Protesters March to Justice Department

5,000 protesters marched against inadequate action by the government.

February 18, 2009, 12:53 PM

Nov. 16, 2007 — -- 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.

"We only can prosecute acts in which individuals are interfering with rights of individuals engaged in federally protected activity such as housing rights, employment rights, right to a public education," the official said. Other examples include use of public facilities, serving on a jury or use of accommodations such as hotels and restaurants.

Additionally, "the acts have to be motivated most often by race, religion, national origin or some other identified characteristics that is specified in the statute" and "there has to be some form of force or threat of force used by the perpetrator, by the subject, before we can bring a case," the official said.

In addition to serving as a protest of the decline in hate crime investigations, the rally is seen as the culmination of outrage over several apparently racially motivated crimes and issues that gained attention this fall.

The largest civil rights demonstration in recent history descended on Jena, La., in September, where protesters expressed outrage over the prosecution of six black teens — dubbed the Jena Six — who were charged in the beating of a white student. Previously, three white teens accused of hanging nooses on a tree outside a school were not prosecuted.

At a congressional hearing on the Jena Six controversy on Oct. 16, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, Donald Washington, said his office reviewed FBI reports on the Jena noose hanging before deciding how to proceed.

"Although the conduct is deeply disturbing and offensive," Washington said, "we declined to pursue charges after learning that the nooses had been hung by juveniles — by juveniles who had been promptly sanctioned by the school."

In September, a black woman was allegedly physically, sexually and verbally assaulted for several days by six white men and women in West Virginia.

The next month, a noose was discovered on the office door of a black Columbia University professor, one of a recent rash of noose discoveries around the United States.

On Wednesday's conference call, another official, the Civil Rights Division's Lisa Krigsten, maintained the Justice Department's commitment to addressing recent incidents, saying "There is no question that a hanging noose is a powerful symbol of hate and racially motivated violence. It has no place in the great country we live in."

Krigsten said the Justice Department has started an initiative against racial threats to "prioritize and to expedite investigation into these incidents." The initiative, she said, includes sections of the department, and resources from U.S. attorneys' offices, the FBI and state and local law enforcement.

As for the prosecutions that do result, the senior Justice Department official said, "We are the experts who do these cases and we do them aggressively and we are doing these cases as aggressively as we've done every other case."

"Each case we bring, we take seriously. We have victims out there and we are fully aware of that. We are prepared to vindicate the rights of those victims and use the statutes that we have available," the official said.

ABC News' Melanie Morris contributed to this report.

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