Category Archives: Nonviolence

Social Action Alien Invasion Training Tool

About a month ago I did a training which was basically an introduction to social action.  As part of this training I wrote up a scenario about alien invasion which I gave out to prompt discussion about social action strategy, tactics, and the process of organizing.  I was very happy with how this worked, and want to share the scenario.

Here it is:

After a long protracted struggle, aliens from outer space have conquered the Earth.  In ___ (insert country where this training is happening) they have not changed the basic governmental structure.  However, they have established a society where the majority of people are paid less than what is necessary to survive; although most do survive through activity in the informal economy and/or through debt (which is largely owned by aliens; who now control the financial industry).  Many humans are also imprisoned, and the legal system (both the courts and the police) tend to primarily protect alien interests.   The highest offices of authority are held almost exclusively by aliens while a lower strata of authority is maintained by humans, most of whom have come to emphatically endorse alien rule.  Elections and voting still exist, although people must always choose between very pro-alien candidates.  The aliens also do not need this planet and are willing to push the Earth’s resources to their capacity in order to produce valuable goods in the overall alien empire.  As a result, climate change and energy scarcity have intensified.  Schools and the media largely portray alien rule as normal and natural, and the majority of humans accept this perspective.  While there are pockets of rebellion, most feel powerless to change things.  Many people say “that’s just the way it is,” when discussing perceived unfairness in their world.  However many people do wish for change, and they occasionally gather for this purpose.  You are a group of people gathering for change [Note, for this sentence I actually named the group I was working with in my original write-up, but you can insert whatever group you want here].  How might you direct your energy towards a better world?

The overt purpose of this scenario was to spark a discussion on strategy, tactics, and organizing.  The scenario also had a covert purpose of sparking social analysis.  It fulfilled both purposes better than I expected; with participants enthusiastically throwing out their ideas and very quickly realizing that the scenario actually described the world we already live in.

Feel free to use the scenario if you like.  If you do, realize that people will probably ask questions about things that are not stated in the scenario.  My answers reflected my understanding of the world we currently live in (with aliens basically replacing the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people).  Also, I treated the aliens as though they had both good and bad traits and were not all of one mind, even though they all did benefit (in some way) from the exploitation of humanity as a whole.  One of the pitfalls I see in this scenario is that it can dehumanize, which I would try to avoid.  But I think overall this is a very nice tool for sparking our social action imagination while deepening our analysis.

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I am no better or worse than anyone else

Over the holidays I went to the movies and saw Les Miserables.  It was an emotional experience which got me in the reflective mood.  As I watched the revolutionaries struggle and die I felt a strange sensation, a growing internal conviction that I no longer wish to think of myself as better or worse than anyone else.  Perhaps this is my newest resolution (which just so happens to fall near the new year).

Losing the desire to be better than others goes against much that I was taught growing up.  As a child I remember wanting to be special, and competing with other children to prove that I was.  I remember boys performing feats of strength in gym class or feats of numeric processing in math.  We measured each other in order to decide who was worthy and unworthy.  Such measurement then expressed itself in envy towards the achievers and abuse towards the underachievers.  And, as we measured each other, the school measured us with grades and test scores.  For me, I felt a desire to compete that I think came from other peoples’ expectations of me but my heart was never in it.  In school I saw the stress of the overachievers and determined that I did not want to be like them.  Outside of school my father enrolled his sons in wrestling.  I often won informal matches during practices but could not stand the pressure once there was competition between teems and an audience in the bleachers.  Yet looking back I realize that, while I became uninterested in competing with people athletically or scholastically, I embraced a sort of moral competition.  I did want to be superior.

I have spent a good deal of my life watching others and judging them in order to convince myself that I was better than them.  I have listened to the words of good people who meant me no harm and, from the safety of my unspoken thoughts, I have thrown litanies of vulgarity at them.  This includes things like,

  • Why are you wasting my time?
  • That thing she said was stupid
  • He is an idiot
  • I would never get myself in that situation
  • You are not as special as me, and also
  • racist, classist, sexist, and ableist epithets

These thoughts were never the only ideas I had about people but they would pop into my head, and they often disturbed me.  My mind went back and forth between, I deeply admire you, and, you’re a piece of shit; and these contradicting ideas would exist at the same time about the same person.  As I grew up I came to notice my judgmental hostility more and more.  Meanwhile I desired more and more compassionate ways of relating with people.  Through much meditation and self-help experimentation my ability to listen grew and my tendency to judge lessened.  Then, as I noticed these changes, I became oppressively smug.  I wore my moral victories as a badge to prove that I was superior.  This had always been a hidden motivation for me… or perhaps it was a motivation hidden from me though obvious to everyone who knew me.

Eventually I realized that the self was really constructed by society (for example, kids judging other kids is learned by how the school system judges kids via grades).  As I figured this out I shifted from a self-help focus to a social change/collective liberation focus.  Now I think that my desire to feel special was a predictable response to a society that runs off of artificial scarcity.  Basically, we need to prove that we are special in order to prove that we are worthy to receive the resources we must compete over (for example, money).  Only a small minority of us are able to have truly secure livelihoods, have our ideas represented in government or the media, find work that is appropriately challenging and fulfilling, and be taken seriously by the people around us.  In a socially just world these things would not be treated as scarce privileges but instead as basic human needs.  However we live in a world which normalizes and indoctrinates us into accepting less than we deserve; and we behave according to the world we are indoctrinated into.

I also came to see how my desire to be special reinforced racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and other forms of oppression.  The privileges afforded to me by my white skin, Y chromosome assigned male identity*, and parents’ income give me an upper hand in the competition for those scarce societal resources.  For example, as a man I am not expected to cook and clean and do the daily domestic work.  My father did not do this.  Many fathers and grandfathers I have known did not do this.  Unpaid and under valued domestic labor has been the role given to women.  This privileges me and other men because, without having responsibility for domestic chores, I am afforded more time, freedom, and respect when I chose to pursue the things which will actually earn me that scarce societal recognition.  I have more time to work and to play.  I have more time to network and more expectation that I will not be home with the kids.  I have more access to the language and culture of men who, overall, hold more power.  And it is a challenge for me to resist this privilege by, for example, spending an equal amount of time as my wife on domestic chores.  This is because I am scared of giving up the privilege that helps me to compete, get what I want from life, and not be as exploited as others.

Lessons about the basic mechanics of privilege and oppression were taught to me in my twenties.  But, even as I have learned how the competition for superiority is just a tool of artificial scarcity by a dehumanizing societal machine, I have held on to the child’s dream of being recognized as special and extraordinary (which are ultimately just nicer sounding ways of saying “superior”).  But I have a growing sense of the vanity in this child’s dream because convincing myself that I am special does not actually provide me with the world I wish to see.  I wish for true love, true friendship, and true camaraderie.  I wish to be with people, to share in their joys and their struggles.  I wish for no accolades, no shallow rewards, no teacher’s stars to measure zir favor (zir is a gender neutral pronoun; like his or her).  Liberation is my desire, and I believe it is only possible when we lose the ambition to become better than others and the fear that we are worse.

Like all good resolutions, I need help to maintain this.  I expect to fail often and don’t really care because failure is part of the learning process.  But I would like for people to show me where I am wrong because that helps me learn as well.  In later posts I will explore what it means to live as though I am not better or worse than anyone else.  This resolution entails an awful lot which I am excited to discover.

*I first wrote Y chromosome thinking that the Y chromosome was a trait that could represent many traits that are associated with being male.  It was brought to my attention that this was cissexist because it excludes people who identify as male but do not have a Y chromosome and people who have a Y chromosome but don’t identify as male.  In  other words, having a Y chromosome does not necessarily mean you have a male identity.  I found a link to another blog which describes cissexism in more detail.

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We Need to Acknowledge the Reality of Violence: My Account of the Eviction of Occupy DC

So I know the semi-eviction of Occupy DC happened many months ago, but I want to give my account of it and explore some of the lessons I learned.

On February 4th in McPherson Square, at Occupy DC, it was a day filled with brutality.  There had been a lot of talk that the eviction was coming after a congressional hearing decided that people could keep a constant vigil in the park but could not sleep over.  Police told occupiers that tents could stay, as could objects like chairs and tables, but the sleepers could be arrested, and sleeping bags could be confiscated.  Police asked us to leave our tents open and told us that, if we complied, our things would remain in the park.

Occupy DC protesters in front of the Tent of Dreams

On January 30th, the pre-eviction happened.  The cops said they would come.  Occupiers, in response, threw a giant tarp over the statue of General McPherson which stands in the center of the square.  We named the tarp “the tent of dreams.”  We carried signs talking about our dreams, and spoke about why we occupy -the beauty of the camp, the community we created, the troubles of the world, the necessity to resist.  We talked about struggles with debt, foreclosures, homelessness, health care, with being used and abused in the military.  We talked about the world we wished to see -a world which serves people above profits, a world which stands up against exploitation, a world of fairness and justice.  The police left.  Protesters basked in victory.

A few days later I got a text message describing the scene unfolding downtown as a “full eviction.”  I came to McPherson Square and saw the damage.  Hundreds of cops surrounded the square.  Horses watched on at the periphery.  The park was sliced up by barricades.  The tent of dreams had been taken down.  The southeastern section of the park was filled with officers in hazmat suits, systematically tossing almost every bit of occupy property into a dump truck.  The majority of these tents had been left open, which the police had promised would allow us to keep them.

The eviction

Around the camp people walked in shock, trying to clear out their belongings before the cops threw them away.  There was a sense of betrayal, of violation.  I know I felt the desire to fight back but, with more cops than protesters, this felt like a losing battle.

Soon the cops entered another section of the camp.  They went through more tents with their hazmat suits and threw more things away.  At this point protesters started gathering into the last section of the park, our main street, where the information tent, the kitchen, the university, and the medic station sat.  A call went out to protect the library, a center for conversation and a symbol of the camp.  Here we would stand our ground.

We waited on that front with slow boiling tension.  We spoke again about why we occupy.  We chanted in solidarity.  “Whose park?”  “Our park!”  “Whose first amendment rights?”  “Our first amendment rights!”  We read passages about how we appreciated the library.  At one point I led the group in a very awkward mic checked version of the song “Hold on” (otherwise known as “Keep your Eyes on the Prize).  All along, a line of very stoic officers stared at us.

As this was going on, the library committee was negotiating with the cops to keep the library from being thrown away.  The cops said they would inspect it.  The library said they needed to have librarians present while police inspected.  We all felt we couldn’t trust the cops.  Some were very vocal about this, saying the library should make no agreements.

In the end two librarians would stay in the tent while the police inspected it, and everyone else who was supporting the library would be asked to move away.  I noticed one officer say something else during these negotiations, almost as an afterthought.  The library was going to be inspected at the same time that the police would open and search the final section of the park -the section everyone was standing in.

Police attack

As police moved in, they started yelling “move back!”  Librarians also pleaded for protesters to comply.  Some were adamant “we should not move, the cops have been lying to us all day.”  I was moving back in support of the libraries request, while also being concerned about what was soon to happen.  Stepping back from the heart of confrontation I saw the police moving to surround us.  They were coming behind the tents, flanking us.  I told some people what I saw happening.  Then I heard screaming.

I moved around the camp, scouting out what was going on and trying to see how I could be most helpful.  At one place where a barricade was just being raised I saw a protester yelling into a cop’s face.  I thought either the protester or the cop might be ready to strike out and was worried of what might happen.  I stepped in between them.  The cop didn’t seem to see any difference between me and my compatriot however and, as soon as the barricade rose, he stabbed me with his billy club, knocking me to the ground.  I picked myself up.  He pushed forward again, knocking me down once more.  I saw him ready to charge yet again while I lay.  He yelled “get up and walk away!”

Despite the tension, I found this somewhat comical.  I raised my hand, indicating I meant no harm, then said “I will walk away, if you let me get up.”

He repeated “get up and walk away.”  In his eyes I saw fear.

The big push

Around me others were pushed.  Usually this was at a manageable pace but occasionally the cops charged into the crowd, rushing people, knocking them down, trampling them.  It was horrifying to see people I cared for, people I stood in solidarity with, being hurt.  At one point I saw a cop jump out of the line, swinging his riot shield like a weapon.  He hit the person next to me, then swung his shield into my face.  My nose and teeth stung.  I lost it.  Glaring deep into his eyes I yelled “police brutality!”  For a moment he looked like he was ready for more, and so was I.  But my allies calmed me down while his marched past him.

There were a few more instances of screams.  I told the police what I had witnessed from their colleagues.  I said “you know, if you just stop charging us, no one would get hurt.”

One cop responded “if you would just turn around and walk away…”

The person next to me said “turn around while you’re charging into us?”  Then I felt a horse nuzzle into my hair.

Soon we were pushed into the street.  The police closed off the park.  We stood at the perimeter and yelled our anger and our passion.  I continued walking around the park talking to stoic officers about what their fellows had done, asking the question “who do you protect and who do you serve, because it sure as hell isn’t us.”

My friend started rattling the barricade and yelling “We’re not afraid of you!”

Then we had a general assembly in the middle of k street.  At this point I had to leave.  That evening I had agreed to take tickets at my wife’s chorus concert.  The eviction had ended, I was not in jail, and I didn’t want to let her down -though it was such a bizarre clash of environments to go from overt police violence to choral music.  After coming down from the adrenaline I found myself distracted from the music.  A deep disturbance clung to my brain.  I realized, holy shit, I’m traumatized… and I know everyone else is too.

The next day I came back to the park and saw people walking on crutches.  The police had broken their bones.  One friend described his experience of being slammed on his head, knocked unconscious, and hospitalized.  His body would never be the same.  My nose hurt for a couple of weeks from the cop who swung his shield in my face.  I found myself thinking I wish I got his badge number, but in the middle of the chaos it was hard to keep track.  Fortunately my nose got better.

I told people about what happened, and my experience in retelling these events was probably the most disheartening aspect of the whole process.  I talked about watching my friends trampled, having bones broken, and cops who behaved brutally.  People stared somewhat blankly, not acknowledging the factual basis of what I said, and quickly wanting to change the conversation.  But I needed them to understand.  I needed them to understand how many people have faced this violence, from police brutality in working class communities, to nations invaded overseas, to the proxy dictatorships that promote the interests of elites.  And I needed people to recognize that this violence was also a part of them.

When I eat a hamburger, I am part of the process which kills the cow.  When I buy from companies who use sweatshops, I am part of the process which puts workers into oppressive conditions.  When I do not intervene in the silencing of people who are advocating for their democratic rights, I am part of the processwhich undermines my own rights as well.  And I suppose the lesson I want to come from this experience is that standing in solidarity with the 99% means acknowledging the violence, exploitation, and marginalization that has been practiced upon our diverse communities.  I ask readers, do not dismiss the suffering of one group of people just because it clashes with your experience or view of the world.  One way to create a more humane existence is by granting yourself the moral courage to see the realities which contradict our desires for how reality should be.  And thank you for reading my story.

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High School Students Changing the World

Life has been very busy recently and I haven’t posted in a while.  One of the things I have been busy with involves lending support and encouragement to the students at Northwestern High School in Prince George’s County Maryland (usually called “PG County”).  PG County has a very large immigrant population.  The schools are majority black and Latino.  It is not a rich county and many schools are underfunded, which creates problems for students, teachers, and everyone involved.  A group of Northwestern students got together to plan a walkout on March 1st this year, protesting large class sizes (frequently over 40 students to a class), the firing of Phillippino ESL teachers (who were then deported because they lost their work visas), and unsanitary conditions (one student said he found a tooth in his food).  300 students agreed they would leave during the last period of the school day on March 1st.  The school found out about the plan, kept 4 organizers in the office all day, threatened them with expulsion and ultimately suspended them, and prevented many students from walking out.  Police where there, including dogs.  I and others did some activities of support for the students.  I wrote the letter below which I thought I’d post on this blog

Dear Northwestern students,

When I was in high school, I remember my elders talking about how kids now a days don’t believe in anything.  I knew this perception was false back then.  You, students at Northwestern, have proven this perception false today

For 20 years I have struggled with the educational system, and over those 20 years I have seen it getting worse.  In school I learned reading and math.  I also learned how to follow the rules, even when they didn’t make sense, how to compete with my fellow classmates, even when I didn’t want to, how to value myself and others based on our racially and socio-economically biased grades, even when I could see this wasn’t fair, and how to survive in a world which didn’t give a damn about what I thought or cared for -it wasn’t until college when I was first actually asked what I wanted to learn.  With the passage and continuance of No Child Left Behind, the authoritarian tendencies of school have gotten worse as teachers, students, and schools are all rigidly judged by standardized tests which rarely measure the actual retention of meaningful learning.

My experience in higher education was much better than my schooling up to that point, but it came with a steep cost which will probably require many years of servitude to pay off.  And the cost of higher education is rising, making it increasingly exclusive.  In general, educational funding is being cut.  This is happening at Northwestern.  It is happening across the country.  Teachers are fewer.  Class sizes are larger.  There are also many efforts to remove the teachers with more experience (who cost more) and replace them with newer teachers who cost less.  Northwestern, your struggles are national struggles.

Many are aware of the problems I am outlining.  Few are willing to do anything about it.  You at Northwestern have done something, and I hope you feel proud of it.  I feel grateful for you.  You have done what many are scared to do.  You have stood up for your rights.  You are practicing real democracy.  I would love to see teachers, students, and staff across the nation stand up in protest of this broken system.  Perhaps you will be trendsetters.  Know at least that I support you, and that there is a community of people who support you.  Whatever ridicule, punishment, or fear you face, keep your head held high.  Many have been trained by the authoritarian world to fear that which represents real hope and possibility.  The resistance you faced is only proof that you represent something powerful.

With Deepest Love and Appreciation,
Andrew Batcher
Writer, Activist, Educator

After the walkout people sent letters like mine to both the students and the administration.  We also called the administration, and there was an open community meeting that supporters could come to.  At first the administration was saying they “would not discuss alleged disciplinary actions,” seeming to deny that the suspensions even took place.  But students made sure they got their voices heard and supporters were there to encourage them.  This week, the students planned a day of silence for Trayvon Martin and the principle decided to revoke their suspensions.  It was a victory with a complex web of players.  I think there is a lot to learn from this, and I hope there can be many more victories after this.

Stopping Traffic on a Rainy Day; To Block or not to Block?

Yesterday was a rainy day along K street, famous for its lobbyists who make a living promoting corporate interests.  For the beautiful, loving, rabble-rousers, it was a day of action.  Thousands were gathered in protest of the lobbyists’ work.  Around three o’clock, about twenty lay down in the street.  They were covered in plastic and signs.  They stared up at the sky.  Medics walked in and out of the prone group which blocked traffic.  Two rows of police surrounded them, prepared to make arrests.  Along the sidewalks a crowd chanted, said words of support, and attempted to influence the cops -who stood with stoic resistance.  Everyone was soggy.  The rain was as constant as the action.  I was standing slightly in the street, speaking to a reporter -words that I knew he was not looking for.  Then the line of cops moved in; “get off the street or you will be arrested.”  I moved.  Soon the arrests followed.

I had thought about risking arrest that day, but decided against it.  I had mixed feelings about the scene.

On the one hand, I believe in civil disobedience.  In 2003, I jumped a police barricade, protesting the war in Iraq.  My heroes, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, were the types who would risk-arrest in the face of unjust laws and unjust social order.  But a lot of people would not risk arrest.  Being arrested (even for a just cause) carried with it a stigma which I knew often prevented people from taking action for social change.  And I wanted to take a real committed action again.  I was happy for the protesters laying in the street, taking bold action.  They were breaking the stigma of arrest within themselves and, in the process, reaching a sense of empowerment like I felt when I jumped the police barricade.

On the other hand, I had reservations.  These are well summarized in an article written by George Lakey about the WTO protests.  Lakey writes,

…there are times when stopping traffic may be the best we can think of…  However… [suppose] we take the point of view of the bystander or the television camera. When the police drag away protesters who are blocking a city intersection, what is the message of the protesters? The World Bank has policies that hurt people? Maybe, if the bystander or television viewer is willing to make several logical steps or leaps of imagination. There’s no reason to expect that bystanders and TV viewers will work hard to make those connections, especially when the excitement is in the physical conflict itself between arresting officers and activists.

In the end, I think blocking traffic is better than nothing, but it does not particularly call out to me as something to put my body on the line for unless I can make a clear case that I am blocking something horrible which is being transported down that road (weapons, for example).  My preference would be to shut down the buildings lobbyists work in (instead of the street), although I know this involves complicated logistical and strategic decisions.

I am uncertain; but I suppose there are three points I want to make.

  1. I am proud of the protesters who risked arrest, who were willing to put their bodies on the line for what they believed in.  I think they are brave people who stood up for the nation and the world’s well-being.
  2. If you are witness and support for an action, do not taunt the police.  Seriously.  Stop that.  I know, police are representatives of an unjust system.  To one extent or another we all are.  Chanting “shame,” or “what would your children think,” or claiming you will make a “citizen’s arrest,” is inviting the press to think we are crazy when the cops are behaving reasonably (when they are not, it is a different story).  This is also inviting the police to be angry and unsympathetic (and they will direct that anger towards the people who are actually taking a risk, not the fool standing on the corner trying to rile up trouble).
  3. The struggle is not about protesters versus police.  In this case, it is about democracy being sold to corporate interests, and protesters resisting the lobbyists who represent those interests.  I also think that, when the message of an action is less clear, it is more likely to become hijacked by the common, tired, and almost ritualistic meme of protester versus cop.  Bear in mind, this is not a message of change; it is only a continuation of what we are used to.

My Journey Towards Nonviolence

In the wake of discussions about violence related to the occupy movement, I want to share my own story of how I came to endorse nonviolence.

As a boy I believed in the necessity of violence. Raised on GI Joe and Star Wars, I was presented with the view that good people had to kill bad people for peace and justice to reign. With action figures and video game controllers clentched in my hands, I acted this story out time and again.  It was a simple tale of right and wrong, yet I came to sense a flaw. If killing people was an evil action (as I was also raised to believe), how can people be good if they also kill?

This criticism became heightened once I realized that war was different from how it was portrayed in boyish fantasy. When the first Gulf War happened, the media talked about Saddam Hussein inflating the number of civilians killed by American troops. Around me I heard “well, civilians are always killed in war, but its not that many.” I thought, “not that many? What if it was my father or mother or neighbor or me?”  It seemed intensely cruel to offhandedly dismiss any human life, be it ten people or a thousand, Americans or Iraqis, soldiers or civilians.

Then I understood, we tended not to see war victims as human.  Instead of “person murdered” we say “casualty of war.”  “Casual” is right in the phrase, as though it is easy and everyday.  We learn to dehumanize and become dehumanized.  And I realized this was a necessary condition for violence. Violence is a degradation of our sense of human worth, and war represents an extreme example of this. As a person believing in my own worth and the worth of others, I could see that violence was perhaps the definition of evil.

Sill, I was so used to the idea that social change came through violence. This is what the history books taught. I had heard of Mohandas Gandhi and the nonviolent Indian Independence movement, but I had difficulty conceptualizing it. Violence was simple. You kill the people in your way and then they are no longer there. Once they are gone you can do what you want. How could people “stop being in your way” without the use of violence? Then I had a realization. There will always be people in the way. Even when power is violently seized, opposition, insurgents, etc. still exist. Social change, violent or otherwise, is never about removing opposition, but about advancing the influence of one regime compared to another. It is about shifting the balance of power. Killing people can shift the balance of power; so can spreading a message, building organizations, raising money, riling people up to act boldly for what they believe in, committing direct action to undermine the institutions that oppress, etc.

In fact, even if a movement is violent, most of the work in building that movement must be done nonviolently. Once we realize this, it isn’t hard to entertain the idea that a movement which has nonviolently built its power could also nonviolently exert that power to make changes in society. Historically this is backed by the cases of Indian Independence, South African resistance to apartheid, US civil rights, the Arab Spring, and many more examples.

But to me the biggest argument for nonviolence is this, if we wish to create a world that does not violate human worth and dignity, how can we do this by using a tool (violence) which inherently violates the worth and dignity of people? In the end I think revolution for a humanizing future must be based on acting against violence in both our society and ourselves.  Whether it is a military elite finding power through war, a financial elite making money off of economic collapse, a business elite looking to maximize profit through lowering the resources of workers, an employer in a middle class office who won’t hire a working class black man, a husband abusing his wife because he desires unnatural compliance, an everyday person not recognizing how her privilege is connected to suffering, or an everyday person simply lashing out in frustration- peace and social justice requires resisting violence in order to restore our holistic humanity.

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