, things are less likely to go stupid,” said Ronald Wakabayashi, the CRS regional director who led the team in Sacramento and has since retired.
But now, during perhaps the most significant civil rights moment in a half century, the CRS has been sidelined, sending out just a handful of staffers to cities experiencing unrest and making few public statements. Between May 25, the date of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, and June 15, the agency put out four Tweets and some Facebook posts — none of which mentioned the growing national outcry over decades of abusive policing in communities of color.
Current and former CRS leaders and staffers say the agency’s muted response reflects the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle it over the past three years, leaving it short-staffed and rudderless.
President Donald Trump, in his budget proposals, has repeatedly recommended eliminating the agency. The CRS, whose work often occurs out of public view, continues to exist only because Congress has repeatedly restored its funding.
But even with that funding, the agency’s ability to carry out its mission has diminished dramatically. Though the CRS is budgeted for 34 full-time employees — down from 58 in 2017 — it now has 29, according to current and former employees, and the headcount was even lower in recent months. It is supposed to be managed by 10 regional directors but now has only three. As Trump’s first term comes to a close, the White House has yet to nominate a permanent director for Senate approval, and at present the CRS doesn’t have an acting director.
“Morale is extraordinarily low. They feel like they can’t do the work” said Grande Lum, who headed the CRS from 2012 to 2016 and still talks to current CRS employees. “These are career employees, they’re not political appointees like I was. They have been doing this under every administration, Republican and Democrat, and this administration is saying, ‘We don’t really want you.’”
Former federal officials said the decline of the CRS fits a broader pattern at the Trump Justice Department, which has taken an interest in religious freedom cases but has turned away from other civil rights issues. Under the leadership of Jeff Sessions and current Attorney General Wiliam Barr, the department has curtailed the use of civil litigation to reform troubled police forces and sought to roll back legal protections for transgender people.
“In this administration anything dealing with civil rights has a target on it,” said Becky Monroe, who served as acting director of the CRS during the Obama years and now works for the nonpartisan Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Lum compared the Trump administration’s moves to gut the agency before a massive wave of protests to the administration’s much-criticized decision to dissolve the National Security Council’s pandemic unit before the coronavirus crisis hit. Both decisions, he said, deprived the federal government of experienced leaders at a key moment.
Though many of the marches and demonstrations over the past six weeks were peaceful, others devolved into the sort of chaos the CRS was designed to help deter, with police officers using batons, tear gas and rubber bullets to push back crowds, and protesters hurling rocks and bottles at cops, burning buildings and ransacking businesses. Gunfire has rung out in many cities, killing civilians and at least one law enforcement officer. On July 4 a driver slammed into marchers who had taken over a Seattle highway, leaving one person dead.
Current and former employees told ProPublica that some CRS staffers were reluctant to go out into the streets because of the ongoing spread of the coronavirus, though they noted that employees are continuing to work from home, using phone calls and videoconferences to conduct trainings and stay on top of events as they unfold around the country.
When similar protests occurred during past administrations, Monroe said, CRS staffers were “on the ground working with community leaders” to address tensions and keep people safe.
Even if more CRS staff were being sent out now, said Monroe, the president’s recent inflammatory speeches and tweets would complicate their ability to do their job. “Right now, I think the president and this administration have really undermined the core mission of the agency by trying to incite racist violence,” she said. “We literally have a president of the United States who is doing the opposite of what the Community Relations Service was created to do.”
A Justice Department spokesperson said the agency has “prioritized the safety of its employees” during the pandemic, but since the wave of protests began, staffers have been allowed to meet face-to-face with small groups of people as long as they wear masks.
“To date, CRS leadership has approved all requests for deployment under this procedure,” said the spokesperson, who declined to say which cities CRS staff have been dispatched to, but said they were in touch with leaders in 65 cities.
The spokesperson defended CRS staffing levels and said the agency is currently hiring more employees.
“Throughout our history as an agency, there have always been periods of unrest, and CRS has always responded to the best of its ability, knowing that there is always more that could be done,” the spokesperson told ProPublica, noting that some of the agency’s most important work “begins after the protests have subsided and when community groups and local law enforcement are ready to work together on areas of needed reform.”
The history of the CRS begins with Lyndon Johnson, who as a U.S. senator in the late 1950s envisioned a mediation service that would seek to quell disputes between racial and ethnic groups.
Years later, as president, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark law that banned racial discrimination in housing, employment, voting education and so-called public accommodations — retail businesses, restaurants, hotels and the like. Included in the sweeping and transformative legislation were a few brief paragraphs establishing the CRS.
Those paragraphs instructed the new agency to “provide assistance … in resolving disputes, disagreements, or difficulties relating to discriminatory practices based on race, color, or national origin.”
For Johnson, the creation of the CRS “reflected his conviction that most conflict could be negotiated,” according to a forthcoming history of the agency written by Lum and another former CRS leader, Bertram Levine. It also reflected an uncomfortable truth: The Justice Department didn’t have nearly enough lawyers to sue every business or local government agency that refused to comply with the Civil Rights Act and its prohibition on racial segregation.
Required by law to keep most of its activities confidential, the new agency played a quiet, behind-the-scenes role throughout the second half of the 1960s as civil rights activism swept across the country. In 1965, CRS staffers were on the ground in Selma, Alabama, the site of some of the ugliest episodes of the era. After police killed protester Jimmie Lee Jackson and brutalized marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge — a horrific event that would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday” — CRS leaders convinced local authorities not to attack subsequent marches led by King and others.
A new federal hate crimes law, passed in 2009, broadened the CRS mandate, directing the agency to work to prevent hate crimes, including those targeting LGBTQ individuals and institutions. Since then, the agency has led discussion groups for high schools torn apart by bullying and harassment and helped a state prison develop policies for handling transgender inmates.
CRS teams, at least until recently, have continued to respond to a wide range of conflicts. In 2010, CRS employees worked to defuse a tense, potentially lethal situation in Phoenix when a small band of neo-Nazis armed with assault rifles confronted a large group of demonstrators, including many Latinos, who had gathered at the Arizona Capitol to denounce a new anti-immigration law adopted by the state.
Not always successful
The CRS hasn’t always been successful at preventing violence and chaos. Even at its peak, it was a small agency confronting entrenched and complex problems.
And over the past decade it has become something of a bogeyman for conservative activists and right-wing pundits who claim the agency has deviated from its mission and is now covertly orchestrating protests and aggravating racial discord. Those claims were strenuously denied by CRS personnel who spoke to ProPublica.
“Because we work with communities of color, some people believe we’re instigating these issues. We’re not. We’re helping them resolve these conflicts,” said one CRS employee, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Much of the controversy stems from a campaign by Judicial Watch, a conservative advocacy group, which claims that CRS staffers “actively worked to foment unrest” in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager, in Sanford, Florida, in 2012.
According to Judicial Watch, the CRS helped to “organize and manage rallies and protests” in Sanford as part of a Justice Department “pressure campaign leading to the prosecution of George Zimmerman,” the neighborhood watch volunteer who killed Martin. This incendiary narrative was picked up by a host of right-wing media outlets, including The Daily Caller, Breitbart News, WorldNetDaily, PJ Media and the biggest of them all, Fox News.
Judicial Watch said it based its assertions on some 350 pages of internal CRS documents, including emails and travel records, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
But as the story began to circulate through the conservative media ecosystem in 2013, PolitiFact, a nonpartisan fact-checking site, evaluated Judicial Watch’s claims and concluded they were mostly false. “Justice Department employees were sent to Sanford, in part to deal with community uprising, including protests,” noted the site. “But they were sent with the idea of keeping the situation peaceful and calm, not to instigate or condone protests or violence.”
A ProPublica review of the internal CRS documents found no support for the allegations made by Judicial Watch. The organization did not respond to questions.
CRS employees who were on the ground in Sanford said they spent their days trying to ensure that nobody got hurt during three major protest events and a student-led sit-in outside the police department. Thomas Battles, then the CRS regional director overseeing the Southeast, started conversations between the local police and members of the New Black Panther Party, who’d shown up to a demonstration heavily armed, raising fears that the protest might turn into a gun battle. In the end, “there were no arrests, no injuries,” recalled Monroe, who was present at the scene.
Jeff Triplett, who was mayor of Sanford at the time of the protests, has praised the CRS for its help and credited the agency for acting as an emissary between public officials and activists.
But by the time Trump was sworn in as president, in 2017, the Heritage Foundation, one of the most influential conservative think tanks in Washington, had adopted the Judicial Watch line.
“The CRS budget should be entirely eliminated,” wrote Heritage in its budget recommendations for Trump’s first year in office. “Rather than fulfilling its mandate of trying to be the peacemaker in community conflicts, the CRS has raised tensions in local communities in recent incidents.”
No money from Trump
Since then, the Trump administration has sought to do away with the CRS. The administration’s 2019 budget proposal offered no money for the agency. And its proposed 2020 budget would have eliminated the CRS and directed another unit of the Justice Department to take over its work, with a greatly reduced staff. The administration characterized the plan as an attempt to improve efficiency.
Congress blocked those moves, increasing funding to the office from $14.4 million in 2017 to $16 million in 2020.
Asked how that increased funding was being spent despite the smaller staff, the DOJ spokesperson said “all CRS appropriated funding has been dedicated to CRS requirements and mission accomplishment” including updated training materials, strategic planning, social media, and websites dealing with hate crimes.
The cuts in staff have shrunk the frontline team. Lum said that when he directed the agency, he had about 30 staffers, known as conciliation specialists, that he could deploy to cities and towns in crisis. Today the CRS has 16 specialists it can send into the field, according to the DOJ spokesperson.
During the Trump years, as the staffing numbers dropped, Wakabayashi, as a regional director, went from overseeing four states and Guam, to managing 15 states plus the island territory, a geographic area stretching from the far side of the Pacific to Alaska to middle America. “It was a steep learning curve. If you talk about square miles or time zones, it’s huge,” he recalled.
The DOJ spokesperson said the agency has posted four jobs since March and is in the process of hiring another regional director.
Equally concerning for Wakabayashi, who spent two decades at the CRS, is what he sees as a movement away from the agency’s legacy of acting as mediators during crises.
“The conciliators have their hands tied,” he said. The CRS has scuttled “a lot of the custom work that we did. When you’re in a conflict situation, you go in and look at what the problems are and what people’s concerns are.”
In Wakabayashi’s view, the CRS is now focused on what he called “off-the-shelf programs,” including training seminars about the Sikh and Muslim faiths and community forums on hate crimes. “They’re not bad — they come out of our own tradition of work — but they’re not useful if you use them mechanically.”
In 2017, the CRS jettisoned a program dealing with racial profiling that brought together civilians, advocacy groups and law enforcement officers in a neutral setting to discuss bias in policing. It was replaced with a new program that makes no mention of profiling, according to the CRS staff.
Monroe doesn’t think it’s an accident that the CRS has gone without a director for several years. “It demonstrates that they don’t think it’s an agency that merits the leadership it needs,” she said.
This story was first published July 9, 2020, by ProPublica.
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