With an uproar over the prosecution of six black teenagers known as the Jena Six, a spate of noose appearances across the country and a decline in federal hate crime prosecutions, an estimated 5,000 protesters descended on the Justice Department Friday to say they want to see the government take more action to combat hate crimes.
"What do we want?" the Rev. Al Sharpton shouted out to a crowd prepared to march around the department's headquarters. "Justice!" the crowd responded.
"When do we want it?" "Now!"
Radio personalities Steve Harvey and Tom Joyner promoted the event, and Sharpton and Martin Luther King III joined the protesters, who started gathering in downtown Washington, D.C., Friday morning.
There has been a documented decline in the number of hate crimes reported across the country. FBI statistics released in 2005 showed the lowest number of reported hate crimes in a decade, though figures for 2006 jumped eight percent from that low point.
The downward trend the FBI had seen is consistent with the number of investigations referred to the Criminal Section of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division
In 1997, there were 799 investigations of racially motivated crimes and incidents against houses of worship reported to the division's Criminal Section. In 2007, that number was 256 — a decrease of 68 percent for the decade.
As for criminal cases, the Justice Department charged 76 individuals in 1997, and the number has declined in the decade since. Charges have been filed in only 15 cases so far this year.
ABC News talked to several protesters from Boston, New Jersey and the Washington, D.C., area, all of whom said they're protesting because they're tired of a justice system they believe treats people unequally.
Sharpton also had a message for Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who started his first full week as the nation's top lawyer Monday.
"This attorney general just got sworn in, but he needs to meet with those that have the afflictions of the masses of this country that has been ignored by that building," Sharpton said, pointing to Justice Department headquarters.
Mukasey inherited a Justice Department with several key posts vacant after a wave of departures over the summer. Earlier this week, the department's inspector general released a report which found that the departures had resulted in a "lack of decision-making on a variety of important issues."
On Thursday, the White House nominated five individuals to fill some key posts, including Grace C. Becker, who was tapped to fill the role of assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.
Mukasey released a statement after the protest, saying that his department is investigating recent incidents, but that "in order to be most effective, these investigations do not occur in the public eye."
The new attorney general commended the protesters for "highlighting the issues of tolerance and civil liberties," and said the department shares some goals with the group.
But Mukasey also said that even though the department takes hate crime prosecutions seriously, prosecutors face "limitations and challenges in bringing successful hate crimes prosecutions."
On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, a senior Justice Department official with the Civil Rights Division, who declined to be named because of his role in ongoing prosecutions, explained some of those challenges.