The Long, Long Way to a More Perfect Union in America (Prof. Alemayehu G.Mariam)

M.L.KOn April 10, 1957, 28 year-old Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) gave a speech at the St. Louis Freedom Rally in St. Louis, MO entitled, “A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations”. In his speech, MLK commended St. Louis for  integrating its schools in a “quiet and dignified manner”. He said St. Louis could teach the country much about improving race relations: “The Deep South have a great deal to learn from a city like St. Louis. It proves that integration can be brought into being without a lot of trouble, that it can be done smoothly and peacefully.” But MLK’s principal aim was to “grapple with a question that continually comes to [him]. And it is a question on the lips of men and women all over this nation. People all over are wondering about the question of progress in race relations. And they are asking, ‘Are we really making any progress?’” 

In August 2014, 57 years after MLK gave his 1957 speech, Ferguson, a town of barely 21,000 souls on the outskirts of St. Louis is in the throes of its own race relations soul searching. On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white Ferguson police officer. A private autopsy done at the request of Brown’s family showed the teenager was shot at least six times.  

The killing sparked days of emotional but largely peaceful protests. A few individuals took advantage of the turmoil by engaging in looting, vandalism and other criminal activities. Dozens were arrested.

The police response was shocking. A contingent of some 150 police officers in riot gear assembled from nearby jurisdictions and confronted protesters in the streets firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Protesters chanted, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” SWAT teams (Special Weapons and Tactics) clad in heavy body armor and carrying ballistic shields and assault rifles taunted the protesters. Police snipers peered through their night vision optics perched atop behemoth armored vehicles scanning for targets. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon made “operational shifts” to ease the situation by deploying Missouri State Highway Patrol, imposing a curfew and calling out the National Guard. Is it happening in Falluja, Iraq or Ferguson, U.S.A.? It was surreal!

Lesley McSpadden, the victim’s mother declared her expectation, “Arresting this man [officer] and making him accountable for his actions; that’s justice.” 

On August 18, 2014, 53-year-old President Obama reflecting on race relations in America in the context of the Brown killing said, “We’ve made extraordinary progress, but we have not made enough progress.” But to hearken back to MLK’s 1957 question, “Are we really making any progress?” MLK’s response at the time was, “We have come a long, long way but we have a long, long way to go.” 

I wonder. Have we really made “extraordinary progress” in race relations in America? Have we really come a “long way”? How much “progress” in race relations do we need to make “real” or “extraordinary progress”? How long must we walk to go a long way? Are we making enlightened progress in race relations in America or creating a huge SWAT fortress? Are we taking the long way in the wrong direction on race relations?    

ferguson_humanity1408682175In his 1957 speech, MLK said, “there are three basic attitudes that one can take toward the question of progress in the area of race relations.” One can take the “attitude of extreme optimism”. The “extreme optimist would argue that we have come a long, long way in the area of race relations” and point to the “marvelous strides that have been made in the area of civil rights over the last few decades and conclude that the problem is just about solved.” The second attitude reflects “extreme pessimism” and acknowledges “only minor strides in the area of race relations.”  The “extreme pessimist” would argue, “we have created more problems than we have solved”’ and that “we are retrogressing instead of progressing”. 

MLK advocated “a third position, a realistic position.” The third position “seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites while avoiding the extremes of both. So the realist would agree with the optimist that we have come a long, long way. But, he would go on to balance that by agreeing with the pessimist that we have come a long, long way but we have a long, long way to go…” 

In 2014, I believe MLK’s “third position” is still the “realistic position”. We have come a long, long way from the master’s house on the plantation to the White House. We have used the ballot to make our way to the statehouse and the House of Representatives. Some of us have managed to escape the tenement house for the townhouse and penthouse.  

But what is happening in the jailhouse? In the courthouse? In the poorhouse? In the workhouse? In the schoolhouse? 

In 1957, MLK laid out the facts:

The poverty of the Negro is still appalling in spite of all of our growth. We must face the fact that forty- three percent of the Negro families of America still make less than two thousand dollars a year. Compare that with the fact that just seventeen percent of the white families make less than two thousand dollars a year. Twenty-one percent of the Negro families still make less than a thousand dollars a year. Compare that with the fact that just seven percent of the white families make less than a thousand dollars a year. Eighty-eight percent of the Negro families of America make less than five thousand dollars a year. Compare that with the fact that sixty percent of the white families make less than five thousand dollars a year. To put it another way, just twelve percent of the Negro families of America make five thousand dollars or more a year, while forty percent of the white families of America make five thousand dollars or more a year. We’ve come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go in economic equality.  

MLK would not be proud to review the U.S. Census statistics in the second decade of the 21st Century. In 2012,  27.4 percent of African Americans were living in poverty (nearly triple the poverty rate for whites) while 39 percent of American American children were considered poor. From 1983 to 2010, average family wealth for whites has been about six times that of blacks. In 1963, the unemployment rate was 5 percent for whites and 10.9 percent for blacks. In 2013, it was 6.6 percent for whites and 12.6 percent for blacks. From 1963 to 2012, the annual black unemployment rate averaged 11.6 percent.  In 2013, for African American youth the unemployment rate for ages 16-19 was 393%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In July 2014, the percentage of white unemployed youth was 12.2 percent, and  24.8 percent for blacks. In 2012, 52.1 percent of black children were living in single-parent homes compared to 19.9 percent of white children. According to the Pew Research Center, “in 2010, the incarceration rate for white men under local, state and federal jurisdiction was 678 inmates per 100,000 white U.S. residents; for black men, it was 4,347”. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2010, black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.  In 1960, the white male incarceration rate was 262 per 100,000 white U.S. residents, and the black male rate was 1,313. Black men represent 7.9 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in America but only 2.8 percent of undergraduates at major public universities. 

In 2012, police officers, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes extrajudicially killed at least 313  African-Americans, according to one study. “This means a black person was killed by a security officer every 28 hours.” The study cautions that this may be undercount  because in many states there is no requirement for recording the race of police-involved shootings or killings. In N.Y. City,  85 percent of suspects frisked were  blacks and Latinos. Only 8 percent of whites stopped were frisked. On the other end of the country, in Oakland, California, the NAACP reported that out of 45 officer-involved shootings in the city between 2004 and 2008, 37 of those shot were black. None were white.” One-third of the shootings resulted in fatalities and no officers were charged.

The problems of discriminatory law enforcement in black communities covers the gamut: random stops and searches and seizures without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, harassment, excessive and unnecessary use of force, unprofessionalism, racial profiling, “driving/walking while black” and other forms of abuse of power. Police abuse and mistreatment of African Americans occurs across varying socioeconomic backgrounds. They happen to “actors, professional football players, college students and even black cops.” It happens even to federal prosecutors. Attorney General Holder recently recounted an encounter he had with police in the Georgetown section of the nation’s capital. “I am running with my cousin. Police car comes driving up, flashes his lights, yells, ‘Where you going? Hold it!’ I say ‘Woah, I’m going to a movie.’ Now my cousin started mouthing off. I’m like, ‘This is not where we want to go. Keep quiet.’ I’m angry and upset. At the time that he stopped me, I was a federal prosecutor. I wasn’t a kid. I was a federal prosecutor. I worked at the United States Department of Justice. So I’ve confronted this myself.” 

The problem of arbitrary, unprofessional and unlawful police law enforcement is not just a big city problem. It rears its ugly head even in the smallest towns. According to the Missouri Attorney General’s office, in Ferguson with a population of 15,865 of people over the age of 16, 4,632 blacks were stopped by the Ferguson police department, compared to 686 whites. In 2013, Ferguson police officers stopped 5,384 and made 521 arrests during vehicle stops, of which  483 (93%) were black, and 36 were white.   Ferguson is nearly two-thirds black (61%) but its mayor, five of the six city council members, 5 of the 6 school board members are white.   Only 3 of the 50-member Ferguson police force are black. The police chief is white.

The problem of arbitrary law enforcement does not end in the streets. It moves straight in the courthouse and the prosecutor’s office. Once arrested, blacks are more likely to remain in prison awaiting trial than whites. Most go through a justice mill and often get representation from overburdened, underfunded and understaffed public defenders’ offices. In California, African Americans and Latino defendants are disproportionately impacted by the “Three Strikes” law. “African Americans make up 6.5% of the population, but they make up nearly 30% of the prison population, 36% of second strikers, and 45% of third strikers.”

The lesson is clear and simple. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in a landmark police search and seizure case, “Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws.” I would say nothing can destroy the rule of law more catastrophically than the malicious flouting of the rule of law by those sworn to uphold and enforce the law.

How can we move forward a long, long way?  

MLK in 1957 said to keep progress going, we need to do several things. “We must continue to gain the ballot. One of the great needs of the hour is for the Negro to gain political power through the ballot.” He underscored the fact that we “have the moral responsibility to use the ballot and use it well and wisely.”

In Ferguson, though African Americans constitute nearly two-thirds of the population, they are less likely to vote in municipal elections because the community tends to be “younger, poorer,  somewhat transient and prone to moving “from apartment to apartment.” In the 2013 municipal election, turnout was dramatically lower among both whites and blacks, but whites were three times more likely to vote than African Americans.

Ferguson is a compelling case vindicating MLK’s admonition that the “hour [is at hand] for the Negro to gain political power through the ballot.” African Americans in Ferguson not only have the ballot to elect their leaders, but more importantly the power to un-elect them. Under Missouri Revised Statutes, Chapter 77, Section 77.650, “The holder of any elective office in a third class city may be removed by the qualified voters of such city by recall petition…” Ferguson is a “third class city” and “Fergusonians” have the legal power to remove from office a holder of municipal elective office.” That way they can apply MLK’s teachings and impose not only accountability on their local government  but also change the entire culture of policing in Ferguson.  Will the people of Ferguson flex their ballot muscle?

Missouri State Senator Jamilah Nasheed launched an online petition calling for St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch to recuse himself from the Michael Brown case on various convincing grounds, including the fact that McCulloch’s father, a policeman, was killed in the line of duty. She reported gathering 70,000 signatures. Her efforts would have been better invested in a recall petition which requires only 25 per cent of registered voters to boot out the mayor, the city council and school board. 

MLK advised that “we’ve got to continue to persuade the federal government to use all of its powers to enforce the law of the land.” But for federal civil rights legislation and enforcement actions beginning after the American Civil War, things would have been different under the doctrine of “states’ rights”. Attorney General Eric Holder following his visit to Ferguson declared, “This attorney general and this Department of Justice stands for the people of Ferguson. The people of Ferguson can have confidence in the federal agents, investigators and prosecutors who are leading the process.” Holder’s personal involvement and deployment of federal investigative resources meets MLK’s prescription for effective federal action in moving forward.

MLK said in 1957 that there is a “dire need” “for sound and sane leadership who will lead the people” out of the “wilderness toward the promised land of freedom and justice.” He insisted on the cultivation of not just political leaders but also moral leaders. MLK said we need leaders “in love with humanity” and with “justice” and leaders with humility and not big “egos”. He was crystal clear about the kind of leadership that is not needed. He said “rabble-rousers, whether the rabble-rouser be white or Negro”, leaders who have “extremes of hot-headedness and Uncle-Tomism”, “leaders in love with publicity” and “money” and leaders willing to sacrifice the “greatness of the cause” to the greatness of their “particular egos” are not needed. MLK did not want to see the “rent-a-leader” who shows up “seeking publicity” at the first sign of trouble, run off his mouth and vanish to lead the great cause.

MLK would hold his head in shame if he were to look at our leadership today — gridlocked at the national level, disoriented at the state level and pathetically parochial at the local level. Finding “sound and sane leadership who will lead the people” out of the “wilderness toward the promised land of freedom and justice” in our time is as difficult as it was for Diogenes of Sinope (the cynic) who walked around town in acient Greece with a lamp in hand in broad daylight trying to find an honest man. Where can we find enlightened moral and political leaders who know their own way, know which way is the right way and lead the people on the long, long way to justice? Oh! Where do we find young humble moral leaders in  America who are “in love with humanity” and “justice”?

MLK called for peaceful mobilization and action in 1957. He “called upon every freedom-loving Negro, from all over the nation, who can get off of work that day to come to Washington for a Pilgrimage of Prayer for Freedom. We are not going there to make any threats. We are not going there to say what you have to do. We are simply going there to thank God for what has already been done and to ask Him for His guidance through the other period of transition, and to appeal to the conscience of the nation to do something… We are not fighting for ourselves alone, but we are fighting for this nation.” 

If MLK were alive in 2014, he would have wholeheartedly called upon every freedom-loving American to take a Pilgrimage for Love and Peace. Every freedom-loving American — without regard to race, color, religion, ideology or creed  — needs to join the Pilgrimage and “appeal to the conscience of the nation to do something” about injustice, and fight for the soul of this nation.    

“We must have sense in this world: We must not use violence”   

MLK said we have got to do it right and do right by each other. “Let us be sure that our methods are thoroughly moral and Christian. I know it’s really hard when we think of the tragic midnight of injustice and oppression that we’ve had to live under so many years, but let us not become bitter. Let us never indulge in hate campaigns, for we can’t solve the problem like that. Somebody must have sense in this world. And to hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. We must not use violence. Maybe sometimes we will have to be the victims of violence, but never let us be the perpetrators of violence. For if we succumb to the temptation of using violence in our struggle, unborn generations would be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. We must not use violence.”

It is not about race or color; it is about man’s inhumanity to man

As an Ethiopian immigrant and unapologetic American constitutional lawyer, political scientist and human rights advocate who has proudly made his home in America, I wish I could honestly say that what has happened in Ferguson is simply a matter or race and skin color.  I have to broaden my perspective of government wrongs and human rights beyond America. What I see in Ferguson and in similar circumstances elsewhere in America is undoubtedly about race – the inhumanity of the human race.

Man’s inhumanity to man is not a uniquely American problem. It is a human problem everywhere. Police brutality is only one  virulent mutation of the global culture of inhumanity fueled by violence. It is a culture that permeates police departments throughout the world. It breaks my heart and I hold my head in shame when I say man’s inhumanity to man manifests itself in its extreme ugliness all too often in Africa, the cradle of humanity millions of years ago which today has become the graveyard of human rights.

In May 2014, the police and security officials of the ruling regime in Ethiopia massacred 47 unarmed university and high school students in the town of  Ambo 80 miles west of the capital Addis Ababa. There has been little international outrage over the massacres and no one has called for an investigation. In 2005, security and police officials under the personal command and control of the late leader of the regime in Ethiopia massacred 193 unarmed demonstrators indiscriminately and grievously wounded 761. Even though 237 of these police killers are known by name, they have yet to be brought to justice. There was no international outcry. The security, police and military forces of the current regime in Ethiopia have massacred thousands of civilians in the Ogaden and Gambella regions of Ethiopia and elsewhere in that country. The U.S. government is the principal financial and political supporter of this bloodthirsty regime!  

In August 2012, South African police massacred 34 mineworkers in cold blood in Marakina in the North West province of South Africa evoking memories of apartheid South Africa. The Youtube video of that massacre is as shocking as any ever posted. The Marikana Massacres were reminiscent of the Sharpeville Massacre of apartheid South in 1960. To add insult to injury, the National Prosecuting Authority of South Africa brought murder and other charges against the surviving Marakina miners. In Darfur, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere in Africa, extrajudicial killings by regime security and police officers are so commonplace that the world has turned its face to avoid having its mind and heart scarred forever.

As I see it, the problem is an undiagnosed mental illness which afflicts most of humanity. It is called violence (the end product of anger, hate, hopelessness, despair, indignity, injustice, irrational fear, ignorance, etc.). Violence is a sickness of the soul. It is an illness that keeps the majority of humanity in a permanent state of delusion. It is an illness that makes us believe we can solve our problems by killing, torturing, abusing and shooting our enemies. 

Violence has made us make gods out of guns. The rule of gun has upended the rule of law in many places. We have militarized our  police and equipped them with armored vehicles, assault rifles, night vision goggles, stun grenades and other  weapons obtained from U.S. military surplus. Violence has enabled the inmates to take over the insane asylum and run the rest of the world. We need a cure for that mental illness because, as MLK taught us, “violence is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”   Power does not come out of the barrel of the gun; it comes from  the good will of people. 

There is no underestimating the fact that police face vicious drug dealers and gangsters, bank robbers and lunatics sporting AK-47s, Uzis, M-16s and other weapons of war in their line of duty. It is irrational to condemn all police officers on the misdeeds of some members. With hundreds of millions of guns in American homes and streets, the police have a reasonable fear of becoming victims of gun violence at some point in their careers. Reasonable people will agree that the police do not have an easy job; they have a very challenging job. But the fact of the matter is that no police officer ever signed to become a peace officer’s because it is an easy job. I do not doubt that some individuals became police officers driven by their own demons of hate and bigotry. For them, a police badge is a license to kill and to abuse citizens they despise. However, peace among the citizenry cannot be secured by a small group of police officers waging war on the people. Every police officer must live up to the promise of “to protect and serve”. 

Unfortunately, the police culture in the U.S., the curriculum in the police academies and the general mindset in police communities encourages police officers to look at poor communities of color, particularly in urban areas, as  war zones and its citizens as potential terrorists to be contained by SWAT teams and snipers. As a result, police officers who do not live in the communities they police perform their jobs with fear and loathing.  Policing of poor communities becomes a “tactical” problem instead of a community policing problem. Citizens of color are presumed to be violent criminals until proven otherwise. “Tactically”, the police shoot first and answer questions later. 

The answer lies in community policing (community-police partnership to deal with public safety problems), not aggressive militarized policing. The answer lies in deconstructing the current police culture which feeds on racism and reconstructing it on the basis of human dignity and respect. The answer lies in truth (fair and full investigation) and reconciliation (community healing by bring together the police and the community together to discuss grievances incurred over the years and decades and find ways of going forward together). Prosecution of one police officer is not enough; holding an entire police department publicly accountable is a part of the answer. A psychological change is also needed: All citizens in the community should feel that they own the police department and no segment of the community should feel police force is an occupying force imposed on them. 

We have met the enemy 

To paraphrase Pogo (comic strip), I believe “We the People have met the enemy and it is us.” The questions we must answer are clear: Will we make peace with or wage war on the enemy? Do we annihilate or rehabilitate and redeem the enemy? Do we vanquish or reconcile and make friends with the enemy? Do we love the enemy?!

In 2009, in a speech during Black History Month, Attorney General Holder said, “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.” Americans must show that America is still the land of the free and home of the brave. The real question is what brave Americans – white, black, brown and all shades in between – will do when they meet the enemy. How brave Americans  decide what to do with the enemy will determine if we will go a long, long way on our long walk to justice as a nation and as a people or take a detour into the abyss of strife, discord and conflict as depraved brutes. The choice belongs to every American. The buck stops with every American. As President John F. Kennedy said in his Civil Rights address in 1963, it is time for a “peaceful revolution”:

 The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand. Redress is sought in the streets, in demonstrations, parades, and protests which create tensions and threaten violence and threaten lives. We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality.

Progress is “Going Forward by Going Backward”  

In April 1954, MLK gave a sermon entitled, “Going Forward by Going Backward” at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL. He said, “Our problem lies in the fact that through our scientific genius we have made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral genius we have failed to make of it a brotherhood. And the great danger confronting us today is not the atomic bomb that we can put in an airplane and drop on hundreds and thousands of people, but the atomic bomb which we have to fear today is that atomic bomb which lies in the hearts and souls of men, capable of exploding into the vilest of hate and into the most damaging selfishness.” He cautioned, “if our civilization is to go forward today, we must go back and pick up those precious moral values that we have left behind…”   

There is no doubt that Americans have made “extraordinary progress” in the sciences and technology and achieved great economic prosperity. But we are struggling to make moral progress in how we treat and deal with each other. We keep the world’s greatest financial, scientific, educational and technological centers. But we have a long, long way to go to become our brother’s and sister’s keeper.

The human race on the planet is in a race to save itself from itself. It also looks like it is in a desperate race to destroy itself. In the human race, humanity must unlearn to beat each other and learn to beat its “swords into plowshares and its spears into pruning hooks”. We cannot dehumanize each other and expect to improve humanity. There is less humanity left in a dehumanized human. In the human race, there can only be one winner — (Wo)Man or all of humanity will be the loser. We must find a million ways to overcome man’s inhumanity to man. The alternative is foretold in the verse of  Robert Burns.  

Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

In 1957, MLK said St. Louis could teach the country a lot about race relations. In 2014, the people of Ferguson could teach America a lot as well. I will know class is in session when the people of Ferguson stop raising their hands and stop crying out “don’t shoot” and the Ferguson police stretch out their hands to the people of Ferguson for a handshake.  

As I see America through immigrant lenses, I do not just see the United States of America. I see the united peoples of humanity. I see people from every country and every corner of the planet who have come to America escaping political and religious persecution or seeking better economic opportunities. Like millions before me, I am one of the “huddled masses” who came and stayed in America “yearning to breathe free”. Millions throughout the world would give up a limb and then some to come and live in America. I see an imperfect union of humanity in the United States of America. We have problems, too many problems. But we cannot solve our problems in the executive offices of the White House, the state houses, the halls of Congress or the chambers of the U.S. Supreme. The answers to our problems lie dormant in the chambers of our hearts. We can achieve a more perfect union by living out the truth of our fundamental values (which we often preach and practice less often) and declare independence from the racism, sexism, xenophobism, communalism and all of the other –isms that secretly hide in our hearts and minds and “submit to a candid world” that  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal…” 

“Are we really making any progress?” asked MLK in 1957. My answer in 2014 consists of a series of questions: What is the true measure of progress? How far we have come on the economic and political scale? Should we not measure progress by how much we have narrowed the gap between our hearts and minds? How do we measure the gulf that hate has created between our hearts and minds? Shouldn’t the true measure of progress be the number of bridges of love we have built to connect the long, long way from our hearts and minds?  Should not the true measure of progress be our commitment as Americans to go a long, long way to make our imperfect union a more perfect union? 


“I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.  We need to stand up today so that people won’t have to do this when they’re 90.” Hedy Epstein, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor arrested in St. Louis protesting  Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s decision to activate the National Guard for deployment in Ferguson.

“I prefer peace. But if trouble must come, let it come in my time, so that my children can live in peace.” Thomas Paine  


Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

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