Protesters Demand Hate-Crime Prosecution

Marchers flooded the nation's capital Friday, protesting what they believe to be the Justice Department's unwillingness to prosecute hate crimes. Leading the rally were the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III.

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T: crackdown on hate crimes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

: What do we want?

U: Justice!

: What do we want?

U: Justice!

: When do we want it?

U: Now.

: When do we want it?

U: Now.

: When do we want it?

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

That's the Reverend Al Sharpton. He was joined by Martin Luther King III among other civil rights leaders. The effort is a follow-on to the September march in Jena, Louisiana. That protest brought more that 10,000 people to the tiny town where several black students had allegedly beaten a white classmate.

: Those students, if convicted, face what many of those gathered today said were disproportionately harsh sentences. The Reverend Sharpton addressed the crowd in Freedom Plaza.

: People said they'll never be able to bring numbers out like they brought in Jena. But we knew that if we would stand up and if the mics of our community would open up, then our people would come. And look behind you all the way to the end of the plaza from all over this country, we're here. The Justice Department wouldn't come to the people. We brought the people to the Justice Department.

SIEGEL: Marchers young and old carried signs about the Jena Six as they made their way up Pennsylvania Avenue to the doors of the Justice Department, Marchers like Sherry Grimes(ph) of Washington, D.C.

: There is a big injustice being done. Anytime that you have six young men going to jail, face a 22-year or life for a school fight, is an injustice.

: Marcher Joanne Hamilton(ph) says she came for a very personal reason.

: I'm here because I have an 8-year-old daughter and I want her to have the advantages that I've had up to this point. People have died. We'd march. We will continue to march.

: The Jena Six case is just one of severely racially-charged clash points that have galvanized civil rights protesters, and they're angry about a drop in Justice Department hate-crime prosecutions.

SIEGEL: Last year, the department brought charges against 22 people. That's a 71 percent drop since 1997 when the department filed 76 hate-crime charges.

Acting Assistant General Rena Comisac heads the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and she says protesters have a right to be angry about the recent spade of racially charged events including the display of nooses in Boston, Minneapolis, and Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

: We have seen a real uptick in displays of symbols of hate. And there is no place in our society whatsoever for that type of conduct. The Department of Justice is committed to prosecuting to the fullest extent of the law and consistent with the principles of federal prosecution all such acts.

: Comisac says hate-crime prosecutions have dropped because the number of hate crimes reported has dropped. Still, she notes several recent high-profile criminal prosecutions.

: For example, cross burnings in Indianapolis and Detroit. We've successfully prosecuted a heinous hate crime in Los Angeles that involved gang members who were specifically targeting African-Americans who just happen to live in their turf.

SIEGEL: Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who was just sworn in this week, said this in a written statement: Those who marched today should be commended for highlighting the issues of tolerance and civil liberties. We hope that all can agree that it is the criminals who commit the violent acts of hate who deserve the loudest protest.

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