Sojourner's Blog

May 24, 2011

Re-Imagining Campus Protest Rallies

Now that the school year is winding down, it’s a good time to  look back, evaluate, and start laying plans for the Fall.

The campus protest rally with a handful of fiery speakers and  some mass chanting is a staple of protest  politics — a traditional method of expressing  opposition and anger. But as we’ve seen this past year, when it’s  repeated over and over with the same speakers, the same rhetoric,  the and same slogans its effectiveness diminishes and the number  of participants declines.

It’s now clear that the campaign to defend and reform public  higher education is going to be a long hard road. A struggle that  can only be won by building a broad-based mass movement. Mass  movements don’t just happen, they are built by committed activists. But as a general rule, most people don’t become  politically active from listening to speeches, reading websites &  leaflets, or receiving emails & tweets. Organizations and  movements are built by conversations and involving people in  activities — activities that are more substantive  than listening to rally speakers or shouting slogans in a group  chant.

Creativity is a pillar of nonviolent direct action. We  need to apply some creative thinking to the traditional campus  protest rally so as to more effectively involve people in active  participation. For example:

Speak-Out Circles. One technique that proved useful  during the long student strike at S.F. State in 1968 was to  occasionally replace the noon rally with speak-out circles.  Instead of making the usual speeches, we called on people to form  small circles of 6-12 where everyone was encouraged to discuss  the issues. Pre-assigned circle-leaders spread out, raised their  hands, and shouted “form a circle on me.” When folk gathered  around, the leader asked: “Well, what do you think about  [whatever]?” and encouraged dialog. Dialog and discussion were  the keys, not the typical “I’m-the-expert-you-listen-to-me” mode  of speakers/teachers to passive audiences & classes. When done  successfully, speak-out circles allowed strike supporters to  discuss and debate with uninvolved students and opponents.

Inevitably, some circles didn’t jell and dissipated, but  others became lively, loud, and argumentative and attracted more  and more people to gather around. (Yes, encouraging those who  disagreed with us to speak was part of the method.) When a lively  circle became too large, and people were becoming frustrated  because they wanted to contribute their opinions and weren’t  getting an opportunity, a new leader pulled some away to start a  new circle — “Let’s start a new circle over  here!” On our best day, we once built up from an initial 3 to  eventually 11 circles all going at once. The entire lawn in front  of the cafeteria (now the student union) was a bubbling ferment  of ideas and passion and involvement.

Speak-out circles were most effective when something  particularly controversial had just occurred (usually by us) and  people were already buzzing, but they could be used at any time.  More students were moved to support the strike from their  participation in the ferment of those circles than from our  typical we-speak-you-listen rallies. And organizers used them to  spot potential activists for longer conversations, personal  invitations to committee meetings, and so on.

Big Post-Its Campaign. Today we can buy pads of easel- size Post-Its made from newsprint paper. They’re used at meetings  where ideas are written down large and stuck up on the walls.  Instead of a typical noon protest rally, how about bringing out  some big Post-It pads and a bucket of Sharpies and ask people to  write down their own ideas on the issues and post them up on the  walls and glass of nearby buildings. Have cadre prepared to start  it off with some well thought out provocative statements and be  the first to post them up. Be sure to date each statement,  photograph them, and put them up on the internet to share with  other schools (that way they won’t be lost if the administration  orders them torn down).

Use rolls of Blue Tape to reinforce the paper’s sticky back so  that the Post-Its stay up even on concrete walls (brick walls  usually won’t work even with tape). Using Blue Tape is important  because it’s designed to not damage underlying surfaces. Our core  message is that the power-elites are trying to destroy public  higher-education and we don’t want to make it easy for them to  divert the discussion by accusing us of vandalizing school  buildings.

(For those of you with an interest in ancient history, look up  “Big Character Posters” which were powerfully used in the Chinese  Democracy Movement of the mid-1970s until the government  suppressed them.)

We used to say “If you don’t like the history they’re teaching  you, go out and make some of your own.” If these ideas from an  old geezer find no favor in your eyes, create some of your own,  because we all need to start thinking out of the box.

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May 6, 2010

SNCC & Today’s Education Struggle

Filed under: Education — brucehartford @ 12:07 am
Tags: , , , , ,

At the 50th Anniversary conference/reunion of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, NC, we gray-headed Freedom Movement veterans met with more than 50 college activists from a number of HBCUs, and young activists from organizations such as the Young Peoples Project, The Gathering For Justice, and other groups. The topic was today’s education fight. A number of the plenary speakers including Jim Lawson, Harry Belafonte, Bob Moses, and others raised education-related issues, and there were well-organized small-group discussions on the topic.

Starting from the premise that a quality education is a fundamental human right, we looked at two questions:

  1. What defines a quality education?
  2. Should we have a constitutional amendment ensuring the right to a quality education?

The main points that I took away from the discussion:

  1. The fight for a quality education from pre-K to PhD is a key civil rights struggle of the 21st Century.
  2. Framing the issue around “quality education” raises the problem of defining “quality.” The power-structure defines a “quality education” as one that trains young people to be docile and productive hired laborers in an economy that serves the interests of the elite. But for us, a “quality education” is one that prepares young people to be sovereign citizens of a democratic society. So perhaps a better way of stating our goal is “democratic education” or “empowering education,” rather than “quality education.”
  3. The phrase “sovereign citizens of a democratic society” uses the word “citizen” in the broadest sense — making no distinction between “legal” and”illegal,” or social security card vs green card vs no card. “Citizen” is used in the “We the people” sense that all who contribute, work, and live in a community are citizens of that community regardless of arbitrary divisions imposed by the power structure.
  4. At root then, a “quality education” is a question of political power. A very few special schools for the elite (Andover, Punahou, Harvard, Yale, etc) inculcate in their students the assumption that they will be the rulers of tomorrow and prepare them for the acquisition and application of political and economic power. But the schools of the many do the opposite — they instill a sense of political powerlessness. At best the schools for the many prepare young people for a life of hired labor, at worst they don’t even do that. But even the “good” schools that train well-paid hired labor cannot guarantee that those “good” jobs won’t disappear as soon as the power elite can find someone somewhere to do that work at lower wages and greater profit.
  5. The Freedom Movement of the 1960s won victories by exposing the contradictions between the best aspirations of American traditions and the racist/exploitative realities, and by organizing and mobilizing masses of people to demand that America live up to its promises. Can we do the same around education? Can we make the Constitution a tool for reaching/educating/organizing large numbers of people who are not (yet) radicalized, by demanding that a “quality education” be made a constitutional right like free speech, freedom of religion, trial by jury and the right to own a gun?
  6. The very first words of the Constitution are: “We the people … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
    It does not say: “We the President”
    It does not say: “We the Congress”
    It does not say: “We the Supreme Court”
    It does not say: “We the states”
    It does not say: “We the citizens”
    It says “We the people … do ordain and establish…”

February 7, 2010

California Education Issues & Information Resources

Filed under: Education — brucehartford @ 11:11 pm
Tags: , , ,

Matrix_of_education_issues

Conf Reg Test

January 30, 2010

Letter to Parents of California College Students

Filed under: Education — brucehartford @ 11:49 pm
Tags: , , ,

1/8/10

Why We’re Protesting ~ A Letter to Parents

As you know, students, faculty, staff, and community supporters are protesting at colleges and
universities across the state. We are writing this letter to explain why.

Our protests were triggered by the enormous cuts in education spending and the huge tuition increases that politicians claim were forced by last year’s economic crisis. But that’s not true. For years, officials have been shifting money from education to prisons. Governor Schwarzenegger acknowleges that, “30 years ago 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and three percent went to prisons. Today, almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7.5 percent goes to higher education.”

Back in 1960, the politicians in Sacramento enacted a promise to the citizens of California. It was called the “Master Plan for Education,” and it required, by law, that all qualified students be able to attend a public college—tuition free. For years that promise was kept, but then they started getting around the law by calling it “fees” rather than “tuition.” Between 2000 and 2008 (way before the economic crisis) tuition at UC and CSU more than doubled. In 1960, student fees at UC and CSU were roughly $150. This year at UC they’re $11,000 (a 7000% increase), and at CSU they’re $4,900 (a 3200% increase).

For many students and their families, especially those hard hit by layoffs and foreclosures, the dream of a college education has been priced out of reach. And for Blacks, Latinos, and others who have historically faced discrimination, the hope of higher education is being denied as economic barriers are re-segregating opportunity in California.

But the issues are deeper than the just the cost of education. So many professors have been let go that this Spring no new students will be admitted to the CSU system, and total enrollment will be slashed by at least 40,000. At the Community Colleges 250,000 students will be “turned away.” Those who do manage to get into a school are discovering that required classes are no longer available so they have to attend an extra year to graduate (and pay yet more tuition). And class sizes are doubling which means less individual attention, less chance to ask questions, and less contact with the remaining teachers.

A fundamental issue that has nothing to do with economic crises is how education funds are spent and how the decisions are made. At the same meeting where they jacked up tuition, the UC Regents also gave hefty pay raises to the executives and senior bureaucrats. Apparently $500,000 a year isn’t enough, so the wages of janitors have to be cut and librarians laid off so that the top managers are not inconvenienced. And why are there so many of them? Fifteen years ago UC professors outnumbered senior managers by two and a half to one, but today there are actually more high-paid administrators than professors.

The real issue is not the current economic crises. The real issue is that politicians in Sacramento have quietly abandoned the principle of publicly-funded higher education for all. Over many years they have steadily moved our system of public colleges away from education-for-all towards the model of expensive private schools—with tightly restricted and highly competitive admissions. The word for this is “privatization.” It is a word that means converting public colleges to the model of private universities. It is a word that means higher education will only be available to the affluent.

We are writing you this letter to ask you to stand up for your sons and daughters, and the public education that they must have to survive and thrive in the 21st Century. It’s time for parents and taxpayers to demand that public education be restored and expanded for all. It’s time for parents to become involved.

For more information:
In Defense of Quality Public Education – California
California Faculty Assoc.
Council of UC Faculty Associations

Letter to Parents of Children in California Public Schools

Filed under: Education — brucehartford @ 11:43 pm
Tags: , , ,

January, 2010

California Public Schools in Crises ~ A Letter to Parents

We are writing you this letter to ask you to stand up for your sons and daughters, and the public education they must have to survive and thrive in the 21st Century.

Last year, the politicians cut public school funding by more than $5,300,000,000. This year they tell us they’re going to cut even more. They justify themselves by citing all sorts of statistics, but education is not about statistics, it’s about children. And most parents know that their kids in public school are not receiving the education they need. We don’t need to be mathematicians to know that:

  • Class sizes are too large because there’s not enough money to hire teachers, and too much is being spent on managers and bureaucrats.
  • Many schools are in such poor repair as to be unsafe, with not enough money for maintenance.
  • There are constant and worsening shortages of materials, supplies, and equipment.
  • Enrichment programs in languages, sports, art, music, and other areas being slashed or eliminated.
  • Pre-Kindergarten and Adult Education programs areas being slashed or eliminated.
  • Critical positions such as nurses, librarians, counselors, and janitors are being eliminated.

They tell us that these cutbacks are because of the current economic crisis, but that’s not true. They’ve been cutting public education for years, long before this latest crises. Proposition 13 was supposed to relieve citizens burdened by excessive property taxes, but most of the benefit went to big business and commercial landlords. Corporations used to pay the majority of education-related taxes, but their share has steadily been reduced so that now individual taxpayers have to carry most of the load, and there is no longer enough money to adequately fund public education even in the good times, let alone the bad.

They tell us that public education provides equal opportunity for all, but every parent in California knows that there are rich districts and poor districts, “good” schools and “bad” schools. And despite all the rhetoric and promises, everyone knows that public schools serving Black and Latino communities get the short end of the stick, that non-white students receive unequal punishment and discipline, and that educational inequality is part of a pattern that cannot be separated from job discrimination, inadequate housing, lack of health care, and unsafe streets. In the words of Dr. King, the promise of equality in America is “… a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.

They tell us that the only way to hold schools and teachers accountable is by imposing one-size-fits-all regulations decreed by distant bureaucrats. But children are not standardized assembly-line parts, and neither are individual schools or school districts. Who can best determine what each child needs, the parents and teachers who see them every day, or officials in Sacramento and Washington? Yes, kids have to be educated to meet the requirements of the 21st Century. And they also need an education that helps them grow into thoughtful and caring individuals capable of living productive, meaningful lives and function as empowered citizens in a democratic society. But teachers and parents must have a voice in how each school and classroom achieves those goals. Instead of centralizing total control in the capitol, local communities—parents and teachers together—need the power to hold the system accountable and to support those schools and programs that are succeeding, and to change those that fail to educate the children.

They tell us that charter schools are the answer to all our problems, but both charter and public schools get their funds from the same inadequate source. Pitting public and charter schools against each other in a losing battle for dwindling resources diverts us from the real issue—Sacramento’s refusal to provide a quality public education to all.

Now is the time to take action.
For more info:
In Defense of Quality Public Education – California
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Activists and Activism

Activists and Activism

[Presentation by Bruce Hartford to high school and college students at the "Civil Rights Movement and Social Justice" panel of the 40th Anniversary of the Black Student Union/Third World Liberation Front student strike for Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State College in 1968. Originally posted to Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.]

Bernice Johnson Reagan of SNCC and Sweet Honey in the Rock called the Civil Rights Movement the “borning movement” of the 1960s because out of the Freedom Movement was born the many disparate movements of that era including:

The student rights and academic freedom movement
The Anti-Vietnam War Movement
The Womens’ Movement
The Chicano Movement
The many other ethnic & nationality movements
The Environmental Movement
The Farmworkers Movement
Tenants’ rights movements
Community movements
The Gay Rights Movement
And many other movements

One thing these movements had in common is that they were all built and led by people we call “activists.” Of course, not everyone uses that term. Some folk call us:

“Trouble-makers”
“Agitators”
“Shit-disturbers”
And if they really want to cut us low, they call us “Community Organizers.”

But whatever you call us, activists are the people who make things happen. Activists are people who:

Read about and study issues and politics
Organize and attend meetings
Discuss and plan strategy
Pass out leaflets
Knock on doors
Circulate petitions
Speak in public
Engage in protests
Build community organizations
Work on election campaigns
Run for office
and so on

Come Tuesday, many of us hope that Barack Obama is elected President. If that comes to pass, his election will be a major milestone — a huge milestone — on our long journey towards justice, freedom, equality, peace, real democracy, economic-fairness, and let’s not forget saving the planet from the ruthless greed of the polluters and exploiters. But activists understand that there’s a fundamental difference between a milestone and a finish line. When you cross a finish line the event is over, your work is done, it’s Miller-time. But when you pass a milestone, even a major milestone, there’s still another milestone a mile down the road. And another after that, and so on down the long years. For activists there are no finish lines — only milestones.

One of the characteristics that defines an activist is the drive — the passion — the committment — to do something. To take action. Activists don’t always act, but on perceiving a problem, learning of an injustice, becoming aware of an abuse, our first instinct is to ask, “What can I do? What should I do?” For any given activist at any given time the answer may well be “nothing.” Often there is no effective method of addressing the problem and no single individual has the time or energy to address all the world’s ills simultaneously, but when confronted with an issue, activists at least ask themselves if there is something they can and should do.

In a sense, to be an activist is to resist the debilitating disease of “permission-itis.” From childhood through school and into adulthood, Americans are conditioned against doing much of anything without first obtaining permission — permission from parents, teachers, pastors, managers, officials, and “leaders.” But activists understand that seeking permission from authority to challenge that authority is a contradiction in terms. So activists act — and worry about permission later (if at all).

The 1st Amendment guarantees free speech — but only to those with the audacity and courage to assert that right. The cops want us to think we need their permission for a nonviolent picket line, sidewalk rally, or other peaceful expression of free speech — but it ain’t true. Yes, to block a street with a mass march or use amplified sound a permit is usually required, but that is the exception, not the rule. Similarly, school principals and deans — even here at S.F. State — may believe they have the authority to control thought and speech on their campus — but that’s true only if you let them.

An even more pernicious form of permission-itis is our reluctance to act without explicit agreement from friends, co-workers, and communities. For many, it’s not the fear of jail or administrative sanction that freezes them into paralysis, but rather the dread of jeers, sneers, frowns, criticism, and disaproval. But confronting this form of permission-itis can be tricky because effective activists understand that solitary action is usually futile, and actions by small cliques that offend or alienate those they want to mobilize are counter-productive and frequently self-destructive. To be effective, an activist has to strike a balance between the impulse to do something and the necessity of acting in ways that build support and unity among those whose eventual participation is essential for victory.

Perhaps the most debilitating form of permission-itis is our own internal hall-monitor that relentlessly cautions us that we cannot, we should not, we must not. There is a well-known observation by Marianne Williamson (often incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela):

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant and talented? Actually who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightening about shrinking so other people won’t feel insecure around you. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

In February of 1960, a tiny handful of Black students in the South screwed their courage to the sticking place and resolved to take action against segregation. Their audacious lunch-counter sit-ins defied not just the white power-structure and the Black college administrators, but also their own sense of inadequacy and dread of dire consequences. They had neither the permission nor the agreement of parents, pastors, or established community leaders — and most of their peers were at best indifferent and at worst contemptuous of those few foolish idealists willing to risk everything in some futile hope of changing that which could never be changed. But the sit-ins were planned, organized, and carried out in such a way as to eventually win broad support among the student body and within the Black community, while weakening and limiting the power of those adversaries determined to maintain segregation.

Which brings us to the necessity self-discipline. Those who would effectively lead or organize others must first master themselves. Anyone can act out anger, but mounting effective protests requires careful planning and strategic thinking. Anyone can shout rage and obscenities, scrawl grafitti on walls, and break store windows, but effectively speaking truth to power requires crafting a message that resonates with peoples’ lives and then devising some method of delivering that message which wins adherents instead of alienating potential supporters. The student sit-ins did exactly that, they were strategically designed to win a victory, not to vent frustration or strike some heroic, self-satisfying pose.

Equally essential is the self-discipline that puts the struggle and the community first. Oh yes, you can be an activist without that kind of self-discipline — there has never been any shortage of self-agrandizing “leaders” who serve their own egos first and others only insofar as doing so advances their personal ambition. But while ego-driven activists may be able to build successful careers, they are rarely able to achieve significant and lasting improvements in the lives of those they claim to represent. Freedom is not something you can give to others, they have to seize it for themselves. Pride and dignity cannot be bestowed as a gift from your generous hand, but rather must grow from within each individual. In the real-world — as opposed to the imaginary universe of the legal system — rights may be established through lawsuits and legislation, but until they are asserted by individuals in their daily lives they have no actual force or meaning. That is why the job of an organizer — an activist — is to build organizations that empower not just the leader but the members and the community as a whole — organizations that empower people to win victories for themselves.

But activists of whatever kind are — and always have been — just a small fraction of the population. Sociologists and historians tell us that only rarely does a social movement involve more than 5% of the affected population in active participation. Fewer than 7% of the American colonists actively took part in the revolution against the British. In 70 years of struggle, the largest Woman Suffrage protest was 8000 marchers in Washington, DC in 1913. The Selma Voting Rights struggle was one of the largest Freedom Movement campaigns of the 1960s. But if you add up all those who marched, picketed, sat-in, tried to register to vote, or just attended a mass meeting, it would total less than 10% of Dallas County’s Black population.

What all these movements of the 1960s teach us is that you don’t have to have tens of thousands to start taking action and effecting political change. Most times, movements like those of the ’60s are begun by small groups without significant popular support. You don’t have to start out with mass support. But you DO have to end up that way. If you don’t end up with the support of a significant portion of the population you won’t accomplish much of significance.

Going back to the Selma Movement, while less than 10% of Blacks directly participated in the Voting Rights campaign, the overwhelming majority supported those that did take action.

The first Vietnam protest I ever participated in was 11 people picketing the old Federal building on McAllister Street in 1964. At that time, only a small minority of population opposed the war. But…

by 1965 hundreds were actively opposing the war
by 1966 thousands were voicing their opposition
by 1967 tens of thousands were in the streets
by 1968 hundreds of thousands were resisting the war in a variety of ways — civil disobediance, GI resistance, draft refusal, economic boycotts, mass marches, nationwide moratoriums, election campaigns. And millions were sending letters, signing petitions, and voting for anti-war candidates.

During the long student strike here at San Francisco State, my guess is that less than 1% of the student body attended planning meetings, passed out leaflets, organized picket lines, and did the other work necessary to call and maintain a strike. And no more than 1500 to 2000 — well under 10% — walked the line, attended the rallies, or marched on the Administration Building. But a clear majority of all the students honored the strike by not attending class.

The Freedom Movement — the “borning movement” — inspired a generation of participatory activism. A particular kind of activism. An activism rooted in community organizing, an activism focused on building popular support through effective education. Media images of the 1960’s are all dramatic protests, clenched fists, massive marches, and great oratory. But that’s just the visible portion of the iceberg. It misses the invisible 5/6ths underneath that made those dramatic moments possible. That invisible 5/6ths is the careful and thoughtful organizing and education performed by grassroots activists.

Stokely Carmichael of SNCC once observed that:

All real education is political. All politics is not necessarily educational, but good politics always is. You can have no serious organizing without serious education. And always, the people will teach you as much as you teach them.

But he wasn’t talking about the standard model of education with a teacher instructing docile students what to think, and they regurgitating pat answers on a test. Nor was he referring to making fiery speechs, shouting slogans to a crowd, peddling newspapers, handing out leaflets, or writing manifestos or position papers — though those activities have their place. He was referring to a kind of education which is mutual and interactive. A kind of education that occurs outside of classrooms and into the communities. A kind of education in which you learn as much — or more — from the people you’re working with than you teach them. A kind of education that is the antithesis of arrogance. A kind of education in which everyone is both teacher and student. A kind of education that understands that ideologic theories always have to be adjusted to the is-ness of real realities.

As intellectuals — particularly when we’re in an academic milieu — we have a tendency to give primacy to the detailed content and internal consistency of theories, ideas, and ideologies. And this sometimes leads us to devote great attention and far too many hours to:

Arguing over every word of a leaflet, resolution, and position paper
Insisting that everyone use only the approved jargon
Debating and refining the “correct” analysis and line

But back in the day, when we stepped off campus into the real world of communities grappling with real problems, we discovered what became a truism of the Freedom Movement — that effective activists and organizers move people not by the brilliance of their analysis or the elegance of their theoretical formulations, but rather by the content of their character — their courage and compassion, their honesty and integrity, the value of their given word, their willingness to learn as well as teach, and the respect they show to others — even those with whom they may have some disagreement.

Unfortunately, in the years after the S.F. State strike, I regret to say that those were lessons from the Freedom Movement that I and many others forgot or ignored as the ’60s turned into the ’70s. Some of us began thinking of ourselves as “revolutionaries.” Real revolutionaries — real activists — learn and adapt and grow and change. But some of us became too arrogant to do that.

We acted as if our theories and ideologies were a revealed and immutable truth that only we held.

We spent most of our time arguing with each other.

We published flyers and newpapers read only by ourselves.

We became harangers rather than organizers.

We engaged in tiny provocative actions that provoked only fear and anger rather than building support.

And some of us treated everyone who disagreed with us — even if only in slight degree — as enemies to be defeated rather than as allies to be welcomed. As a result, we ended up with many enemies and few friends. That’s not political activism — it’s political masturbation. It might feel good while you’re doing it, but it produces nothing, changes nothing, and challenges no one.

But for all of our errors — and there were many — we activists of the 1960s did get at least one thing right. We understood that if we didn’t like the history we were watching on TV and being taught in school it was our duty to go out and make some history of our own.

And we understood that positive social change comes not as a gift from those on high, but rather as something forced up from below by mass activity and “people power.” Which is why one our slogans used to be: “Where the Broom Don’t Sweep the Dirt Don’t Move.

A lot of dirt has built up over recent years. A lot filth has accumulated in the halls of power. I hope that at least some of you young ‘uns are ready to do some sweeping.

Copyright © 2008, Bruce Hartford

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