Justice Department Reacts as Civil Rights Leaders Prepare to March

Civil rights leaders are demanding that the U.S. Department of Justice more aggressively investigate hate crimes toward people of color. The Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King, III, will join forces to lead a march to draw attention to the issue. Lisa Krigsten, of the department's Civil Rights Division, responds to the public outcry.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

More on our new poll about racial attitudes in America, a group of college students give their take.

But first, last month on this program, we heard Martin Luther King III talk about plans for a march on the Department of Justice. That march scheduled for tomorrow is meant to draw our attention to what he and other civil rights advocates consider a lack of attention by federal officials to hate crimes and other civil rights injustices.

His remarks came after a series of incidents in which nooses have been hung in various places around the country and thousands of protestors gathered in Jena, Louisiana, to call attention to what they considered an ongoing pattern of inequitable treatment of African-Americans there, especially a group of six teens called the Jena Six.

Here's a short clip of what Martin Luther King III had to say.

(Soundbite of archived NPR recording)

Mr. MARTIN LUTHER KING III (Organizer, Civil Rights March): I think that this Justice Department has been dormant, at a minimum, and absent as a general rule, because when we went to the modern civil rights movement under the leadership of my father and the team that he developed, it was at the federal level that we were able to appeal, to bring about justice - whether it was in relationship to voting rights - there's just a number of issues. If it had not then for the federal intervention, we would not have some of the justice that we have today.

MARTIN: We asked officials at the Department of Justice to respond. They agreed to make Lisa Krigsten available to us. She's counsel to the assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. She joins us on the phone from her office.

Welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Ms. LISA KRIGSTEN (Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice): Thanks for having me on the show.

MARTIN: And as you just heard, organizers of tomorrow's march say that federal government isn't paying enough attention to the problem of hate crimes. Why do you think they think that?

Ms. KRIGSTEN: I think that there's been a great deal of publicity lately about a series of noose-hangings and other incidents that had happened recently around the country. And certainly, when incidents like this happen, it draws attention to what's going on in the Department of Justice.

Oftentimes, people aren't aware of our entire enforcement effort, how aggressively we've been prosecuting and pursuing civil rights violations. That there is this perception that the Justice Department is not holding up in its end of the bargain of the civil rights (unintelligible)…

MARTIN: Do you think the justice - forgive me - do you think the Justice Department has been aggressive in pursuing civil rights violations?

Ms. KRIGSTEN: I do, and I can speak to this on two levels. I initially started with the Justice Department in 2000 as a trial attorney in the Criminal Section. So I actually was one of the prosecutors, who was out pursuing federal, criminal civil rights charges across the country.

Recently, I have changed position slightly and I'm now in the Civil Rights Division in more a policy-oriented position. So I've both been on the ground, and I've had the opportunity to see, from a policy perspective, of what's going on. What I can tell you is the enforcement of the Civil Rights Division with civil rights violations is at an all-time high.

Last year, in fiscal year 2007, we charged the highest number of civil rights defendants that has ever been charged in the 50-year history of the Civil Rights Division. In looking at one of the areas of our enforcement, which is color of law or placement-conduct-type cases, in the past six years, we have increased the number of cases that have been brought by 50 percent over the previous six years. And looking at nearly all of the benchmarks of how the Civil Rights Division is aggressively enforcing the law, our record is something that we're very proud of.

MARTIN: The Jena Six case, as you know, is a sore point, and you certainly noticed because you testified before the Judiciary Committee last month. Some people are frustrated because - as you know, and to recap this very complicated case - these six boys are being prosecuted for an assault on another teenager, but the original incident that sparked the series of racial confrontations at this high school was the hanging of these nooses at a tree that had been a hang out for some of the students, and this was perceived by the black students as a threat against them.

Now, I think the source of frustration is that the kids who hung those nooses were never prosecuted for a hate crime. Now, why was that?

Ms. KRIGSTEN: The juveniles, who are responsible for hanging that noose, were identified by the school very quickly, and they were dealt with by the school very quickly. They were suspended from school immediately upon learning that these juveniles were involved. They then were put in in-school suspension. Two weeks later, when they did return to school, they received an order to go to counseling.

And we have to take that into account, in determining what was appropriate in these circumstances. Certainly, as federal prosecutors, we have to look at every case on an individual basis.

What we do is not a balance sheet. We don't look and say well, this one group was charged and so another group has to be charged to balance it out. In looking at that and in taking into account the department's policy in how we handle juvenile offenders across the board, it was determined that the federal delinquency proceeding against these juveniles was not warranted.

I do want to correct something that has been, in some sense, been wrongly, I believe, perceived by some people who hear the story. There is no overlap between the individuals who are involved in the August incident and the individuals who had been involved in the December incident. As a colleague of mine testified, (unintelligible)…

MARTIN: I think what you're saying is that the people who hung those nooses, that was not the person who was beaten up.

Ms. KRIGSTEN: That's true.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KRIGSTEN: These individuals are completely separate, and the incidents are separated by a period of several months.

MARTIN: Include this also true that some of these boys who had been prosecuted, as part of the Jena Six, who were threatened by other people, at one point, one of them had a shotgun - a loaded shotgun pointed at them.

And the argument that people in that community make and the people who are protesting is that whites who have committed acts of aggression and harassment threats against black students have not been dealt with as severely by local officials. They feel that efforts to address that locally have been unavailing.

That is why they believed that some outside involvement is appropriate. Is there no role for outside involvement when that perception exists?

Ms. KRIGSTEN: Michel, I'm glad that you brought up that perception that exist. I, obviously, along with many people in America, have heard that that perception does exist. The Department of Justice is gathering information about - all information available about what's going on in Jena, and whether there is, generally, any sort of pattern that can be discerned.

What the department can not do is interfere with an ongoing state prosecution. So, if I may, I believe that there are two issues. The first issue is what can we do about the December incident.

MARTIN: That's the beating of the teenager by the six.

Ms. KRIGSTEN: Correct.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KRIGSTEN: And at this time, we need to wait and let the state prosecution proceed, and let it come to a resolution. The larger issue is what can the Department of Justice as whole do about people's perceptions, that there is inequity, and the department is taking that issue very seriously.

The Community Relation Service, which people often refer to as the federal peacemaker, has been involved in Jena from beginning of September. And that arm of the Department of Justice attempts to assess any racial tension in a community and to assist the community in addressing that tension. And so they work with leaders in the community - clergy, law enforcement, education leaders - to bring them together and determine what issues exist and how to solve those issues.

In addition, the Civil Rights Division's Educational Opportunity Section is conducting a review of the federal desegregation order that exists at Jena High School. The FBI has investigated the noose incident. The department continues to draw in all resources that may be available to it to address any tension.

MARTIN: How do officials there feel about the march? Do you feel that it's an indictment of your work? Do you feel criticized by the march?

Ms. KRIGSTEN: Certainly, I appreciate as much as anyone the idea that citizens in this country can come and have a dialogue with people who work for them -with the Department of Justice and whoever else that they choose to have a dialogue with. And that's how I'm viewing this march. And I think that's how people in the department are viewing it. There is an active, aggressive attempt to enforce civil rights and that has existed before the attention recently - it will continue after the march.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we speak with Lisa Krigsten. She's counsel to the assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

Another case that has drawn a lot of attention is that of Megan Williams. She's an African-American woman in West Virginia who was allegedly held captive and tortured by a group of people - family members, many of them related - for I think it was a week. And many people wonder, is this a hate crime? Should there be a federal investigation of this?

Ms. KRIGSTEN: And that's an excellent question. There is a difference between how you and I talk about hate crimes and how the federal code, how the federal law talks about hate crimes. You and I and many members of America would point to things that happen such as noose hangings or other activity and say that's a hate crime. There is a difference between saying it's a hate crime and whether it violates federal statute.

MARTIN: But what does that mean? What would cause the department to step in?

Ms. KRIGSTEN: What I'd like to do is make it a more general answer, because certainly I can't talk about Megan Williams and that incident, specifically. But what I can say is several states passed hate crime laws and actively pursue prosecutions under those laws. What happens is the federal government - when they know about the incident will monitor the prosecution. And for example, if the state is unable to get a conviction in a case, the federal government can step in and prosecute that case.

MARTIN: We've talked a couple of times about these noose-hanging incidents that have happened, you know, across the country. There was in Maryland, I believe, in Georgia, of course, this situation in Jena, Louisiana, at Columbia University - why do you think this is happening? Do you have an idea?

Ms. KRIGSTEN: I couldn't begin to speculate on why people commit these horrific acts. And there is absolutely no doubt that a hanging noose is a powerful symbol of hate, and it simply has no place in our country.

MARTIN: And finally, I wanted to ask you how our new Attorney General Michael Mukasey was recently sworn in. And much of the discussion over the course of his confirmation hearings were about issues of national security and appropriate protocols to be followed and protecting national security. But I wanted to ask, did he have any message to the department about civil rights?

Ms. KRIGSTEN: When General Mukasey was sworn in, he made some remarks generally to the members of the Department of Justice, to the employees who work here. And as part of those remarks, he talked about how it's important that there is an understanding that we apply the concept of justice fairly and equitably across the Department of Justice. And I think that speaks very clearly to the civil rights division and its mission, which is that we attempt to ensure that the law is applied fairly and equally and that people in America are treated fairly and equally as required under the law.

MARTIN: Lisa Krigsten is counsel to the assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. She joined us by phone from her office in Washington.

Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. KRIGSTEN: Thank you, Michel.

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