Marchers Demand Federal Action on Hate Crimes

Civil rights leaders led a march at the United States Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on Friday. Marchers decried a recent spate of hate crimes and demanded swifter federal prosecutions.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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But first, thousands of protesters marched in the streets of Washington and surrounded the Justice Department Friday, demanding more action and calling for new Attorney General Michael Mukasey to step up enforcement of hate crimes. Producer Jamila Bey was at the demonstration and spoke to some of the marchers.

JAMILA BEY: The Reverend Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and other black luminaries led marchers from Washington's Freedom Plaza to the Department of Justice and back, making a number of promises along the way.

First, that this wasn't just another march with no action to follow. This march also signified that it is a new day for black Americans to stand up and put behind them the days of unequal and uneven treatment under the law.

Reverend AL SHARPTON (Civil Rights Leader): When you hang up a noose, that's no joke to us.

Unidentified Woman #1: No Joke.

Unidentified Woman #2: All right.

Rev. SHARPTON: Our granddaddies swung on them nooses.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes.

Rev. SHARPTON: Our grandmammas swung on them nooses.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes.

Rev. Sharpton: Them nooses are no prank.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes.

Rev. SHARPTON: We were lynched.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes.

Rev. SHARPTON: We were fighting it.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes.

Rev. SHARPTON: Every noose that's hung should be prosecuted by the law, and we will demand it.

(Soundbite clapping)

BEY: Anna Montagneau(ph) of Atlanta says this march is more meaningful than those of decades past.

Ms. ANNA MONTAGNEAU: It's going to show that as a race, we're no longer complacent, that we realize that things have changed but they haven't changed enough. And so we definitely want to make sure that our voice is heard and that the entire nation knows that we really do care and we want to make a difference.

BEY: Tracy Blake(ph), also of Atlanta, just turned 24. She says this march and the larger Free the Jena Six Movement have solidified her generation.

Ms. TRACY BLAKE: I'm here to advocate for social justice, and I'm here to stand up and let my voice be heard. And I feel that my generation has finally gotten momentum on the cause of social justice, and I'm just here to be a part of it.

BEY: Georgetown University law student Angel Harris agreed that social justice is part of the reason she came. But she pointed out that making sure that Americans are all protected, not exploited by the legal system, is the greater issue.

Ms. ANGEL HARRIS (Law Student, Georgetown University): A lot of sentences that African-American men are being given are determinative of what they do in their future, especially younger kids. And that's something that people don't realize, that when you give a child a drug charge at the age of 17 and try them as an adult, then that does hinder his rehabilitation as an adult. Whereas, if you give a white young man drug rehabilitation, he's allowed to go on with his life, go on to college and his opportunities aren't blocked.

So that's something that we do need to think about. It does have serious consequences, so it is important that we're out here today.

BEY: Eighty-six-year-old Charlotte Hughes wouldn't even stop marching to share her opinion. She said that not marching is part of the problem.

Ms. CHARLOTTE HUGHES: I think these 30 years Martin's been dead, we laid low too long. I don't know what they've - I don't know what they think that we were going to do. Nothing. We've proven that we didn't do nothing, but now we're ready. I won't be around (unintelligible) - I won't be around too much longer, but I'm glad a start has been made.

BEY: Lyn Painter(ph) and Rick Bee(ph), both of Richmond, Virginia, pulled me aside to say they believe this march to be one of the last of its type because people, especially younger black people, are getting sick of the inaction.

Mr. RICK BEE: You know, we as a people have been constantly trying to move forward in a system that refuses to allow us to move forward. They continue to claim that we have equal rights among their system, but obviously, that's not true when you see nooses being hung up, which is actually a federal hate crime, and there's been no prosecution for that, and we continue to constantly get arrested. I mean, it's just a state of total chaos right now. And I'm really fed up with the situation that we're in.

BEY: Martin Luther King III says the answer to that what action and when question is plain: Ask nicely.

Mr. MARTIN LUTHER KING III (Civil Rights Activist): We're going to ask that the civil rights division, specifically, turn on its lights, because there seems to be no one there.

BEY: King says if asking nicely doesn't work, then it's time for civil disobedience.

Mr. KING: Folks may be willing to go to jail. I think people already - because people are fed up - meaning filling up the jails - until justice is done.

BEY: At the Justice Department, I'm Jamila Bey.

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