Respecting the Genius of Ordinary People – Jane McAlevey Pt 2


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Source: The Analysis

Paul Jay

So, we left off with you emerging as a leader in high school and university. You got elected president of the student body of the college you’re at, and then you become elected to the statewide student office. In a lot of world’s, you’d be on the way to electoral politics. Kind of a rising star, in a way. Did it occur to you to go into electoral politics? Why didn’t you?

Jane McAlevey

Yeah, that’s an interesting question to start off with. It definitely occurred to me, and I made a very conscious choice that I did not want to become an elected politician. That I believed very deeply in being an organizer and in being the person who teaches other large numbers of people how to take bad politicians out of office and how to put far better ones into office. It was definitely a really conscious choice, and it may also have, a little bit at the time, been a rebellion.

My mother had died when I was very little—really raised by my father and my siblings. My father was a politician, as we discussed in the first session, and he really wanted me to become a politician. So there’s also some truth to it; maybe I chose to immediately go off to revolutionary Latin America knowing that it would create a bad file at the FBI on me. As a way to secure my inability to run for office. In fact, I lost my father this year, so I say all this very affectionately and plus I’m much older.

I remember at 20-years-old when I was leaving to go to Nicaragua to see the revolution, which was still going at that time, meaning the Sandinista revolution when the Sandinistas were still a revolutionary force. I also wanted to learn Spanish so I could speak Spanish fluently, but I actually remember having a pitched battle with my father, who said, “It won’t look good when you run for office if you go to Nicaragua right now.” And I said, “Even better! I’m hopping on a train, and off I’m going.” I almost wanted insurance so that it would be hard for me to make the decision to run for office because I just honestly think I love being an organizer so much.

I love teaching other people how to win in big numbers, and it’s a different path. Organizers don’t put themselves in the limelight. It was only at age 50 when I finally started to write some books and that I sit down with people like you. I mean, most of my life is putting very brilliant worker leaders in front of the camera. I played a decidedly behind-the-scenes role from when I left being a student leader until many for a couple of decades. No one would have if you said Jane McAlevey unless you’re a worker in a campaign with me; who the hell— no one knew who I was, and that was perfectly fine with me.

It’s now, in my much later years and three books written in eight years, essentially, where I’m desperately trying to teach more and more people that I’m sort of maybe a name that organizers know. But anyway, it’s a bit of a long way; however, it was serious. It was a serious thought, and I seriously tried to make an insurance program against being able to run for office.

Paul Jay

You tried to inoculate yourself.

Jane McAlevey

No, just the countries I went to. The real truth is, the first pitch battle we had was when I was leaving being the statewide student leader and I was invited to the Soviet Union. That was right on the cusp of when the Soviet Union was about to not be the Soviet Union. I mean, literally, a couple of years later, the Soviet Union, as we understood it, ended. It was on that trip; I had to leave the United States. I had to drive over the border to Canada because you couldn’t fly to the Soviet Union from the United States back then. This is Reagan time still. That was definitely the first guarantee, and where my father was absolutely ballistic furious because he wanted me to be the first female governor of the state of New York, and he really meant it.

Paul Jay

So you did go to the Soviet Union?

Jane McAlevey

I went to the Soviet Union.

Paul Jay

Wow. Well, let’s talk about that. So, you’re now 20, 21?

Jane McAlevey

Twenty!

Paul Jay

Wow. So what year do you arrive in the Soviet Union?

Jane McAlevey

I go to Nicaragua in ’86, so in ’85, I go to the Soviet Union. It’s actually a crazy story which we— forget it. It would take forever, but we’ll—

Paul Jay

Boil it down. What were your impressions?

Jane McAlevey

Well, I’ll boil down the salient points. I went as a guest of Komsomol, which was officially the Communist Youth Party at the time. They believed that they were going to recruit me to become an international star. It turned out they had plans for me. They were watching New York. They were watching the apartheid victory at the anti-apartheid victory.

Paul Jay

Yeah, just in case, to remind people, the campaign against apartheid in South Africa you waged was a big success. You forced the university to divest and created a lot of attention, obviously, global attention.

Jane McAlevey

It actually did. I mean, it was global news when we did it. So, they apparently had their eyes on me. I got this invitation, and I knew that would actually be anti-running for public office insurance. I didn’t realize that the Soviet Union, as we understood it at the time, would fall so shortly thereafter. Everything would change by 1989 in the Velvet Revolution and whatnot. I would go back, by the way, to Poland, the Czech Republic, well, at the time still Czechoslovakia and do a bunch of work. We’ll come back to that.

At age 20, I take a fully paid by the Komsomol, as they’re called, the Communist Youth Party, along with 25,000 students from around the world. It was called the World Festival of Youth and Students. There were people from Cuba, I mean, from Latin America, all over the world. So, it was the first time that I really met— and I was the only person out of 25,000 student leaders from the United States, the only one. I had my own translator, my own driver, my own— it was totally crazy. I was being wined and dined.

I will cut to the chase and say this. I spent a significant amount of time in and around Moscow. Then they wanted to show me Belarus, so I went to Minsk. I spent several weeks in Minsk to see the farm and agricultural sector outside of Minsk. I came home from the Soviet Union clear about something, very clear; I had no interest in living under their system. Whatever it was once upon a time, I had zero interest in it. You couldn’t have paid me a million dollars to move to the Soviet Union. They tried.

They offered me a full graduate fellowship and scholarship at Moscow State University. They offered me— they kept sweetening the pot. They also kept saying that my plane was magically being cancelled. I mean, I actually didn’t realize that they were kind of holding me there by saying that planes were being cancelled. Now, this is pre-internet. I have no connection to what’s going on in the world. The World Festival of Youth and Students is over and after like the third week, when they said that the planes were again not flying because of complicated Aeroflot, Cold War things. I finally started to freak out on them. I was like, I need to get back to the United States, and they had not succeeded in getting me to join the party. They had not succeeded in getting me to accept their full graduate student package. They had not succeeded at anything except making me think that that was not a model I had any interest in.

So, I’m super clear that what goes on in the United States and what has resulted in global capitalism— I’m also completely not interested in it. I’m just stuck with it because it’s where I live, but there was nothing I saw; as the Soviet Union was about to collapse, there was nothing I saw that I thought was redeeming.

In 1970, 1919, 1924, I don’t know, it what might have been a very different experience, but in the mid-1980s Soviet Union, I knew right away they were destroying the planet, as were we. There was no freedom as I expected freedom to exist. It was not— I mean, I love the subway system. The vodka was great. I’m kidding, but not really. It was deeply unsatisfying, and I kept raising: so you guys, like what’s going on in Poland with solidarity? I realized it was a way to start getting them irritated with me, so they finally let me go home. I had to land back in Canada and come back across the border.

Paul Jay

Was this disillusioning for you? Did you go with any utopian rose glasses when you went, and other than reaching conclusions about it, did it, I don’t know, shift your worldview in some way?

Jane McAlevey

No, I mean, I wouldn’t say I went with rose-coloured glasses. I think my father’s politics, like mine, are sort of not anti, but we’re not sectarian by tradition. We’re Left like non-sectarian Left. So, anti-fascist, anti-authoritarian. I think I did not have rose-coloured glasses; however, what I saw was worse than I even expected, for one thing. Secondly, I think the part that was beautiful about it though, was the number of people from the African continent, from different countries in Africa who were at the festival and that went on for two weeks. That was definitely the first time— I got a thousand years of education about exploitation and colonialism in Africa, in a way that I could never have gotten from sort of a U.S. education system and true for Latin America, too.

Again, I understood more than the average, I would say, United States person about colonialization and imperialism in the world. It was very different with me spending day after day meeting Cubans, Latin Americans, people from all over the African continent and learning about their movements and their struggles. That made me an even more committed, sort of internationalist, in my politics. Which if you fast forward, I just came from teaching a class this morning, and there were over a thousand people from the continent called Africa with Nigerians, Liberians, people from Ghana, people from South Africa, people from— so it’s almost like my life going full circle. I’ve always had the internationalist commitment, and I thank the trip to the Soviet Union for that. I was also thankful to learn the lesson, which was, I’m not into that system. That version of what someone calls socialism, it’s not socialism. That was just an awful system by 1985. So, I understood that there weren’t simple answers but that we had to keep fighting for more justice.

Paul Jay

You told me earlier in the classes you gave this morning, there were 11 languages in simultaneous translation, and what was it like 4,000 people online or something?

Jane McAlevey

Four-thousand and three-hundred unique IDs logged in and stayed the whole class. And we know that in some places where the vaccines are breaking out that there were 60, 70 per room. So, we also know it was more than 4,300 unique logins were happening during the class with 11 languages this morning. So,—

Paul Jay

Learning how to organize.

Jane McAlevey

Learning how to organize and it was truly amazing. In what we call the fishbowl, which is where I just meet random strangers, and we bring them into the zoom room with me. We had a Nigerian, an Indian, someone from Ukraine, and a Muslim sister from Canada. It was just a beautiful, textured quilt from around the world, and all of us were having a debate about the very same discussion on how we organize, and it was fantastic. So, my internationalism may have been initially egged on a little bit by the time I spent in the Soviet Union.

Paul Jay

Then you head to Latin America?

Jane McAlevey

Yeah, so then I come home, and I think, okay, that system is not for me. My system is not for me. Where else can I go look for systems because I’m young? I pretty quickly make the decision, A, that it’s going to be responsible for me to learn Spanish. I took it as a responsibility. I live in a country, the United States, half of which we stole from everyone, but we also stole most of the southwest and the west from Mexico. I knew that a lot of people around me spoke Spanish. I thought, as a white woman in the United States, I should learn Spanish if I’m going to be an organizer. So I left to learn Spanish. I also left because I wanted to see the Nicaraguan revolution.

Unlike the Soviet Union, the Nicaraguan revolution, at least in 1986 when I arrived, did not disappoint at all. What goes on as the United States destroys the Nicaraguan revolution is more than heartbreaking and outrageous. It’s where I learned to describe what the United States did to the Nicaraguan revolution and the Nicaraguan people, as you know, I think they say, snuffing out the threat of a good example.

Nicaragua in 1986, ’85, ’84, ’83, and ’82, the height of the revolution— I was there still at the height of it, and I went back many times, but that first year was absolutely stunning. This was a country with leadership, at the time, who were radically committed to everything I believed in. The literacy campaigns were going on throughout the whole country. I was participating in teaching little kids and grownups at the same time how to read and write in their own languages. I was doing a construction brigade which was very rare. Most people from North America were going to help plant coffee, and that was a solidarity exercise. From what I heard when I was there, all the nice people who were flying in from around the world and working on coffee plantations were actually messing up the coffee plantations because they were treating them badly. They were hurting the plants and picking too hard.

I was there— it was weird how I got there, but I was with a construction brigade, and we were actually in the very North of the country, in the war zone, rebuilding houses and schools that were being blown up by the Contras. So, it felt very concrete, immediate, and real. The literacy crusade, feeding people, teaching people to read and write, it was an extraordinary time. And that was a very radicalizing experience for me. Realizing that there was another way and then realizing my taxpayer money and my government were going to crush that good example. I was already committed to trying to change the United States, but I became way more committed to trying to change the United States and still am.

Paul Jay

That must have been dangerous as well. The Contras, were they not attacking some of those brigades at times?

Jane McAlevey

They were. I just thought— I mean, I think, first of all, when you’re 21, your sense of threat is skewed. You think nothing can hurt you when you’re 21, which is different than being 56. I’m clear what can hurt me, but— so one, I think I had a general like nothing can hurt me. Then Ben Linder was killed, and some North Americans were getting killed on the brigades. We were in a very precarious position as we had people with AK 47’s defending us and defending the whole project regularly. I didn’t think a lot about the danger. I really didn’t. I thought a lot about the beautiful community in which I was living and the outrageous acts of imperialism being committed by my own government.

I’ll tell you at the end of that, Paul, a very important lesson I took away from Nicaragua, which is why I basically came home and began to become recommitted to being a serious organizer. I was in love with the Nicaraguans. I was in love with the revolution, the whole country. I was hanging on the back of pickup trucks, hitchhiking with Sandinista military trucks, eating mangoes, and it was an amazing time for that country and for those people. Near the end of my brigade, I inquired about could I stay? Could they find a way for me to essentially move to Nicaragua? I didn’t want to go home. It was so magical, and some very important, fairly high up, Nicaraguan leaders sat me down and said,— okay, I’ll do it in English, but they basically sat me down and said. It’s been great to have you here. Our people actually don’t need you here. We need you to go home, and we need you to go home and change your country.

No one from America could have made that point to me in quite the same way. That some very serious Nicaraguan leaders said, we don’t need young white people coming here to stay. We need you to come to see it, to go home, build power, change your foreign policy, and change your whole country. That is why I stopped doing sort of the international gravy train. I mean, I did it a little bit longer, but I would very quickly realize that the same reason I didn’t become a politician was the same reason that I was going to double down and become an organizer for the rest of my life. We had real work to do. The progressive movement in the United States was weak, still is too weak, needs more power, and that, that power ultimately is going to come from workers, under capitalism, being able to do what we did in the 1930s and ’40s, which is shut the system down until the rich say uncle. So, that lesson really got driven home by my year in the Nicaraguan revolution.

Paul Jay

It must have been really electrifying to see working people become conscious and fight. I don’t know; in a sense, it’s exhilarating.

Jane McAlevey

It was really exhilarating. I mean, it was that year— and then I would go on to spend a few years, again doing work in that of Latin America and then when 1989 hit, right when the revolution was destroyed functionally by the United States, that was the moment when I said, okay, it’s not just that I’m going to go home to do my work at home and to build solidarity with Latin Americans. It’s that I’m shifting everything. I’m going to go deep into organizing.

I would shortly thereafter move to the Deep South, to Tennessee, to work with ordinary people in the U.S. South within the North-South, as I said that was my transition. The destruction of the Nicaraguan revolution was my transition back to what I always thought I wanted to do, which was begin to do very serious organizing and spend most of my life with people who didn’t agree with me when I meet them, which is what organizing is about and helping people come to change their mind about the root crisis in their lives.

Paul Jay

So, where do you go next? You go to the South. Where do you go? What do you do?

Jane McAlevey

Yeah, I go to San Francisco to do some of the Latin America work when I first come home. Then I really realized, okay, it’s time to really dig into the United States. So, I got recruited, but it was actually out of Nicaragua. It was out of some of the subsequent Nicaragua work I was doing when I was flying back and forth.

In 1988, I was helping organize a global conference in Nicaragua, part of a team of a lot of people. It was to show the global environment and development community. This was a massive undertaking, many thousands of people. So, I was a bit player in it. I was just one of the people helping organize, essentially, a global solidarity conference with pretty high-powered players from around the world. Meaning, elected leaders from many governments showed up to study how far the Nicaraguan people, economy, and society had come, at that point, in just eight or nine years of revolution. We were highlighting, in particular, how the good and revolutionary Sandinistas were deeply integrating anti-poverty, popular education, job creation, and sustainable environmental programs. It was actually amazing. If the world had been doing for the last few years what the Nicaraguans were doing in the 1980s, we wouldn’t be facing the climate crisis we’re facing. They were actually understanding environmental sustainability, and that went part and parcel with undoing poverty. That there was a link between the two. It was so brilliant.

So, I’m at that conference. I’m part of organizing a delegation. I was tasked with organizing the delegation for the United States. They wanted the global South within the global North to show up, and we wanted a delegation of ordinary people in the United States, white, black, brown, poor people who were organizing to make things better here. That whole delegation wound up becoming a highlight at the conference when a lot of Latin Americans realized for the first time, wait a minute, you have all the same problems going on there? So, it winds up becoming this very important delegation for the ordinary people who were on it from the United States. The workers and environmental justice activists who were on it from the United States got revolutionized. It made a very big impact on the conference when our panel went up and spoke about dying from toxic and hazardous waste, about being paid minimum wage. A lot of people in the rest of the world thought we’re fighting to get that model? No way! So, we were exposing the rest of the world to the limitations of the United States.

Out of that delegation, I got recruited heavily and relentlessly until I said yes to move to the South, to work in a place called the Highlander Center in Tennessee, which is kind of the oldest most famous community organizing, union organizing, progressive change, or what we would call adult literacy center in the United States. Many people don’t know about it anymore. Those who do mostly know that it was the place that Martin Luther King would hang out. It’s where Rosa Parks received her training before she sat down on the public bus at the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. It’s where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference— so most people who do know about it in the United States, know about it as a famous central institution where black and white people got trained together under Jim Crow in the U.S. South.

So, it’s famous for that, and that’s how I knew about it as a young organizer. What I didn’t even know until I got there, and it has a lot to do with my decision to pivot back to trade unions, is that the Highlander Center, when it was first founded in 1932, think about those years, was officially named, by ’35, the National Education Center for the Congress of Industrial Organizations. For the CIO, the Left of the American Trade Movement, and the Industrial Workers of the World. So, Highlander’s initial significance is so buried by McCarthyism that if people do know about it, they know about its famous role in the civil rights movement, but it played a famous role in the Left of the trade union movement.

I was put in the library, a beautiful library, it’s still there. By the way, the center was burned down again a couple of years ago. During the Trump years, one of the offices was burnt to the ground again; it has a long history of being burnt to the ground by racists. So, the building I worked in was called the library, and it’s an incredible resource. People doing PhDs all over the world will get fellowships there and study in the library because they hold archives that are incredible from movements in the South. I would wander into the archives when I was young, so now I’m 24 or 25, I’m in the South, my office is in the library, and that means I have access to the air control, I think it was Ford Foundation— some huge foundation grant came to build us proper archives years ago. So I would wander into the archives, and what did I find there?

Organizing training manuals from the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and I start reading. It’s hot as hell in Tennessee in the summer. For like half a year, it’s hot as hell, from my northern view, so I would just take a chair and go into the archives where it was always a cool-ish temperature. I would start flipping through not just the manuals from the civil rights movement but the manuals from the CIO 1936, 37, 38, 39, and you can imagine where that takes me. Anyway, I was in the archives, and I was reading the manuals.

Paul Jay

So, were the manuals good?

Jane McAlevey

Well, I don’t know, but they were intriguing. I mean, I wouldn’t know until many years later if I could assess if they were good, but they were dynamic, and they were amazing, as were the photos. There was a photo library and a manual— there’s an amazing array of things that sit in this archive, and it really piqued my interest. I just began to think, the most interesting black and white photographs, was these huge black and white photographs of training’s that were going on back then and it would be like time-stamped 1941, and there would be a white woman— this is the picture that was like seared in my brain when I was young, working in the South. A white woman who looked very proper and very 1940s and a black man were playing a game that they would play at Highlander. Like a get-to-know-you game.

When you think about Jim Crow and that this is in the South, how radical this was. The game was, they were exchanging a toothpick in their mouth. So, each one had a toothpick. A white woman and a black man; where the history of lynching in the United States is horrifying. All you had to do was say someone looked at a white woman, and you’d be lynched. So, it’s that era, and it’s a black man and a white woman. These are trade union trainings. She’s got a toothpick sticking out of her mouth, and he’s got a toothpick sticking out of his mouth. They have to have their hands behind them, and they’re getting close enough to exchange a lollipop. I mean, a lifesaver like a candy across the toothpick, and I began to dream of a world where people were that smart and that brave in the 1940s. That it was going to take breaking down racial barriers at that level before they could unionize the plants in the South, and I thought this is coming, you know what I mean. I know where I’m going when I leave Highlander, but I’ll say importantly, not just what was in the archives.

What I learned at Highlander just to fast forward and keep going is, it’s considered a popular education center. It’s an adult education center. Myles Horton and Paolo Ferrari center, it’s a Ferrarian center essentially. So, Paolo Ferrari, the famous popular educator from the Brazilian movement, and Myles Horton, who was the founder of the Highlander Center, were best friends. By the time I show up to work there full time, they’re both basically dying or have just died. They’re very old. The book We Make the Road by Walking, has come out with the conversation between Paolo Freire and Myles Horton about what it means to teach adults how to reconceptualize their right to have dignity.

So, it’s not an education program to focus on how do you learn to teach math to sixth graders? It’s pedagogy. It’s, how do you set the context for a worker, black or white, woman or not, who’s been stepped on and beaten down their entire damn life in the South, in those years, and help them learn to sit up better, learn to have confidence in themselves, learn that when they collectivize their power together, they can actually win the right to dignity.

So, I think that so much of my work in the trade union movement is an integration of all those early experiences. It’s why, for example, I practice what’s called— shouldn’t be radical, but it’s so radical, it’s why I practice what’s called big and open negotiations as a trade union negotiator. I have incredible faith in ordinary people, and I learned to have that faith, in general, my whole life, I think, but it was really drilled home to me when I worked at the Highlander Center. That if we get out of the way sometimes of the brilliance of the people around us, whose stories we don’t know, whose intelligence we haven’t heard about, that there is a lot of sheer intelligence, not just courage, and not just bravery. I hate when people say, oh, they’re so brave. This is not about bravery. They’re all so brilliant. When people shut up, and I’m in negotiations, and I watch 500 workers in the room with me correct an employer at every turn, not just about every lie that the boss just told in negotiations, but actually the workers really do, it turns out— I know this seems so surprising. The workers really do run the damn place. The workers really have better ideas than the high-paid bosses do like about how to get the work done, and they’re told they’re stupid their whole life by our society.

Workers in the world are told through advertising, through messaging, from their bosses, from honestly sometimes the education system when they’re young, depending on where they are. The idea is drilled into working-class people of any colour or ethnicity, that they are stupid and undeserving and what I learned deep in my bones from the brilliant mentors in that period of my life— I had brilliant mentors everywhere I went. The mentors in Tennessee at the Highlander Center schooled me hard in shutting up and listening as well as figuring out ways to let adults who had been stepped on their whole life come forward and find their voice. I think I’ve carried that into my trade union work, and it’s why when trade union leaders say to me, with such cynicism, that it’s hard for me not to sometimes want to bat people across the cheek, I’ll just say politely because I really mean this. There can be so much cynicism inside of a trade union movement, contemptuous feelings about like we just need the workers to do X, Y and Z. I’m like, really? Actually, we just need to let the workers do the work that they want to do, which is to change their lives.

When union leaders— not just in the U.S. all over the world now, because I work all over the world. When union leaders say to me, you bring 400 workers into the negotiations room with you, Jane, how do you control the workers? I’m going to repeat that. The first question I get is how do I control the workers when I’m in a negotiation session? When people ask me that question, I have to tell you, it is hard for me to smile when I give the answer-back, which is like I trust the workers; they’re grownups. It turns out when we give them responsibility, they take it and run with it, and I’ve never been disappointed by having hundreds and hundreds of workers in the middle of the negotiations room with me, never once in my entire life. It’s an amazing experience when we treat people with respect, how smart and genius they can be.

Paul Jay

Thanks for joining us, Jane. Let’s stop here, we’ll be back again with another segment, and I just have to say my experiences are the same as yours. I was a carman mechanic on the railroad for five years. I’ve covered strikes, and the distance between some of the union leaders and the workers is almost as big a gap as the employers with the workers. They see the workers as dumb children to be manipulated, and the workers see through it.

Jane McAlevey

Oh yeah, they do.

Paul Jay

They’re just not sure what to do about it.

Jane McAlevey

Oh, yeah, they do. When I’m training organizers, I always say to them— I got some smarty-pants who comes, you know, she knows how to win campaigns, and you’ll learn from her. I get these young people— I can realize really quickly if their attitude is wrong, and I say to them, you’re on two-week probation with me. I do that to every staff person I’ve ever hired, and I say, I’m going to set you loose with the workers, and in two weeks, they’re going to let me know if you’re going to make the team because work is no bullshit like—

Paul Jay

Well, if it is bullshit, they’ll eat that person for breakfast pretty quickly.

Jane McAlevey

Pretty quickly. That’s right.

Paul Jay

Workers are not very liberal with each other either. The teasing is relentless, and if you’re full of shit, boy, you pay for it quickly.

Jane McAlevey

Oh, yeah, absolutely, and this is three decades now life learning. That’s why I just, it’s like I almost cry talking about negotiations because it’s so amazing to me. I get so angry when trade union leaders say to me, how do you control the workers? How do you control them? That word has been said to me so many times, Paul, and I always look like— I don’t even know why I’m so shocked by it. I shouldn’t be, but I’m kind of shocked by it, and I’m always like control them? No, that’s not my job. My job is not controlling workers. My job is empowering workers.

Paul Jay

For a lot of union leaders, controlling workers is their job. It’s practically their job description.

Jane McAlevey

Yeah.

Paul Jay

Okay, we’ll get into that more in future episodes. So, again, thanks very much, Jane, and thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news. Don’t forget the donate button and all the other buttons. Join us for the next segment with Jane McAlevey.

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