Protesters marched through the streets around the Justice Department Friday to demand federal intervention in the "Jena Six" case and enforcement of hate crime laws against those who hang nooses in public.
On a chilly but clear day, busloads of people packed a downtown plaza seeking a big government response to small town injustices. They were angered by charges they consider overly harsh and unfair 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 the high school. No one was charged with a crime for hanging the noose.
"If they allow this to be done to these children, they can do it to all children," said Camela Vines, a local hairstylist who arrived at 8:30 a.m. for the noon march.
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.
Organizers said more than 100 busloads came for the march, from as far away as Florida, Michigan, and Washington state.
Mukasey issued a statement saying his agency takes allegations of hate crimes seriously and is working with state and local police, as well as civil rights groups, to “investigate aggressively dozens of noose-hangings and other recent racially and religiously motivated” crimes nationwide. Such investigations, he said, do not occur in the public eye.
“We hope that all can agree that it is the criminals who commit violent acts of hate who deserve the loudest protest,” Mukasey said.
The Jena case has angered many black leaders who say the federal government should forcefully prosecute noose-hanging incidents as hate crimes. Lax prosecution of such cases, they charge, has led to other noose-hanging incidents around the country since the Jena case came to light.
Nooses vs. Barry Bonds
"There are so many nooses being hung around America," said Martin Luther King III, son of the famous civil rights leader. "Anytime there's a hate crime the Justice Department should prosecute, and a noose is certainly a hate crime."
Federal prosecutors have said they are actively investigating multiple noose incidents for possible prosecution, but said they did not pursue charges in the Jena case because such charges usually are not brought against minors.
In the last year, the department said it has won 189 convictions on civil rights charges, the largest number in their history.
Critics say they have yet to file any hate crimes charges in noose incidents at Jena or since.
"The Justice Department wouldn't come to the people, we brought the people to the Justice Department," Sharpton said. "Nooses are no prank... We were lynched!"
Some argued the government's priorities are way off-base.
"They spent more time on Barry Bonds," complained the Rev. Frederick Haynes of Dallas, referring to the recent perjury charges against the baseball star in a steroid case.
Five of the Jena teens initially were charged with attempted second-degree murder in a local court, though the charges were later reduced. Charges against the sixth teen, who was booked as a juvenile, have been sealed.
Teen's trial set for Dec. 6
So far, Mychal Bell is the only one of the Jena 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.
Bell, now 17, was ordered to jail last month for a probation violation in an unrelated juvenile court case.
District Judge J.P. Mauffray on Thursday agreed to open Bell's juvenile trial but noted in a court filing that he was not required to open pretrial hearings.
Bell is set for trial Dec. 6 on charges of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy in an attack last December on Justin Barker, a white student at Jena High School. Barker spent several hours in the emergency room, but attended a school event later that day.
Typically, juvenile trials are closed to the public. The Associated Press and 24 other news organizations filed a lawsuit seeking full access to Bell's case.
"There will be several hearings between now and the trial," said Carol Powell Lexing, one of the attorneys for Bell. "There are a number of issues to be tackled before the trial itself."
Mauffray disqualified himself from hearing the media's suit because he is a defendant in it.
In his court filing, Mauffray also asked District Judge Thomas Yeager to dismiss the news organizations' lawsuit. Yeager is to hear the lawsuit Wednesday.
An attorney for the news organizations said all the hearings in Bell's case should be open.
"It's fine as far as it goes," Dan Zimmerman, an attorney representing the coalition of media that is suing, said Friday. "But the press and public have already been excluded from hearings. They should not be left out of the others that will come up between now and the trial."