President Barack Obama appealed for calm and understanding in Ferguson on Monday after a grand jury decided not to indict in the death of Michael Brown, pleading with both residents and police officers to show restraint.
"We are a nation built on the rule of law, so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury's to make," Obama said.
In a late-night statement from the White House, Obama said it was understandable that some Americans would be "deeply disappointed - even angered" that police officer Darren Wilson wasn't indicted. Yet he echoed Brown's parents in calling for any protests to be peaceful, saying that the wishes should be honored as they grieve their son.
At the same time, Obama sought to dispel the notion that race relations in the U.S. have deteriorated, the protests in Ferguson notwithstanding. Urging Americans not to deny recent progress, he called for Americans to turn their attention to ways to bring police and their communities closer together in the wake of Brown's death.
"That won't be done by throwing bottles. That won't be done by smashing car windows. That won't be done by using this as an excuse to vandalize property," Obama said. "It certainly won't be done by hurting anybody."
Yet the scene playing out in Ferguson, just minutes after the grand jury's announcement, stood in stark contrast to Obama's calls for calm. As Obama spoke live from the White House briefing room, television networks showed Obama on one side of the screen, and violent demonstrations in Ferguson on the other.
Police said protesters smashed windows, vandalized police cars and threw rocks at authorities as anger erupted after the announcement Monday night that Wilson, a white officer, wouldn't be indicted for shooting Brown. The death of the unarmed, black 18-year-old sparked weeks of protests that authorities feared would be revived after the grand jury's decision was handed down.
"This is not just an issue for Ferguson, this is an issue for America," Obama said. "There are still problems and communities of color aren't just making this up."
Obama, who has faced repeated calls to visit Ferguson, said he would "take a look" at whether such a visit would now be wise. Under Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, the Justice Department is conducting a separate investigation into possible civil rights violations that could result in federal charges against Wilson.
Holder, in a statement, called Brown's death a "tragedy." Like the president, the attorney general urged calm, saying "it does not honor his memory to engage in violence or looting. "
In a nod to the intense interest in the Ferguson unrest, Obama said the media, too, has a responsibility to keep the focus on the parents and community leaders seeking to find some good in Brown's death. He said there would inevitably be some negative reactions to the decision "that will make for good TV," but cautioned against focusing exclusively on those sensational images.
The uproar sparked by Brown's death has challenged Obama to find constructive, measured ways to address the deep racial tensions exposed by the incident without alienating law enforcement or casting undue blame amid ongoing investigations.
In 2012, Obama spoke passionately after the death of teenager Trayvon Martin, telling the public that "if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." But the circumstances in Ferguson were different, with a police officer claiming self-defense, and Obama has sought to avoid further inflaming racial divisions.
In his remarks on Monday, Obama urged the country to channel their frustration in ways that would be constructive, not destructive. He touted "enormous progress" the U.S. had made in the past few decades on issues of race.
"I have witnessed that in my own life," Obama said. "And to deny that progress, I think, is to deny America's capacity for change."
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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.