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An Alternative State of the Union: Progressives on Obama’s Legacy & Their Hopes for His Final Year

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President Obama’s State of the Union Tuesday night was the seventh and final of his presidency. Obama defended his record while implicitly criticizing the Republican candidates who want to succeed him. While mostly avoiding specific policy proposals, Obama spoke out against stigmatizing vulnerable communities, including Muslims, immigrants and lower-income Americans. He defended his historic agreements with Iran and Cuba while touting the U.S. as “the most powerful nation on Earth.” Obama called for change in the U.S. political system to stop the outsize influence of wealthy donors, and urged Congress to take meaningful action on climate change—including stopping its denial. We host a roundtable discussion on President Obama’s final SOTU and progressive hopes for his last year in office with five guests: Maryland Democratic congressmember and U.S. Senate candidate Donna Edwards; public TV broadcaster and author Tavis Smiley; Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza; CodePink founder Medea Benjamin; and migrant justice activist and military veteran Claudia Palacios.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday night was the seventh and the final of his presidency. Obama defended his record while making implicit criticism of the Republican candidates who want to succeed him. While mostly avoiding specific policy proposals, Obama spoke out against stigmatizing vulnerable communities, including Muslims, immigrants and lower-income Americans. He defended his historic agreements with Iran and Cuba, while touting the U.S. as, quote, “the most powerful nation on Earth.” And he called for change in the U.S. political system to stop the outsize influence of wealthy donors. Obama began his address by listing some of his presidency’s remaining goals.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I will keep pushing for progress on the work that I believe still needs to be done: fixing a broken immigration system, protecting our kids from gun violence, equal pay for equal work, paid leave, raising the minimum wage. All these things—all these things still matter to hard-working families. They’re still the right thing to do. And I won’t let up until they get done.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Obama also urged Congress to take meaningful action on climate change—including stopping its denial.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You will be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community and 200 nations around the world, who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we host a roundtable discussion on President Obama’s final State of the Union. Joining us are five guests: U.S. Senate candidate Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Maryland; public TV broadcaster and author Tavis Smiley, he’s editor of the new book, The Covenant with Black America–Ten Years Later; Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza also joins us; CodePink founder Medea Benjamin; and immigrants’ rights activist and military veteran Claudia Palacios.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with one of our guests who were in the House last night, in the Congress as President Obama delivered his last State of the Union address. Congresswoman Donna Edwards, welcome to Democracy Now! Your thoughts on President Obama’s State of the Union?

REP. DONNA EDWARDS: Good morning, Amy. I mean, I think the president really laid out a vision for America. I think he dealt with the political reality that not a lot of anything will be accomplished over this year, given that it’s an election season. But I think he also cautioned us to remember where we started and to use that as a basis for moving forward to strengthen the economy, to grow jobs for the 21st century and to invest in the American worker. I heard that message really clearly, and I think that his message was for Republicans to stop being so divisive, to stop calling out those of us who share a different faith, a different race, a different background. And I think that that was an important and optimistic message for a united America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Congresswoman, in terms of the president being able to assert his accomplishments or his legacy, that this was billed as a speech that would do that, how successful do you think he was in that sense?

REP. DONNA EDWARDS: Well, I think the president was very clear in talking about the importance of an Affordable Care Act that’s delivered healthcare to 18 million people. I think that he was really clear about seven years of economic growth—not, you know, the kind of growth that we need to see overall in the economy for working people who have had stagnant wages, but we’re not losing 700,000 jobs every month. I think he pointed to an auto industry that Republicans, frankly, would have let failed and that we revived as Democrats. And so, I think that he was really clear about laying out what he accomplished, but also putting forward a vision for the United States that is not one that’s going to be achieved in his presidency, but one that we should aspire to.

AMY GOODMAN: Alicia Garza, you are not used to being on the inside; you’re usually on the outside protesting in the streets, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Yet last night you were invited into the inner sanctum. You were there for the address, invited by Congressmember Barbara Lee. Your thoughts not only on the speech, but—this isn’t his first speech, it’s President Obama’s last State of the Union, and so it must be compared against his record.

ALICIA GARZA: Mm-hmm. I mean, first and foremost, it was such an honor to be a guest of such an incredible visionary for working people, for women. I was so glad and honored to be there as the guest of Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

The thing that I think was glaringly missing from the conversation last night was really the conversation around not just gun violence broadly, although that is a major issue in our country, but police violence as it relates to black communities. And as I was sitting there last night, I couldn’t help but think about Samaria Rice, and I couldn’t help but think about all the mothers who have lost their children, not just to gun violence broadly, but to the very people who are supposed to protect and serve us.

And so, to be quite frank, I think this message that President Obama came in with eight years ago around hope and change is a message that I think people are still looking for. How are we going to accomplish that? And ultimately, I think last night’s speech was definitely a vision for where we think the country can go, but certainly I think that many people who have been involved in this movement certainly wanted to hear President Obama, possibly the last black president in our country’s history, really talk about what’s going on in black communities specifically, really address the question of race, racism and structural racism and structural violence, and then, certainly, to talk about what kinds of proposals are on the table to ensure that black people can live full lives in this country like everyone else.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And following in that vein, I’d like to ask Tavis Smiley, who’s here in our studio—there were a lot of things that were not mentioned, including the president’s failure really to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But this whole issue of how he missed the opportunity to really make a final statement on the situation in black America?

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah. I think, first of all, the president, into history, is going to be regarded and treated much more kindly then than he is now. That’s number one. He did get some things accomplished, and we ought to give him credit for the things that he did do.

Having said that, I think where the historians, Juan and Amy, are going to have a very difficult time is trying to juxtapose how, in the era of the first black president—and to Alicia’s point, maybe the last black president—but how, in the era of Barack Obama, did the bottom fall out of black America? What this book, The Covenant–Ten Years Later, underscores, Amy, is that we, black America, have lost ground—and it pains me to say this—we’ve lost ground in every major economic category over the last decade. Not one, two or three, Juan, but in every major economic category, black folk have lost ground over the last 10 years. Surely these issues existed before he arrived, but we didn’t make any ground. We didn’t cover any ground. And how do we redeem the time after he’s gone? And so that’s the part, I think, that Alicia is raising with specific regard to police brutality and police misconduct, but there are so many other issues, as I mentioned a moment ago, where we just lost ground for the last 10 years. And I think, again, the historians are going to have an interesting time trying to juxtapose those two realities.

AMY GOODMAN: Claudia Palacios, you were arrested on Friday in the streets of New York outside of ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, protesting the—the dawn of 2016, with that came these massive new raids, rounding up women, children, men, to deport them. Talk about your own experience. You were a marine; you’re a military veteran.

CLAUDIA PALACIOS: I mean—good morning, Amy. First of all, we have to understand that there hasn’t been an increase in deportations or raids. Annually, it’s been an average of 200,000 deported migrants from the United States, though it’s this—it’s a spectacle that was created by the mainstream media. In June of 2014, there was images that were leaked of inhumane detention centers, which allowed for the expansion of detention centers and an increase in law enforcement. And that was part of our demands as protesters on Friday, is that we need ICE out of these communities. We need to stop criminalizing people of color.

And, I mean, as a group of activists, we understand that we are part of the mass—of the anti-incarceration movement, because that is what is destroying our families, not only in the black communities, but in the migrant communities, comprised of brown, black people from all over the world, refugees. So these nonprofit industries are literally profiting off of creating situations in other countries where we’re forced to migrate, and we’re displaced. And then we come to this country, and we’re pushed, funneled into different industrial complexes, have it be, as myself, the military-industrial complex or the prison-industrial complex.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet the president had one of the leaders of the DREAMers movement sitting up in the gallery next to Michelle Obama, but the actual speech had very little reference, other than saying we have to fix our broken immigration system, little reference to his own record or legacy in terms of immigration.

CLAUDIA PALACIOS: Right. I mean, I think it’s a mockery to have him be a guest, an honored guest, at the State of the Union, and then have no—not even initiate the conversation of immigration and how we are going to deal with this or how we’re going to create sanctuaries for people that are being targeted. And we’re talking about women and children; we’re not talking about felons over families. And I mean, that’s what—like, as activists, that’s what—like, we’re boots on the ground. We’re willing to put our bodies on the line to send the message across that we want ICE out of our communities, and also we want our folks to know, our people, our pueblo, to know that we are willing to fight, we are willing to be out there and put everything.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to Medea Benjamin. We weren’t sure if we were going to actually have you on the show today, Medea, co-founder of CodePink, whether you’d be interrupting the State of the Union address last night and maybe be in custody. We weren’t sure. You have been known to interrupt President Obama, for example, when he spoke at National Defense University laying out his drone program—you wrote a book on drones—protesting the people who have been killed by drones. What was your assessment of President Obama’s last State of the Union address?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, first, I think it’s important to recognize the historic foreign policy accomplishments in terms of Cuba and Iran. And I think it is so important that he counter the Islamophobia that is rising in this country. But his policies have really not been kind to Muslims around the world. He has authorized the largest weapons sales to Saudi Arabia ever in history, $46 billion during his term. This is being used not only to repress people inside Saudi Arabia, but to kill people in Yemen. He has increased the U.S. military aid to the repressive government of Israel. He has opened up the U.S. military cooperation with the repressive Egyptian government. He has used drone strikes to kill thousands of people in countries that we’re not even at war with. And he talked last night about wanting to close Guantánamo, and yet he’s said that for seven years, while he could use his executive power to actually close Guantánamo. I think if he really wanted to help Muslims around the world, the best thing he could have done was to call for an arms embargo to the Middle East. That would have been much more in line with the Martin Luther King call that he used for unarmed truth and unconditional love.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Medea, I wanted to ask you about his comments on climate change, which I think were some of the most pointed comments that he made in his speech. I think we have a floater where he’s talking about the continued denial by many in Congress of climate change. Let’s see if we can get that floater up there.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You will be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community and 200 nations around the world, who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Medea, that was the president on climate change. Your assessment of his legacy in this area and of his challenge to the Congress?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, there’s positive things in that he listened to the grassroots to stop the Keystone pipeline, that—the presence of the U.S. to try to come to some agreements in Paris. And yet his government has continued the subsidies to Big Oil. He talks about changing the relationship to coal, but keeps supporting it. And he supports the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would be disastrous for the environment. And then, finally, we should recognize that the U.S. military is the largest polluter in the world and something that continues to grow under the Obama administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Edwards, you won’t be able to spend the whole hour with us, so I wanted to get your response to a few things that were raised so far. On the issue of President Obama and war, the drone wars, can you talk about, as you run for Senate, what is your critique? And also, where do you think he has—how do you assess his policy around—well, he inherited two wars, but he’s also extended the longest war in U.S. history, in Afghanistan.

REP. DONNA EDWARDS: Well, I mean, I have long said, Amy—thanks for the question. You know, I celebrate President Obama in so many ways on a number of issues. On issues of the increased militarization, those are issues on which I and a handful of members of Congress have disagreed with him. On the increased use of a drone strategy, I think it’s been very counterproductive to what we need to have happen in civilian communities and destroyed relationships with families and communities, people that we actually need if we’re going to have a stronger vision for peace in some of those very difficult regions.

And I think the president was right last night in saying that if we—if we want to decide as a nation that we’re going to go forward in this area of military expansion, then Congress has a responsibility, too, to provide for a current Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Now, I’m not saying that I would agree with that kind of authorization, but I think it is ridiculous to continue military operations absent a new authorization or an updated authorization. I think the president has said that several times, and he put it back at the feet of the Congress again. I think it’s high time that we had that debate in the Congress of the United States. And I’m actually convinced that if we have a thorough debate, then the grassroots around this country are going to speak up and say that there has to be a limit in terms of what the United States and the role that the United States ought to play, from a military perspective, around the world. And so, were those things—that was missing? Yes. But the call to Congress to act when it comes to authorizing the use of military force with respect to ISIS, ISIL, I think that that’s important, and we can’t continue to run military operations, significant military operations, off of an authorization that’s, you know, the better part of 15 years, 10 to 15 years old now.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Obama sat next to an empty seat last night, that seat symbolizing the thousands of people who are missing in this country, killed because of gun violence. Could that seat have also represented the number of people who have been deported? Even some of President Obama’s closest allies in the Latino community and Latino organizations have called him the deporter-in-chief.

REP. DONNA EDWARDS: Well, I mean, I don’t think it’s my job as a member of Congress to call the president names, but what I will say is that last week I called out the president’s policies when it comes to deportation and this sort of extreme enforcement in communities that, in the congressional district that I represent, is causing so much great fear in communities—children not going to school, people not going to work, being afraid to be seen and visible in their communities. And I think it’s irresponsible. In fact, I just last week had a pretty heated conversation with ICE officials about their enforcement activities in my congressional district and across the country. And, you know, look, there is another place where the administration has discretion, and it can use that discretion to leave in peace families. You know, go after felons, go after lawbreakers, but leave families alone. And in the absence of this Republican Congress refusing to engage in a serious way on comprehensive immigration reform, I don’t think it is the responsibility of the administration to cover that up by deporting families.

AMY GOODMAN: So what did ICE tell you?

REP. DONNA EDWARDS: I couldn’t hear you. I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: What did ICE tell you? You said you had a heated interaction with them. How do they explain? As President Obama says Congress is stopping comprehensive immigration reform, he’s not stopping, he’s not reforming, but he is actually moving forward, an acceleration we haven’t seen before.

REP. DONNA EDWARDS: I don’t think that there is—I mean, I don’t think that there is a response, frankly, that ICE can give now. I think their enforcement, the enforcement that they’re engaged in now, is unacceptable. I’ve joined on with a letter with over a hundred members of Congress to the administration to stop these deportations, these enforcement actions. Now, some people have described them as raids. I think that they’re pretty routine enforcement actions. The problem is that the administration has discretion when it comes to making a decision about whether to engage in this heightened level of enforcement or not, and they are taking that action to the extreme. And so, I hope that the administration, the president, are going to hear what we’re calling for as members of Congress, to stop this kind of heightened enforcement in our communities and stop putting the fear into families and children afraid to go to school, people afraid to go to church, because they’re afraid of these enforcement actions.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Edwards, we want to thank you for being with us. Congressmember Edwards is running for the U.S. Senate from the state of Maryland. We will continue with our other guests. Tavis Smiley, author of The Covenant with Black America–Ten Years Later, a PBS broadcaster, radio and television. Alicia Garza will continue with us, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter. She attended Obama’s State of the Union address last night as Congressmember Barbara Lee’s guest. We’re also joined by CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin. And we’re joined, as well, by Claudia Palacios, who is a military veteran and a migrant justice activist, just arrested on Friday trying to stop the ICE raids. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guests for the hour are Claudia Palacios, a Marine veteran, a migrant rights activist—she has a fascinating story herself, how she could have fought—served this country, and now her own birth certificate is being questioned—afterwards. We’re also joined by Alicia Garza, who’s the co-founder of Black Lives Matter; CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin; as well as PBS broadcaster and author of The Covenant with Black America, Tavis Smiley. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as we continue to talk about President Obama’s State of the Union and his legacy, we have the discussion that I’d like to talk to Tavis about, the foreign policy aspect of the president’s speech. He’s devoted quite a bit of time to foreign policy, and he particularly, at one point, talked about how we cannot be—try to take over and rebuild every country. Let’s hear that part of it.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For more than a year, America has led a coalition of more than 60 countries to cut off ISIL’s financing, disrupt their plots, stop the flow of terrorist fighters and stamp out their vicious ideology. With nearly 10,000 airstrikes, we’re taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, their weapons. We’re training, arming and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria. If this Congress is serious about winning this war and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Take a vote. Take a vote. But the American people should know that, with or without congressional action, ISIL will learn the same lessons as terrorists before them. If you doubt America’s commitment, or mine, to see that justice is done, just ask Osama bin Laden.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was the president talking about the fight against terrorism. But the increasing drone wars across the world, especially in the context of growing inequality at home, which has become a major subject of the Democratic presidential candidates, your sense of how the president has done in this area?

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah, that’s a great question, Juan. A few thoughts. One, let’s be clear about this: With all due respect to President Obama, he has deported more people than George Bush deported. He has used drones to kill more innocent women and children than George Bush killed. We have a drone program on steroids. And so we kind of dance around these things. Let’s just come to the truth of what the facts tell us, what the data tell us, and that’s the reality. He’s killed more innocent women and children with drones than George Bush did.

Having said that, it’s also telling to me that while he got a nice applause line on the authorization issue, the Republicans have had far less issue with this president on foreign policy than they have on his domestic agenda. And that ought to tell you something, that Republicans, more often than not, have been with him on his foreign policy agenda than they have opposed him and obstructed him, quite frankly, on his domestic policy agenda. So that’s important, number two.

But thirdly, what’s really fascinating for me—the last time I was here, I think I was here talking about my book on Dr. King, Death of a King, about the last year in King’s life. And it is always fascinating for me to watch this president pivot in any speech to a Kingian notion. In this particular speech, it was unarmed truth, as Medea Benjamin mentioned earlier, unarmed truth and unconditional love. That’s at the heart of every speech that Martin gave—unarmed truth and unconditional love. So you pivot to quote Martin on the one hand, but what Martin was talking about, as we all know, at the end of his life, was that triple threat facing our democracy. It’s King who says that if we don’t deal with this triple threat, we’re going to lose our democracy. What is the triple threat? Racism, poverty and militarism.

So, for all that Barack Obama has in fact accomplished—and I must say, against a strong headwind, against a lot of obstructionism, he got some things done—but for all that he did accomplish, I judge this president—this is just me; since you asked me, this is my assessment, Juan—I judge this president, and any other president, by where they stand vis-à-vis a relationship to King’s legacy and that triple threat. Where do you stand, what did you do, on racism, poverty and militarism? Now, if that’s the scorecard that we’re grading this president on, it’s a very different conversation that we could have about what he has and hasn’t gotten done.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about that.


AMY GOODMAN: You, when, a few years ago, we were talking to you—I can’t remember where, I think it was Ohio, when you were on a poverty tour.


AMY GOODMAN: But you have written The Covenant with Black America–Ten Years Later. You wrote it in 2006. Interestingly, it basically covers the Obama presidency.

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah, it does.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And there’s a greater poverty percent—

TAVIS SMILEY: Oh, there’s no doubt about it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —percent of people in poverty now than there were when the president came in.

TAVIS SMILEY: There’s no doubt about it. Poverty is threatening our very democracy. And not just that, speaking of national security, poverty is now a matter of national security. These numbers are just not sustainable. So, again, on racism, poverty and militarism, the grade’s not so good. But you have Alicia Garza on this program today, and it is amazing, again, that in this era of the first black president, black boys and black men are being shot dead in the streets, and too many cops are getting away with that. In this era, black women are still dying disproportionately from preventable diseases. In this era, black children are still struggling to gain access to an equal, high-quality education. In this era, environmental racism abounds. In this era, the digital divide still exists. And so, progress has been made, but it’s just troubling for me.

And what the book gets to, Amy, is how the president’s most loyal constituency over that period—the book is not about Obama. It’s about, again, where we are 10 years later. But it does, as you point out, cover most of his presidency. But how does the president’s most loyal constituency end up being the group that falls the farthest behind? Look at the gay and lesbian community. I celebrate this, but look at what they’ve accomplished over the last 10 years—because they made demands. The environmentalists has something to celebrate—because they made demands. Wall Street always gets what it wants; it’s always in celebration. But the president’s most loyal constituency, not much to celebrate.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Black Lives Matter certainly emerged during this period, Alicia Garza. Talk about what you think were the—was the greatest progress you made. And, I mean, President Obama is not at the end of his term. This is his last State of the Union address; he still has another year. What can the president do? And what do you feel must be left to people in the streets?

ALICIA GARZA: Sure. Well, first, let me talk about what I think we’ve accomplished, because, to be quite frank, even though President Obama did not speak in the way that we—that many would have wanted him to in the State of the Union address about race and racism, the reality is that there is a conversation that is happening all over the world about race, state-sanctioned violence and racism, that has not happened in this way in, you know, quite a long time. And I think that that is a very significant, very, very significant advance. Additionally, you know, what I heard yesterday was that many people in—many of the Congressional Black Caucus members, in particular, have been talking about various proposals for criminal justice. And without, you know, rubber-stamping any of those proposals, I do think it’s important that this issue has come up and is being moved, right, in a positive way.

But to be really, really frank, I think the biggest thing that we’ve accomplished is pressure from the outside, and to say, you know, we’re not endorsing Democrats or Republicans—both are equally culpable for the conditions that black folks are facing in this country and around the world. And so, certainly, there—what my hope would be is that there is an independent political force that is building in this country, that will move a different type of agenda, that will prioritize people and the planet over profits. That’s my hope.

Certainly, I think Obama—this is—it is his last year, and he still has time left. And I think what we should be pushing him around, in particular, is to use his power of executive order. I mean, quite certainly, Obama has really explicitly talked about race only a handful of times in the eight years that he has been president. And quite frankly, I think the sentiments that I’ve been hearing is that we can’t wait any longer. Again, when I was sitting in that chamber last night, all I could think about was Sandra Bland’s family, and how did Sandra Bland end up dead in a jail cell that she shouldn’t have been in in the first place? As I was sitting in the chamber last night, all I could think about was—you know, when we’re talking about unemployment rates dropping, I’m thinking, “Yes, for everybody but black women.” When we’re talking about gun violence, I’m thinking to myself, “Well, what about violence that’s also impacting the transgender community, where we had a little more than 25 murders of trans people, trans people of color, and most of them black trans people?” And then, of course, I’m thinking about the raids that have been happening in the beginning of this year. And I do think that Obama, while he kind of noted that it’s an election year and that he was acknowledging a, quote-unquote, “political reality” that not much might move this year, I do think that he can exercise more leadership and move things through his power as president through the tool of executive order. Now, yes, that’s going to make Republicans angry, but, quite frankly, I think that if anything is going to shift, we’re going to need to see some leadership. I understand this notion of bipartisanism, but for many of our communities, we can’t wait for people to reach across the aisle and figure out how to compromise. There does have to be some leadership for a progressive agenda that is really centralizing the needs of our communities, who are, quite frankly, under attack.

AMY GOODMAN: Alicia Garza, we have to take a break, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, attended Obama’s State of the Union address, pivotal also in the $15-an-hour—the push for the $15-an-hour minimum wage. Stay with us.

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