The CNN split-screen told the story: While President Obama urged calm from the White House Monday night, fires were already burning on the streets of Ferguson, Mo.
It was the sadly predictable response to a grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old. And it left the rest of the nation struggling to come to grips with a racial divide that seems to be growing wider even as the country becomes more diverse.
After hearing the accounts of 60 witnesses and studying the physical evidence presented in the case, a grand jury made up of nine white and three black jurors found there was no probable cause to bring charges that could have ranged from negligent manslaughter to murder.
As reporters and legal experts continue to sort through the transcripts of testimony and other evidence released by the prosecutor, each of us needs to recognize the limits of our knowledge. The 12 jurors — not the protesters in Ferguson, the pundits on national TV nor the Star Tribune Editorial Board — reviewed the evidence and were in the best position to render a just decision.
Nevertheless, this most recent national tragedy involving criminal justice and race relations reveals how alienated a large and important segment of American society still feels from the established system of law, order and justice — a full 50 years after the height of the 20th-century civil rights movement.
The justice system cannot operate without public trust, and Ferguson requires a national examination of why that key element is lacking in so many communities as well as how it can be rebuilt. That is not just a job for Missouri: Minnesota faces its own set of complicated challenges involving race, crime and justice.
Obama rightly explained that the passions loosed in Ferguson go far beyond that community and this case. The causes of strained police relations with minority communities across America are many and run deep.
No one should condone the rioting that broke out in Ferguson after the decision was announced. Rage gives no one a free pass on lawbreaking, and in many cities demonstrators gathered, mostly without incident, to voice their concerns about the decision and the larger issue of police brutality. Those who carried out the looting and violence in Ferguson disregarded an admirable plea from the heartbroken Brown family for peaceful protests and constructive change.
That change needs to start on America's streets, in its city halls and in its police departments. All of us, regardless of race or ethnicity, have a role in working to strengthen the social fabric that must hold us together as one America.
We recognize that police officers are in a special position. They not only have a right to "stand their ground," but also a duty to confront and apprehend lawbreakers. That doesn't justify all use of force, but it complicates finding the line beyond which a crime has been committed.
As we've seen for decades in the Twin Cities area and elsewhere, however, too often a very small number of bad officers can set a tone for an entire department and city. The Ferguson case simply reopens wounds suffered by communities across the country that have struggled with allegations of abuse of power by police that often involve minority communities.
Along with urging that civil rights charges be brought against Wilson, the Brown family has advocated for a national campaign to require police officers to wear body cameras — a strategy recently launched by Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and Police Chief Janeé Harteau.
To their credit, Hodges, Harteau and St. Paul's Mayor Chris Coleman and Police Chief Thomas Smith all have recently met with groups in their cities to discuss police issues — and all four are committed to stronger community relations and more diverse police departments.
Stunningly low voter turnout in Ferguson points to another challenge for that city and others: Ensuring that communities of color participate in public life and show up at the polls. Too many members of our society do not see themselves or their views reflected on school boards, city councils or in police administration buildings.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who is fighting voter suppression efforts around the country, reminded an editorial writer of a quote from President John Kennedy that speaks to the alienation on display in Ferguson — and the need to actively address disenfranchisement before the divide grows wider still: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."
Convincing alienated Americans to channel their desire for change to the polls rather than the streets will take work and healing. Now is past time to start.