Jim Young/Reuters

As the smoke (and tear gas) clears, the next legal steps for the Ferguson community may take place at the federal level.

After the grand jury delivered its decision Monday not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the suburban city once again plunged into unrest. As the smoke (and tear gas) clears, what happens next for the Ferguson community may take place at the federal level, in the context of a civil case, or both.

The U.S. Justice Department still has two opportunities to bring criminal charges related to this case. Investigators from the Civil Rights Division have been looking into racial profiling practices and patterns of excessive force at the Ferguson Police Department. And there is also the ongoing separate federal investigation of the Aug. 9 shooting of Brown, in order to determine whether civil rights charges might be brought against Wilson.

The family of Michael Brown is no doubt looking into pursuing a civil, wrongful death lawsuit against Wilson and the Ferguson Police Department, as well.

A protester approaches a cloud of tear gas the night of the grand jury decision. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

The conditions could not have been more primed for conflict Monday night. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch delivered the highly anticipated decision at 8:25 p.m. Central, meaning anxious protesters and armored police, steeled by a standoff that has lasted for months, had been waiting all day and into the night for the news.

Shortly after the decision was finally tendered, President Barack Obama made live, televised remarks. People across the nation watching cable news networks were treated to a surreal split-screen: On one, the president pleading for peaceful protests and promising healing. On the other, a squad car burning.

Violence resumed in this standoff for the first time since August. Rioters burned two squad cars and a Little Caesar's to the ground. At least a dozen buildings were set on fire, and an estimated 61 people were arrested overnight.

A police car burns during Ferguson unrest. (Jim Young/Reuters)

"What we saw tonight was much worse than what we saw any night in August," said the St. Louis County Police Department in a statement.

Since McCulloch has made the documents and evidence that the grand jury evaluated available to the public, there is ample opportunity to confirm or second-guess the grand jury's decision. This work is already happening.

A demonstrator chants at police in Oakland following the decision in Ferguson. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Inside Ferguson and its surrounding communities, there is no mile-marker on the horizon promising change. But agitation nationwide has led to slow, structural changes in this country before. That's the way Kansas City Mayor Sly James has chosen to frame the decision:

I’m a 62-year-old black man. I lived through the assassination of Martin Luther King.  I came of age during the Civil Rights Movement. I spent years in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam era.

I’ve seen my fair share of generational events.  Ferguson is a generational event and I understand the emotions around this decision.

In the Spring of 1968, shortly after Martin Luther King was assassinated, I found myself in a precarious situation, probably not unlike some young people experienced in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death.  I was at the intersection of 44th and Montgall, going home from the Kitty Clover potato chip factory where I was working to earn money for the prom, when national guard troops lit up the dark night with spot lights and forced us on the ground and held us at gunpoint because we were out after curfew. Three of us were black and one white.  Our skin color didn’t matter when our faces hit the pavement. It’s important to remember that regardless of color, we all feel pain.

Many people are in pain this evening because of this decision.  I encourage our community to take to prayer, reflection, and even peaceful protest. Peaceful freedom of expression is a basic right afforded to each of us. There is no right to destroy property or hurt people, however.

Strong communities overcome adversity not by violence, but by upholding strong virtues. Rather than fighting with our fists, let’s fight to eliminate the conditions that led to this young man’s death.

A demonstrator holds a protest sign in front of the State House in Boston. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

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