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Ferguson dilemma: Was calling up National Guard the right move?

Reaction to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's decision to call up the National Guard ahead of the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case has met with both criticism and praise in the St. Louis area.

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A view of the Missouri National Guard Depot in St. Louis Tuesday after a state of emergency was declared by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon in connection with the grand jury investigation into the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Tom Gannam/Reuters

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[Updated 5:52 p.m. ET] Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s decision to activate his state’s National Guard is being welcomed by some in the St. Louis area as a wise precaution for public safety, but others warn will only antagonize already fragile race relations.

The sharply divided responses follow Governor Nixon’s announcement of the National Guard callup Monday, a move tied to a grand jury decision, expected in the next two weeks, that could touch off a new round of protests in Ferguson, Mo.

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The grand jury is weighing whether to indict police officer Darren Wilson on charges related to his fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb on Aug. 9.

Ferguson has been rocked by demonstrations against what protesters say was an unprovoked and tragic death. The grand jury has heard other testimony that presents Brown as the aggressor, according to news reports.

 The FBI issued a bulletin warning of that violence by some “extremist” protesters could follow the grand jury announcement.

Some leaders in St. Louis voice worries that the Guard callup will backfire.

St. Louis Alderman Antonio French said in a Twitter update Tuesday:

On Monday, he said that “military presence in my city will mark a historic failure” on the part of government.

The protests in August after Mr. Brown’s death revealed a wide racial divide between Ferguson’s mostly black population and a mostly white police force equipped at times with military gear.

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Although Nixon said the Guard presence is designed to protect protesters’ free-speech rights as well as public safety, his critics say Guard activation is premature in the absence of rioting or violence, and that it may antagonize the community rather than reassure.

Anthony Gray, an attorney for Brown’s family, accused Nixon on CNN of “preparing for war,” and said he hoped the move won’t create conflict by provoking a reaction.

On the other side of the debate, some local officials say the Guard activation is needed.

Patrick Green, mayor of Normandy, a suburb near Ferguson, and active in a national group of black mayors, called the move “necessary,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

“You have to do the prudent thing,” he said. “You can't call them at the last minute."

Nixon implied that Guard forces will serve in backup role, freeing county police to maintain order on the streets.

The choice is a difficult one. Nixon’s announcement noted various situations where Guard forces have helped in Missouri before – mostly responding to natural disasters.

But although the current callup is unusual, Nixon could also set himself up for criticism if he did not act and then found police stretched too thin in the wake of the grand jury decision.