By Michael E. Ruane and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Thousands of African American demonstrators from across the country marched on the Justice Department yesterday in a large and emotional protest over what they termed the inequality of the nation's justice system.
Chanting "No Justice, No Peace!" and "No More Nooses!" the throng was large enough to fill several blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue while simultaneously ringing the department's fortress-like Robert F. Kennedy Justice Building at 10th Street and Pennsylvania.
The demonstration was headed by the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network; Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader; and Charles Steele Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The trio marched with arms locked, surrounded by legions of demonstrators carrying red-green-and-black flags that whipped in the cold wind under the day's clear blue sky.
While the march was aimed at what organizers said was the department's failure to vigorously prosecute hate crimes, many participants expressed anger at what they perceived as widespread inequality in the administration of justice.
Many expressed outrage over such incidents as the display of lynching-style nooses from a tree during racial turmoil in Jena, the rural Louisiana town that also has been beset by fistfights and other interracial confrontations. Thousands gathered in September for a civil rights demonstration there.
Protesters, carrying signs reading "Enough Is Enough," yelled, wept and quoted the Bible, the Koran, and the late soul singer James Brown.
"We are ready to raise hell!" Steele shouted at a pre-march rally. "We're fired up!"
The crowd chanted: "We're sick and tired of being sick and tired!"
Marchers came from as far away as Michigan, Ohio and Georgia. One, Walter Herndon, 53, a salesman from Lansing, Mich., pushed his mother, Willie Spires, 78, of Council Bluffs, Iowa, in a wheelchair.
Leaders and protesters said they were pleased at the turnout for a march that was called only a few weeks ago.
"Incredible!" King declared as he walked in the center of the crowd. "It's incredible!"
At yesterday's protest, one man wore a shirt on which was printed: "A noose is not a prank or a joke. It is a terroristic threat and a weapon of mass destruction."
At one point, demonstrators paused to sign a huge piece of cloth stretched in the street and painted with the opening words of the preamble of the Constitution, "We the people. . . ."
The Justice Department said yesterday that it is committed to prosecuting civil rights cases.
"The Justice Department shares with those who demonstrate today their objective of bringing to justice those who commit criminal acts of hate," Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said in a statement.
"It shares their vision of eradicating hate in our society," said Mukasey, who was sworn in as attorney general this week. "At the same time, the Department must follow the law and the principles of federal prosecution in every case it investigates and prosecutes."
But marcher Ellis Maupin, 62, a retired Energy Department worker from Southwest Washington, said he thinks the department has not treated all citizens equally.
"After we stopped marching, the justice stopped," he said. "We're now saying: Look, you've got to get your judicial system together. You've got to get your police forces together. Because we're all citizens and we expect to be treated like citizens. That's not happening right now."
Of the turnout, he said, "This is, I think, emblematic of just how tired people are."
Patricia Austin, 58, a minister from Richmond, said she had come with several busloads of people from her church. "It's been a long time," she said. "And until we get the justice that we need in America, I'm going to continue to march."
She said she was not surprised at the size of the crowd. "Too much injustice is going on right now," she said. "Too much. And we need to speak out against it. . . . If we don't speak out, nothing is going to get done."
She noted some of the slogans carved in the stone of the Justice building as she marched past.
"To render every man his due," said one. "Justice in the life and conduct of the state is possible only as first it resides of the hearts and souls of the citizens," read another.
At a morning rally before the 12:30 p.m. march, King said if his father were alive he would be leading the march, and he quoted his father: "How long? Not long!"
Sharpton warmed up the crowd, by calling, "What do you want?"
"Justice!" people shouted back.
"When do you want it?" Sharpton called.
"Now!" the crowd replied.
After the march, he said he was pleased.
"The outstanding turnout today exceeded everyone's expectations," he said. "We said that we would march around the Justice Department seven times. We actually encamped the Justice Department and had four or five blocks to spare."
King said: "This is very significant because we had over 20,000 people to come to Washington to say we want our Justice Department to be activated.
"The lights in the civil rights division of the Justice Department are turned off," he said. "We came to encourage this Justice Department to get engaged."