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Exclusive: Angela Davis Speaks Out on Palestine, BDS & More After Civil Rights Award Is Revoked

StoryJanuary 11, 2019
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In a Democracy Now! exclusive, legendary activist and scholar Angela Davis speaks out after the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute rescinded a human rights award for her, reportedly due to her activism for Palestinian rights. In September, the institute announced that it would award Davis the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, named after the civil rights icon. But last Friday, the institute voted to withdraw the award and cancel this year’s gala event. The institute rescinded the award days after the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center sent a letter urging the board to reconsider honoring Davis due to her support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Others in the Birmingham area criticized Davis for her support for the Black Panthers and Communist Party. We speak with Angela Davis in her first television interview since the controversy began.

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

AMY GOODMAN: The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is continuing to come under fire after rescinding a human rights award for the scholar, civil rights activist and author Angela Davis. In September, the institute announced it would award Davis the Fred L. Shuttlesworth award, named after the civil rights icon. But last Friday, the institute voted to withdraw the award and canceled this year’s gala event in February.

Davis is a Birmingham, Alabama, native who grew up in a neighborhood known as Dynamite Hill because it was bombed so frequently by the Ku Klux Klan.

The institute rescinded the award days after the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center sent a letter urging the board to reconsider honoring Davis. According to AL.com, the January 2nd letter cited Davis’s, quote, “recent outspoken support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel [which] is very troubling as it targets the Jewish people excessively,” the letter said. It went on to state, “We do not suggest that Israel should be immune from criticism, but BDS ignores gross human rights transgressions by other countries around the world and focuses solely on Israel, the world’s only Jewish state,” unquote.

Others in the Birmingham area criticized Davis for her support for the Black Panthers and Communist Party.

The institute’s decision to rescind the award has sparked outrage in Birmingham and around the country. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said he was dismayed by the institute’s decision, which he said came after, quote, “protests from our local Jewish community and some of its allies,” unquote. The Birmingham City Council voted unanimously to express support for Dr. Davis, as did the Birmingham School Board.

In addition, more than 350 academics have signed on to a letter supporting Davis that was organized by Jewish Voice for Peace. The letter states, in part, quote, “The decision seems to stem from a misinformed view that to advocate for Palestinian human rights is somehow offensive to the Jewish community,” unquote.

Meanwhile, three members of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute have resigned, including the chair and first vice chair, following calls for their ouster over the controversy.

Angela Davis is now scheduled to attend an alternative event in Birmingham next month on the same night she would have come for the Shuttlesworth event, which is being organized by a coalition of grassroots groups.

Well, on Thursday, I spoke with Angela Davis in her first television interview since the controversy began. She joined us from Oakland, California. I began by asking her to respond to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute decision to rescind the award honoring her with the Fred Shuttlesworth award.

ANGELA DAVIS: When they informed me that I had been chosen to be the 2018 recipient of the Fred Shuttleworth Human Rights Award, I was quite honored, and I was looking forward to returning to the place where I was born and raised. By the way, I did know Fred Shuttlesworth, and I went to school with his daughter Patricia. So it was quite an exciting development.

Last Saturday, I surmised, shortly before they released the statement, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute contacted me and simply read the statement to me. When I made requests to them to offer me more substantive reasons for the rescission of the award, I was met with responses, very abstract responses, such as, “It’s a matter of public record.” And so, during the very brief phone call, I really did not know what it was that had caused them to take that position. It was only after, I was informed, that an article had appeared in the magazine Southern Jewish Life that basically detailed some of my activism around Palestinian human rights, for BDS, against some of the policies and practices of the state of Israel.

I don’t think they were aware that the response would be so immediate and so overwhelmingly in favor of my receiving the award. I have heard from literally hundreds of individuals and organizations. Letters are being circulated not only by Jewish Voice for Peace, but by historians. I think it’s the American Historical Society—I may be wrong—one of the professional organizations that includes scholars who do work on civil rights.

I have been contacted by many people in Birmingham. Some of my oldest friends are involved in organizing the event, the alternative event, which is scheduled to take place on the same day that the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute event was originally to take place.

It’s actually quite exciting to see the issue of Palestinian justice, justice for Palestine, emerge as a topic of popular discourse. We have attempted for so long to encourage a conversation like this. I don’t know whether I enjoy being at the center of the controversy; I think I’ve had my share of controversies in my life. But I’m happy to assist in the process of encouraging more discussion on racism, on anti-Semitism, on justice for Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who said in a statement, “As I consider the controversy over the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s decision to honor Dr. Angela Davis with the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award and its subsequent decision to rescind that honor after protests from our local Jewish community and some of its allies, my overriding feeling is one of dismay. Why am I dismayed? I am dismayed because this controversy might have been avoided entirely, had it been handled differently. I am dismayed because, as has been the case throughout Birmingham’s history, people of good will behaved reflexively, rather than engaging in meaningful discourse over their differences and seeking common ground. I am dismayed because this controversy is playing out in a way that harks backward, rather than forward—that portrays us as the same Birmingham that we always have been, rather than the one we want to be. I’m dismayed because I believe that we should be able to expect better, from ourselves and from one another.”

Again, that’s the—those are the words of the mayor of Birmingham, Mayor Randall Woodfin, the youngest mayor in more than 120 years, who even has offered to facilitate a conversation. Interestingly, he’s on the board of the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, as it’s known, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, but was not included in that emergency phone call or the executive phone call that was held last Friday in the vote that took place, that a number of people are demanding notes be revealed about, that led to the announcement on Saturday, Angela Davis. Your thoughts on Mayor Woodfin’s response?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, first of all, I find it very exciting that Birmingham now has a mayor who is bold and outspoken and willing to take risk, and who has certainly played an important role in generating the protest against the decision of the board of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

I am aware of the fact that he is an ex officio member of the board, as is Odessa Woolfolk, who is the person who has been, over the years, the driving force for the creation and the continuation of this institute. She was, by the way, my Sunday school teacher. I think she’s about 10 years older than I am. And she was an ex—she’s an ex officio member of the board and the chair emerita. I don’t think that she was involved in the discussion at all.

So, it’s interesting that they are unwilling to reveal precisely what their process was and that we are left to speculate about the influences that were responsible for this decision.

But let me say, I think it’s important not to generalize about the Jewish community in Birmingham, just as I would suggest we not generalize about the black community. There are people representing very different political positions in both communities. I am aware that there are progressive members of the Jewish community there. I know that Jewish Voice for Peace has contacts in Birmingham. I think it’s important, as we engage in discussion around this controversy, to be aware of the extent to which anti-Semitism can also be a force here. So I would just guard against characterizing the Jewish community in Birmingham in such sweeping terms.

AMY GOODMAN: Scholar and civil rights activist Angela Davis. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute recently rescinded a human rights award, apparently due to her activism for Palestinian rights. We’ll return to Angela Davis in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Language of Peace” by Lethal Skillz and Shadia Mansour. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to my conversation with the scholar, professor, civil rights leader Angela Davis. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute recently rescinded a human rights award for her, apparently due to her activism for Palestinian rights.

AMY GOODMAN: This issue of your support for Palestine and Palestinians and the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement, can you talk about that? Would you describe yourself as a supporter of BDS? And what does that mean?

ANGELA DAVIS: Oh, absolutely. I have never concealed my support for the boycott, sanctions movement. As a matter of fact, when BDS was created, in 2005, I believe, as a response to efforts by Palestinian civil society to take measures that are in the spirit of the civil rights movement, as a matter of fact, it has been characterized as a nonviolent effort by Palestinian civil society to challenge the repression that is so pervasive in occupied Palestine. I have been a supporter of justice for Palestine almost as long as I can remember, at least since my years in college. More recently, I have been, perhaps, attempting to guarantee, along with many others, that the issue of justice for Palestine be placed on social justice agendas more broadly.

And it is, I think, the fact that those of us who have been doing this work over the last, I would say, seven or eight years, nine years, the last decade or so, have been relatively successful. There is support for justice for Palestine on college campuses across the country. Particularly black student formations have embraced this cause. We know that in 2014, when the Ferguson uprising took place, when the Ferguson protests erupted, it was Palestinian activists who were the first to express solidarity and, as such, helped to develop a global solidarity movement for Black Lives Matter.

So, I think that the characterization of the BDS as a way of acknowledging the South African—the boycott against South African apartheid, and using those strategies within the current situation, is absolutely accurate.

So I have been—yes, I have been involved in the effort to encourage professional organizations. I remember the American Studies Association, ASA, was one of the first professional organizations to develop a resolution supporting the boycott; the National Women’s Studies Association. So I’ve been involved actually in many different contexts to help incorporate a call for justice for Palestine in our social justice agendas more broadly.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you wrote the 2015 book Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. I wanted to read more from the letter from the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. They said, “We do not suggest that Israel should be immune from criticism, but BDS ignores gross human rights transgressions by other countries around the world and focuses solely on Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews; you are talking antisemitism,'” they said, quoting Dr. King. Can you respond to this, Angela Davis?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, first of all, as I pointed out, BDS emerged from Palestinian civil society, and its purpose is precisely to focus on Israel, just as the boycott against South African apartheid was focused on the South African apartheid state. So, the first criticism they propose, I don’t think is valid at all.

Dr. King may have made that statement indicating that when people criticize Zionists, they are criticizing Jews, at a particular moment in history. But I am certain that if he were alive today, he would point out that justice is indivisible. As a matter of fact, he argued that for the indivisibility of justice, [in]justice anywhere, he wrote, is an assault to justice everywhere. So, I’m quite certain that he would not remain silent on the question of the occupation, the continued occupation of Palestine, of the segregation that recalls the segregation in South Africa and the segregation in the Southern states during the pre-civil rights era.

And I’m certain that he would identify with Palestinian activists who have taken up strategies developed by the U.S. civil rights movement—you know, for example, the Palestinian Freedom Riders, who were inspired by the Freedom Riders of the civil rights era, in attempting to protest the segregation of highways, of thoroughfares, that lead from one settlement to another settlement and from which Palestinians are barred.

Yeah, the trip that I made to Palestine in 2011 with a delegation of women of color and indigenous feminists was revelatory in a way that I had never expected. I thought that I was aware of the conditions in occupied Palestine. But when I visited Hebron and actually saw signs that barred Palestinian automobiles and Palestinian pedestrians from certain streets, my response was: Segregation in Alabama did not bar black people from the thoroughfares. So, in many ways, it seemed to me to be even worse than the segregation of my childhood. I think the world needs to speak out against these conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, of course, as you pointed out, the Jewish community is not monolithic. Jewish Voice for Peace condemned the decision by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Over 350 academics across the country signed on to the JVP academic letter in support of Angela Davis. The letter reads, quote, “The cancelling of this award by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is unjust, insulting and ill-conceived, especially because it is likely premised on Professor Davis’ long-standing support for Palestinian human rights. The decision seems to stem from a misinformed view that to advocate for Palestinian human rights is somehow offensive to the Jewish community.”

The letter goes on to state, “As a Jewish organization dedicated to justice, dignity and equality for all people in Palestine/Israel, we share Professor Davis’ visionary commitment to the 'indivisibility of justice,' and believe we are all responsible for pursuing social justice for all human beings, without exception—which includes pursuing social justice for Palestinians.”

Professor Davis, you’re talking about not only what happened with the canceling of the award to you, but then the organizing that’s taken place around both the issue and in support of you.

ANGELA DAVIS: Yes, that’s actually quite exciting. As I said, the issue of Palestinian human rights, and its relation to the struggle for civil rights for people of African descent in this country, is finally being discussed in an open way. And I’m quite excited that grassroots activists, local organizations, established figures in the Birmingham community, professionals, people who were involved in the civil rights movement over a half-century ago have all come together to try to make the point that the board of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute does not represent the sentiment of people in Birmingham, Alabama. And I am looking forward to returning to Birmingham on February 16th and participating in a range of events that are being organized by activists on the ground there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me go to a controversy that happened, well, a few months before you, about CNN contributor—well, former CNN contributor—and Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill, who was recently fired by CNN for giving a speech at the United Nations supporting Palestinian rights in November. CNN dropped him as a commentator after conservatives and pro-Israel groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, condemned his comments, calling them anti-Semitic. Well, last month, Juan González and I spoke to Marc Lamont Hill about his firing.

MARC LAMONT HILL: I was specifically calling or speaking to my belief that a one-state solution is the most fair, just and workable possibility right now. … I did call for a free Palestine. And a one-state solution, for me, is the way to do that. Many people responded, however, and were frustrated by that or said that I was somehow secretly dog-whistling for violence. I found that a bit hard to believe. …

There is absolutely a long tradition of black support for Palestinians. There’s a long support of black internationalism. And if we’re going to be honest, there has been a long and deep support of African Americans and blacks throughout the diaspora for the state of Israel. So, we can’t ignore that history, either. But it’s a long and complicated story. But I think, in the last 51 years, I would say, since the Six-Day War, we’ve seen the black left, for sure, engage in a kind of internationalism that looks for solidarity not just in Palestine, but with movements in Africa, movements in Latin America, in attempt to really shore up a base and a community of freedom fighters that understand that inequality and injustice is not local, but it’s a transnational experience, and in order to redress any problems we have, we have to look internationally. That’s what Malcolm X was attempting to do. That’s what Martin King was doing toward the end of his life. That’s what the Black Panthers were doing. And when we look at current movements, like Black Lives Matter, one of the first things that I found impressive about the Black Lives Matter movement was the fact that they were looking internationally.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill, who remains a professor at Temple but was fired by CNN. He tweeted on Monday, “This is shameful. I stand with my dear sister and friend Angela Davis,” responding to the rescinding of the award for you, Professor Davis. Your thoughts on this kind of pressure being brought on, well, people like Marc Lamont Hill?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, it was absolutely shameful for CNN to capitulate to pressure and fire Marc Lamont Hill. He was speaking at an event that takes place every year at the United Nations on Palestine Solidarity Day. So, are they suggesting that they will attack everyone who speaks at the U.N. on Palestine Solidarity Day under the guise that they are anti-Semitic?

I think it’s time for conversation on what constitutes anti-Semitism, the relationship between anti-Semitism and racism, and the difference between critiques of the state of Israel, critiques of the occupation of Palestine, and anti-Semitism.

Of course, all of us reserve the right to criticize the United States of America, the government, especially during this period. No one would argue that by criticizing the government, we are criticizing all of the people of the U.S.

As a matter of fact, I think it’s very important to point out that there is a significant resistance among Jewish citizens of Israel inside Israel. When I visited Palestine and Israel in 2011, I had the opportunity to speak with Jewish activists who were opposed to the occupation of Palestine.

So, I think that with attacks on people like Marc Lamont Hill and the organizers of the Women’s March—so, it seems as if there may be an effort to prevent black solidarity with Palestine. You know, I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories, but it seems as if we are witnessing a consistent attack on particularly radical black activists who are encouraging international solidarity with many struggles in other places, but especially with the Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Scholar and human rights activist Angela Davis, a daughter of Birmingham. Dr. Davis is a professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. We’ll continue with my conversation with her in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Talking Birmingham Jam” by Phil Ochs. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to my conversation with Angela Davis, the scholar, human rights activist, former Black Panther. For more than four decades, Davis has been one of the most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States, an icon of the black liberation movement. Angela Davis was set to receive the prestigious Fred L. Shuttlesworth award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, but on Friday the board voted to rescind the award. During our conversation, Angela Davis talked about anti-Semitism.

ANGELA DAVIS: I think this ideological effort to equate anti-Semitism with much-needed critiques of the policies and practices of the state of Israel and the expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian people should be revealed for what it is. And I am hoping that we will hear more Jewish people speaking out. I know that Jewish Voice for Peace has done an amazing job over the last period, and I’ve done work with JVP. But I think this is a period when, as Jews were the first white people to step up during the civil rights era, to speak out against racism, I think that we need to engage in the kind of conversation that will reveal the true meaning of anti-Semitism and help us to extricate ourselves from this McCarthyite effort to equate boycott strategies and solidarity strategies with anti-Semitism.

I should say that I know that previous recipients of the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award are very angry about what has happened. I received a call from Danny Glover, I received a call from Harry Belafonte, both of whom indicated that they will be contacting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in protest.

I think these protests have to involve serious conversations about the meaning of anti-Semitism and how to disarticulate charges of anti-Semitism from civil rights and human rights strategies that are designed to protect the people of Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you about the proposed Combating BDS Act, which was included in the first Senate bill of this new session. The legislation aimed to prevent opposition to the Israeli government by allowing state and local governments to sanction any U.S. companies which are engaged in a boycott against Israel. The bill failed to pass earlier this week amidst the government shutdown. Newly sworn-in Palestinian-American Congressmember Rashida Tlaib of Michigan criticized the bill on Democracy Now! this week.

REP. RASHIDA TLAIB: I agree with Senator Sanders and ACLU and others that see this not as a—see this as an anti-speech, anti-First Amendment bill. The fact that we have our senators, that right now could be voting on opening up our government—they have the bills in their hands—are voting on this, that’s distracting us from what is our focus, which is the American people.

And I can tell you, you know, looking at this push among even just the states, saying that, you know, you will not employ someone that doesn’t sign some sort of allegiance to say that they will not boycott another country, it is literally at the core, right there, is literally an attack on our Constitution, on our—one of the most critical rights that we have in our country is freedom of speech.

I cannot imagine our country not having the right to economic boycott. Think about, you know, Alabama, Montgomery. Think about Montgomery, Alabama, and all around the country, the civil rights movement.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress, one of two Muslim women, along with Ilhan Omar, part of the most diverse Congress that has been voted in, in the history of the United States, more than a hundred women serving in the new 116th Congress of the United States. Your response, Professor Davis?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I am excited to see the new Congress and, of course, very happy that the Senate bill, Senate Bill 1, did not pass. However, I think it should be pointed out that this is not going to be the last we hear about this act to combat BDS.

It reminds me of the McCarthy era, the effort to require people to, in effect, sign loyalty oaths that they will not engage in the boycott of the state of Israel.

I’m trying to imagine how that might have played out during the era of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, if people in as many states that have passed these acts would have been required to agree not to advocate or engage in or participate in the boycott of South Africa.

This is absolutely unconstitutional. And it harks back to a period of our history which many of us thought we had surpassed. But it also indicates how important it is to engage in the kinds of conversations and struggles that will enlighten people as to the implications of such measures.

AMY GOODMAN: The award you were set to receive is named after the civil rights icon Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who led the struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, to end segregation. When he died in 2011, the civil rights leader and Georgia Congressmember John Lewis said, quote, “When others did not have the courage to stand up, speak up and speak out, Fred Shuttlesworth put all he had on the line to end segregation in Birmingham and the state of Alabama.” This is Fred Shuttlesworth talking about the immediate, visceral danger he encountered as one of the leaders of the civil rights movement.

REV. FRED SHUTTLESWORTH: The Ku Klux Klan tried to blow me into heaven, blow me away. But you don’t kill leaders. You don’t kill the ideas; you kill the person. But God saved me because he had to have somebody go through a spectacular demonstration of his power to live in Birmingham. And when the detective said to me, said, “If I were you, I would get out of town as quick as I can,” I said, “Well, Officer, you are not me. You go back and tell your Klan brothers that if God could save me through this, I’m here for the duration and that war is on.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was Fred Shuttlesworth, civil rights icon. His biographer, Andrew Manis, author of A Fire You Can’t Put Out and professor of history at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, has said, since your award was rescinded, “I can’t even imagine Fred Shuttlesworth hesitating for a moment to honor Angela Davis this way. Fred was willing to work with anybody regardless of their politics. If they were on the side of freedom as soon as possible and equality as soon as possible, he was on board with them,” unquote. As you listen to Fred Shuttlesworth, you knew Reverend Shuttlesworth?

ANGELA DAVIS: Oh, yes. Reverend Shuttlesworth was the first really rebel leader during the period I was growing up in Birmingham. I met him. I went to school with his daughter. I remember when his house was bombed. And I also remember that oftentimes he was a lone voice. Eventually, people spoke out and supported him. But he was courageous. And as the clip from a discussion with him you just played indicates, nobody could turn him around. Nobody could turn him around.

And I was quite proud to have been offered the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, which, of course, was promptly withdrawn. But I think that Fred Shuttlesworth continues to inspire people who are struggling for freedom, freedom not only for black people, not only the struggle against racism, but in all struggles for justice, against misogyny, against homophobia, for economic rights, for global human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you, Professor Davis. The top three members of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute have now resigned over this decision to throw you out. And this is, you know, as many in the community are demanding that the leadership resign. If this were to be reoffered to you, to honor you in the name of Fred Shuttlesworth, would you accept that honor?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I think the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute not only owes me an apology personally, but should apologize to all people who stand on the side of justice, should apologize to all people who believe that justice is indivisible. This was not primarily an assault against me as an individual; it was an assault against a whole generation of activists who have come to recognize how important internationalism is. And in the words of Dr. King, as I pointed out earlier, injustice anywhere is an assault to justice everywhere. So, for the time being, I would hope that they are considering the possibility of such a broad apology to people for whom this rescission was an affront everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Angela Davis, I want to thank you so much for joining us. And I want to wish you an early happy 75th birthday, you celebrate next week.

ANGELA DAVIS: Thank you very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Angela Davis, the scholar and human rights activist, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, author of many books, including Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. For more than four decades, Dr. Davis has been one of the most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States, an icon of the black liberation movement. Last Friday, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute rescinded a human rights award for her and canceled its February 16th gala altogether. But Dr. Davis still plans to go to Birmingham, her hometown, on that date for an alternative event organized by members of the community who are outraged by the institute’s decision.

Visit democracynow.org to see our hour-long special with Angela Davis, where she talks about how Aretha Franklin once offered to post bail for her, and much more.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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