WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Thousands of demonstrators encircled Justice Department headquarters in the nation's capital Friday to demand the government crack down harder on hate crimes.
Thousands gather Friday morning at Freedom Plaza in the nation's capital for a march to the Justice Department.
"We have so many people, we surrounded the Justice Department and two blocks more," the Rev. Al Sharpton told CNN as the orderly crowd marched around the building where newly sworn-in Attorney General Michael Mukasey was working.
"This is a real outcry, a real outrage from people around this country," Sharpton said.
Mukasey responded by assuring the marchers that the Justice Department shared their vision of wiping out hate.
"Although there are limitations and challenges in bringing successful hate crimes prosecutions, the department takes each case seriously," Mukasey said in a statement.
"As long as hatred and racism exist, the Justice Department will continue its hard and effective work on behalf of all victims of hate crimes," he said.
Marchers walked from Freedom Plaza to the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, which they circled seven times, in an apparent allusion to the biblical story of the fall of Jericho. See photos of the march »
The demonstration was led by Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and members of Sharpton's National Action Network. Watch the leaders marvel at the size of the crowd »
The protesters' frustration stems from several racially charged incidents over the past year and a half: the police shooting of an unarmed man in New York, hours before his wedding, in November 2006; the appearance of nooses in several workplaces and schools; the case of a black teen charged with child molestation after having sex with another willing teen; and the story of a black West Virginia woman whom six white people allegedly raped, tortured and forced to eat animal feces as they berated her with racial slurs.
Particularly resonant was the "Jena 6" case in Jena, Louisiana. Nooses were hung from an oak tree at a high school there last year. The federal government did not prosecute the three white teens responsible.
"It was impossible under federal law as written today for us to go after these particular juveniles," Donald Washington, U.S. attorney for western Louisiana, told a congressional panel.
The noose incident at Jena was the beginning of months of racial tension that included the beating of a white student in December, allegedly by six black classmates. Two months ago, 15,000 to 20,000 protesters, including Sharpton and King, descended on Jena -- a town of about 3,000 -- to protest how authorities handled the cases of the six charged in that beating.
"There's Jenas everywhere," Sharpton said Friday. "Which is why you saw thousands of us come to Jena and why you see thousands of us come now.
"No one has the ability to get people to come on a cold day like this if people weren't feeling that they have been disenfranchised and been treated unfairly. Clearly, Jena resonates because people are familiar with the Jenas in their areas."
Prosecutors say that in order to file federal hate-crime charges, they must find that the crime was motivated by race, religion, or ethnicity and that it interfered with a federally protected right.
"There have been many reports of nooses discovered in workplaces and near schools and outside the homes of African-Americans across the country," Lisa Krigsten, counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights, acknowledged Wednesday in a conference call.
"The Justice Department is committed to addressing these recent incidents, racially motivated threats and acts of violence," she said. "There is no question that hanging a noose is a powerful symbol of hate and racially motivated violence. It has no place in the great country we live in."
Rep. Artur Davis, D- Alabama, and others involved in Friday's rally say the Department of Justice charged 22 people last year with hate crimes, compared with 76 people 10 years ago.
"The numbers weren't great in the Reno years. They are outright abysmal now," Davis said, referring to the 1993-2001 tenure of Attorney General Janet Reno.
"We either need stronger laws or we need a more aggressive commitment from the Department of Justice," he said.
In a fact sheet released Thursday, the Justice Department said its Civil Rights Division "has set records and achieved notable successes in prosecuting defendants for civil rights violations."
It said 189 defendants had been convicted of civil rights violations in fiscal year 2007, "the largest number ever in the history of the department," breaking the previous year's record of 181 defendants convicted.
Meanwhile, the number of reported hate crimes has declined, according to the FBI.
In 2005, when the latest FBI figures were released, the bureau said that the number of hate crimes reported that year was the lowest in a decade.
Hate crimes are among several categories covered under the umbrella of civil rights violations. Others include human trafficking, official misconduct, interference with access to reproductive health care, interference with the exercise of religious beliefs and destruction of religious property. E-mail to a friend
CNN's Paul Courson, Terry Frieden and Kelli Arena contributed to this report.
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