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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

The millennial generation rises to its moment

People march in protest on Manhattan's West Side

People march in protest on Manhattan's West Side Highway on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, after the announcement that the New York City police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner would not be indicted. Credit: AP

Have you seen the faces marching in Manhattan? I mean, really seen them?

There are old-timers mixed in among those protesting the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions, but mostly the marchers are young. And their skin colors are of many hues.

Have you heard them speak?

When TV reporters thrust microphones before them, their words rush out in myriad accents.

They talk about the urgency of their mission, their happiness to be undertaking it with friends, and the satisfaction they feel that, as one man put it, "We're finally mobilizing."

Their youth, their energy and their arm-in-arm multiculturalism give me hope that some aspects of our nation's troubled racial history finally will change. And I like that feeling, because for a long time my natural optimism about most things in life has been at war with the deep pessimism I've harbored about the possibility of progress on this particular fault line.

The sad truth is we've been talking about incidents of police officers killing people of color, especially black men, for far too long. Garner's on-video death and the refusal of a Staten Island grand jury to indict the officer who applied the apparent chokehold could prove to be the tipping point. Even staunch conservatives like columnist Charles Krauthammer say the decision was "totally incomprehensible."

Fueled by the coast-to-coast protests, remedies are being discussed. Body cams for cops, national commissions for dialogue, retraining of police, examinations of our criminal justice system, legislation from Washington and various statehouses -- all of that could help. But real change isn't possible until attitudes change, and on that young people hold the key.

It's a lot to demand of them, but theirs is an interesting generation.

The so-called millennials -- those born roughly between 1980 and 2000 -- are the most racially diverse generation in our nation's history. Some 43 percent are nonwhite. And, surveys show, they embrace their diversity. For them, racial equality is a given. So is gender equality. They are tolerant of both religious and family diversity, support same-sex marriage, and have positive attitudes toward immigration.

By many measures, they are more progressive at the same age than were their parents, the vaunted baby boomers. That's saying something, because the boomers helped to lead the civil rights, women's rights and anti-war movements in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Soon, millennials will become a force impossible to ignore. By 2020, they will represent about 40 percent of America's eligible voters.

The question is whether -- and how -- they exercise that potential muscle.

Can they channel the spontaneous spirit of marching into making successful demands for concrete action? Can they avoid the mistakes made during the Occupy movement, which raised awareness of economic injustice but was too unfocused about solutions to produce actual change?

I'm betting -- and hoping -- the answer is yes. We saw their potential clout in 2008 and 2012 when they turned out in huge numbers to help elect President Barack Obama. Now they're turning out again, on the streets of cities across the country.

But apart from the ballot box and the lobbying force of their protests, they can have a profound impact simply by living life. Because eventually they will become the politicians and the district attorneys and the grand jurors . . . and the police officers.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.