WASHINGTON – Marchers surrounded the Justice Department headquarters on Friday to demand federal intervention in the Jena Six case and stepped-up enforcement of hate crimes.
On a chilly but clear day, busloads of people packed a downtown plaza to protest charges brought against six black teens accused of beating a white high school student in Jena, La. Tensions between black and white students had run high for weeks in Jena, including an incident where a noose was hung from a tree at school. No one was charged with a crime for hanging the noose.
"They need to deem these things hate crimes when it's necessary and obvious," said protester Letrice Titus, 32, of Syracuse, N.Y.
Organizers said more than 100 busloads of people turned out for the protest. The city police department declined to estimate the crowd's size, per its policy.
The march, organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton, came only a few days into the tenure of new Attorney General Michael Mukasey, a former federal judge.
Mukasey issued a statement saying his agency is working with state and local police and civil rights groups to "investigate aggressively dozens of noose-hangings and other recent racially and religiously motivated" crimes.
The Jena case has angered blacks who say noose-hanging incidents should be forcefully prosecuted. Lax prosecution, they charge, has led to other, similar incidents since the Jena case came to light.
"Anytime there's a hate crime the Justice Department should prosecute, and a noose is certainly a hate crime," said Martin Luther King III, son of the famous civil rights leader.
Federal prosecutors have said they are actively investigating multiple noose incidents, but did not pursue charges in the Jena case because it involved minors.
In the last year, the department said it has won 189 convictions on civil rights charges, the largest number in its history.
Five of the Jena teens initially were charged with attempted second-degree murder in a local court. Those charges were later reduced. Mychal Bell is the only one of the six to stand trial. He was convicted in June of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. The convictions were later overturned and the case sent to juvenile court. A state judge agreed Friday to open Bell's juvenile trial to the public.
Bell, now 17, was ordered to jail last month for a probation violation in an unrelated juvenile case.