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Obama to Ferguson: 'Keep protests peaceful'

In an interview with MSNBC's Chris Hayes on Friday, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said a grand jury decision would occur "in the coming days."

FERGUSON, Mo.— There are growing indications that a decision is imminent from the grand jury currently reviewing the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. by a Ferguson police officer.

Ed Magee, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office said on Friday afternoon that the grand jury was still meeting and that preparations were being made for a press conference to announce the jury’s decision. And in an interview with MSNBC's Chris Hayes on Friday, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said a decision would occur "in the coming days."

Law enforcement officials, protesters, local businesses and school leaders, for their part, have all been preparing for what many expect to be a non-indictment and a return of widespread protests that began in the days following Brown’s Aug. 9 killing. “We don’t know what to expect, but we know that we have to be ready,” Mayor Slay said Friday.

At least one local school district has canceled classes on Monday and Tuesday over uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the grand jury’s decision. School leaders in the Jennings school district said the closure will precede the Thanksgiving recess which is scheduled to begin on Wednesday. In a letter to parents, Superintendent Tiffany Anderson of the Jennings School District wrote, “Due to the potential Ferguson unrest, our Thanksgiving holiday break will be extended.” 

Prosecutor Bob McCulloch has said schools would get 24-hours' notice if the decision would be announced on a weekend and 3-hours' notice if it would be made during the week.

Related: Ferguson commission looks to shift focus away from indictment

Even the president himself weighed in ahead of the grand jury announcement. In an interview set to air Sunday, President Obama told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that "first and foremost" he wants Ferguson-area demonstrators to "keep protests peaceful." Similarly, earlier Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder, whose agency is leading parallel investigations into the shooting and of the entire Ferguson police department, released a video message in which he called for non-violent protests.

Holder never mentioned Ferguson, instead referencing events that have unfolded in recent months that have exposed long-driven fault lines in America. “Over the past few months, we’ve seen demonstrations and protests that have sought to bring attention to real and significant underlying issues involving police practices, implicit bias, and pervasive community distrust,” Holder said in the 4-minute video, adding that most of the demonstrations have been meaningful and that the majority of police officers have honorably defended citizens engaged in peaceful protests.

“I know, from first-hand experience, that demonstrations like these have the potential to spark a sustained and positive national dialogue, to provide momentum to a necessary conversation, and to bring about critical reform,” he said. “But history has also shown us that the most successful and enduring movements for change are those that adhere to non-aggression and nonviolence.” 

He said that peaceful protest has been a “hallmark, and a legacy, of past movements for change,” from women who demanded access to the franchise, to the civil rights pioneers. “Americans exercising their First Amendment right to free assembly should look to those examples as they work to bring about real and lasting change for themselves and for future generations,” he added.

On Monday Gov. Jay Nixon issued a state of emergency and signed an executive order preemptively mobilizing the National Guard to help supplement local law enforcement in the case of unrest. The move sparked anger among Brown’s supporters who say the presumption that protests will turn violent speaks to the bias in the way law enforcement and authorities have treated the mostly black, mostly peaceful protesters that have continued demonstrating for the better part of the 100-plus days since the shooting.

In recent days and after weeks of relative quiet on the streets of Ferguson, protesters have resurrected protests outside of Ferguson Police Department headquarters. Nearly a half-dozen protesters were arrested there on Wednesday night and charged mostly with refusal to disperse and unlawful assembly charges.  On Thursday, another three people were arrested during demonstrations.

Brown’s family has kept a relatively low profile since returning from a trip to Geneva last week where the teen’s mother and father testified before a U.N. committee on torture. But in a public service-style announcement, Michael Brown Sr. on Thursday asked for peace and calm ahead of the grand jury’s decision. “No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain,” Brown, Sr. said in the video, posted to YouTube. "I want it to lead to incredible change. Positive change. Change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone. We live here together. This is our home. We are stronger united."

“Let’s work together to create change for all people regardless of race,” Brown Sr. said.

Related: Ferguson protester: I’m not from a fringe group

“The Justice Department encourages law enforcement officials, in every jurisdiction, to work with the communities they serve to minimize needless confrontation,” Holder said in the video which was posted on the Justice Department’s website. Holder said it is vital to engage police work at all levels from planning and preparation to evaluating protocols and training, details down to the appropriate uniforms and equipment. He called it “hard work that is necessary to preserve the peace and maintain the public trust at all times—particularly in moments of heightened community tension.”

The new guidance for law enforcement is aimed at helping officers maintain public safety while also safeguarding the constitutional rights of protesters, and was issued by the Bureau of Justice and Assistance and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). COPS recently provided training to state and local law enforcement leaders on non-bias policing.

There has been wide speculation and backdoor conversation about the future of the Ferguson police department and a shakeup of its leadership, including the resignation of the Chief Tom Jackson and Wilson, according to sources, as well as the dismantling of the entire department. Holder has called the need for “wholesale change” in the department clear and necessary. And Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri has said on local radio that Jackson’s resignation would be a good thing.

But Chief Jackson has refuted claims that he was being forced out. Jackson, earlier this week, told msnbc that if not indicted, Wilson would legally be able to keep his job but that it would ultimately hinge on the results of an internal investigation. If indicted, Jackson said Wilson would be fired.

In his video message, Holder said the Justice Department was committed to ensuring that local law enforcement partners have all the resources they need to serve and protect residents, “particularly when citizens exercise their constitutionally protected rights.” He described the new guide for law enforcement, which has not yet been made public, as a comprehensive compilation of information, tools and best practices.

“As we’ve seen, durable relationships between the police and their communities do not develop overnight,” Holder said.“Of course, I recognize that progress will not come easily, and long-simmering tensions will not be cooled overnight.  These struggles go to the heart of who we are, and who we aspire to be, both as a nation and as a people—and it is clear that we have a great deal of important work to do.”