White America refuses to understand the death of Freddie Gray

Baltimore is a southern city with a northern culture. Because of Maryland’s location south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Maryland was a slave owning state. However, Abraham Lincoln believed that keeping Maryland in the Union was of paramount importance, so much so that jailed Confederate sympathizers without habeas corpus to prevent Maryland from seceding.

To this day, Maryland has maintained its identity of a border state, neither culturally southern nor culturally northern.
On April 19th, 25-year-old Freddie Gray died as a result of injuries sustained when the police nearly severed his spinal cord as they arrested him. According to the City of Baltimore, on April 12th “an officer made eye contact with Gray, and he took off running, so they pursued him. Though he’d had scrapes with the law before, there’s no indication he was wanted at the time.” Even if he had been wanted, even if he was carrying a gun, he did not deserve to be killed by the police.

The people of Baltimore were understandably outraged, and took to the streets. Protests began on April 18th in front of a police station in West Baltimore, and were peaceful for nearly one week  before becoming violent on April 25th, and even then only roughly 100 out of over 10,000 people were violent.

On the 25th, one got a vastly different perspective on the protests depending on what news channel one turned to. CNN tore their hair out over “scenes of chaos and rioting” while Al Jazeera described the same protests as mostly peaceful and nonviolent, with “pockets of violence erupting.” Al Jazeera’s journalistic reporting is sadly in the minority amongst American news media outlets, as most other channels sensationalized the situation and seemingly blew things out of proportion, with some reports saying there were “thousands of black rioters” and others calling the city a “war zone.” In fact, the major news networks were more concerned with their self-aggrandizing dinner disguised as a fundraiser – the White House Correspondents Dinner (aka “Nerd Prom,” which is neither nerdy nor prom-like) – happening just 35 miles away in Washington DC, than they were with the riots.

One startling example of actual journalism came from the local NBC affiliate in Baltimore, WBAL TV 11. One reporter interviewed members of rival gangs, who came together not to make a plan to kill white cops, like most news sources were saying, but were in fact trying to stop the rioting because they were in support of Freddie Gray and believed that the riots were not helping the cause in any way. Let me repeat this for emphasis: Rival gang members, who could have very easily capitalized on the chaos, were trying to stop the riots in support of nonviolence! That’s a great story in and of itself, and yet even NBC’s national network, to say nothing of the other major outlets, insisted on either getting it wrong or ignoring it completely.

By April 27th and 28th, following Freddie Gray’s funeral, the once peaceful protests had turned into full-scale rioting, looting, and arson. Newly-elected Maryland Governor Larry Hogan had declared a state of emergency, calling in the National Guard and declaring a week-long curfew.

These protests, and the nature in which they are being carried out, should come as a surprise to no one. Many non-white Americans are living in a terrible situation that they feel trapped in, and have tried every peaceful avenue available to get the attention of the news agencies, government and the rest of “White America.” Over a quarter of Baltimore’s population lives below the poverty line, and the city’s unemployment rate is 8.2%. While its crime rate has improved in recent years, it is still well above the national average. Only 2/3 of Baltimore’s high school students will graduate — and that’s an improvement.

Black man stopped by police, via Shutterstock

Black man stopped by police, via Shutterstock

Combine lack of economic and educational opportunity with a bloated, top-down law enforcement infrastructure, and you’ll get violence every time. Baltimore does not exist in a vacuum; it is the airing of grievances that are held throughout the country. Non-White Americans know that Freddie Gray or Michael Brown could have very easily been them. White Americans like myself will never fully be able to understand this. We don’t have to seriously consider the possibility that we could have our spine severed like Freddie Gray, or that we could be shot in the back like Walter Scott, or choked to death like Eric Garner, all while posing no threat to the police officer doing the killing. Until white Americans – especially those with the power and influence to make a difference – realize that this is the reality faced by millions of Americans every day, nothing will change.

Although this situation hits particularly close to home for me, as I grew up just outside of Baltimore, this is by no means an isolated instance of police brutality. The number of black men that have been killed in the last few months by police officers goes beyond there being “a few bad apples;” it is a pattern. A pattern indicative of systemic racism and violence condoned and perpetuated from within police culture itself. This pattern has been corroborated by the US Department of Justice’s report on institutionalized racism within the Ferguson, Missouri police department. But going beyond that, if the Justice Department were to carry out investigations of random police departments I’m positive that they would find similar results in almost every American city — especially cities with large minority populations.

The pattern is also reflective of the prison industrial complex as a whole, which overwhelmingly imprisons people of color and is instrumental in perpetuating the cycle of violence and poverty for racial minorities in America. The US has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. African Americans constitute 1 million of the total 2.3 million prison population and are incarcerated at six-times the rate of white Americans. The majority of those arrests are for petty crimes and drug possession.

We as a nation are guilty in part of perpetuating the cycles of poverty and violence as well as the stereotypes of racial minorities. If I tell that someone has been murdered in a major American city, what gender do you think they are? What race do you think they are? Are they old or young? When someone mentions gangs, what images come to mind? If our image of a violent gang member or murder is that of a young African American or Hispanic male, then is it really surprising that the police, who face violence every day, also have that image in their heads?

How do we end the cycles of rioting, police brutality and poverty in America? The subcultures of both the police and the African American community need to change. First, both groups need organization and leadership from within. For the police this needs to come from above, from the lieutenants and commissioners of major American cities. For the African American community, this needs to come from civil rights and church leaders, especially those who lived through or were influenced by the Civil Rights movement in the 60s. Second we need proper education. For the police, this must come in the form of training in non-violent methods to de-escalate violence. For the African American community this comes in the form of proper government funding for schools in impoverished areas, and programs to increase the graduation rate. Third, the police need to develop a mutually supportive working relationship with the communities that they oversee by working with community leaders and members, and encouraging cooperation when crimes occur.

All of those things sound fairly simple. As President Obama noted on Tuesday, if we really wanted to address this problem, it is well within our means to do so. The only question that remains, then, is if we are going to be honest with ourselves about what it’s going to take to make racial justice a reality.

The curfew seems to have quelled the violence for now, but the anger and the lived reality for millions of Americans persists. This is not the end of the violence. All it takes is one more example of police brutality, one more data point in the trend, to begin the cycle anew. This. Will. Keep. Happening.

Although the anger and the violence is completely understandable, the death of Freddie Gray does not and cannot justify the violent behavior of both the protestors and the police. We as a nation cannot ever condone rioting and looting. However, you don’t need to condone rioting and looting to understand it. Until white America begins to understand the reality that millions of minorities struggle with every day, a reality that they cannot escape from, it can’t act surprised when marginalized communities insist on getting its attention.

Nick Lehn recently received his Masters in Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology from the University of Oxford. His favorite topics include anything pertaining to science and society, global politics, social justice, globalization, and technology. Nick recently moved back to his hometown of Baltimore, MD.

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46 Responses to “White America refuses to understand the death of Freddie Gray”

  1. low plains says:

    That’s how libs roll.

  2. LanceThruster says:

    Despite being thought of as incapable of understanding, I think it depends of one’s background and experience. I remember being constantly pulled over by cops for the crime of having long hair on the presumption that I was in possession of drugs.

    Imagine that sort of harassment at every single level of interaction with the Establishment and others. It would truly wear you down.


  3. Brittney Miles says:

    I hate the title of this piece because this is not simply a white problem. People of all backgrounds are failing to see the systematic injustices and prejudices of these issues and racism generally, including people experiencing them. It frames the discussion around minorities being reliant on white america to see the systematic abuse, in order for social change to come about. Yes, race is a major factor in this issues, but class as well. The intersectionality is far more central to the systematic abuse than race alone, and you touch on that.

    “Until white America begins to understand the reality that millions of minorities struggle with every day, a reality that they cannot escape from, it can’t act surprised when marginalized communities insist on getting its attention.” — Don’t nobody care about white people. LOL we care about those in positions of power (regardless of race), and acknowledge that many low-income white people are experiencing residual injustice from a corrupt system hell bent on black and brown low income populations.

    Also, I think it is important to acknowledge that church leaders are not reflective of a majority of the AA community. Much of the unifying and peaceful leadership is coming from millennials, which is central to establishing this as a movement not only rooted in past issues, but in setting a strong foundation for a more equal future. Part of what made the Civil Rights Movement successful was the use of media and economic hindrances, which is working against us and not in our favor. The tactics have had to change.

    Good piece, Nick.

  4. TheOriginalLiz says:

    Continually vilifying white Americans is not really helping them “understand”. Cliches and cheap shots aren’t the way to solve anything.

  5. emjayay says:

    The other half of the economics he did not address is that all the value of doubling of overall productivity and financial profits in the past thirty or forty years have gone entirely to the top 1%, and the top .01% owning as much wealth as the bottom 90%.

  6. emjayay says:

    Particularly the ones between DC and the beltway.

  7. emjayay says:

    I just try to skip or at least skim anything from either one, here and elsewhere.

  8. Robbie Rubin says:

    americablog………….> SEE MORE INFO<–

  9. ECarpenter says:

    Some white Americans understand what’s going on in Ferguson and Baltimore and Dallas and Seattle and ten thousand other cities around the country, some don’t. Using the language of race to vilify any group is a very bad thing.

    The network news organizations are staffed by a mix of races – and they are notoriously bad at following breaking news in a truthful or thoughtful way, going instead for sensationalist cultural stereotypes. If reality is not sensational enough, or if people (like the Baltimore gangs) who are supposed to be violent and unthinking are, instead, thoughtful and peaceful – well, “news professionals” just lie, more often than not. Reporters and talking heads of all racial descriptions are right in there spreading fear and hatred together.

  10. Moderator4 says:

    FLL, you need to back off from your obsession with Bill Perdue.
    Either back off, or we will make sure that you back off.

  11. Bill_Perdue says:

    A sewer that feeds into a pressurize cooker to be heated up.

  12. mirth says:

    Here’s something you should concentrate on:

    Stop stalking Mr. Perdue, and stop making derogatory shit up about him and others.

    Because when you do that, again and again and again, you take away from the good stuff you write. And it makes you seem the fool. And much of the time you aren’t a fool. You hurt yourself with these confused rantings and they are so f’k’n tiresome to read.

  13. Indigo says:

    Mixing metaphors? Oh, myyy! Which is it? Sewer or pressure cooker?

  14. Indigo says:

    That’s refreshingly optimistic of you.

  15. Bill_Perdue says:

    Did you happen to stop at the copyright office and lay claim to ‘pressure cooker’?

    Too late now.

    “US society is a sewer of racism, immigrant bashing, misogyny, homophobia and union bashing all madly boiling in a the pressure cooker created by the death agony of capitalism.”

  16. Bill_Perdue says:

    Thee aren’t any links. He’s lying. As usual.

  17. goulo says:

    FLL: Can you give some links to some comments of Bill where he “constantly encourages racist voter-suppression efforts” as you accuse? I don’t recall seeing anything like that from Bill.

    I’ve certainly seen him say often things like that voting for Democrats and voting for Republicans are equally useless (certainly a controversial claim for many, but that’s a tangent).

    But a belief that voting is useless is certainly not at all the same as “encouraging racist voter-suppression efforts”. Am I missing something? If so, I’m happy to be enlightened with some concrete evidence of Bill encouraging racist voter suppression efforts, but otherwise it sounds like you’re just wildly making shit up.

  18. Bill_Perdue says:

    The largest union organizing efforts in decades are in fast food and big box stores and unionists from all ethnicities are involved.

    What’s happening instead is that large numbers of Latinas/Latinos as well as Euro and Asian Americans are increasingly supportive of anti-racist demonstrators. Most of the demonstrators are young and share the problems of low wages and unemployment/underemployment.

    They’re all workers and they’re beginning to act in solidarity with one another.

    No race war there.

  19. Bill_Perdue says:

    This period reminded me of the middle 1930’s when working people and students were in an uproar about the failure of capitalism but had’t yet worked out a way around it.

    I don’t think I’m so much optimistic as watchful, at this point, because things are in flux. I’ve been to demonstrations of workers trying to unionize at fast food and big box stores like Walmart and for a decent minimum wage, instead of Obama’s cruel joke of $10.10 an hour here in Vegas. I think they’re very hardened at this point and are going to win and in the process pull the AFL-CIO and CTW away from their abusive relationships with right wing Democrats.

  20. Indigo says:

    WASP America is afraid and like anyone or any institution, once the fear sets in, the rhetoric escalates and the physical responses become increasingly violent. While seeking to redress 4 decades of outrage in Baltimore, we’re witnessing the growing wrath of the WASPians. This isn’t a sewer, this a pressure cooker with a timer on it. Give it another decade of this and we’ll have a bona fide race war raging across the nation. That won’t be a good thing, I see no catharsis growing out of the current torrent of angry views. (Can’t call it a dialogue because nobody’s listening to anybody, it’s just noise for now.)

  21. Bill_Perdue says:

    First, the indictment of the six killer cops is unprecedented and is clearly based solely on the demonstrations there and across the country since the murder of Trayvon Martin.

    Second, it you give money to a Bush or a Clinton or others like them they’ll tell you whatever you want to hear – it’s election time – pat you on the head and then revert to type and enforce racist polices, permit institutionalized racism, attack every nation that has natural resources coveted by US corporations and drive down the standard of living of working people by busting our unions.

  22. Bill_Perdue says:

    The levels of hysteria and irrationality in personal attacks, distortions and lies are an accurate measure of the effectiveness of the left in drawing people away from Democrat, Dixiecrat and Republican politics. This time his comments are particularly hysterical.

    I’ve run into police union types before on union blogs.They all assume that anyone who opposes them is a criminal. A lot of us routinely make motions in our unions to expel them and prison guards from the AFL-CIO.

    Murders by killer cops and racists have been going on forever and no one on a federal level has the guts to tackle the killers. Cowards like Obama and the DoJ have refused to prosecute Zimmerman or investigate the hundreds of cases of murders by cops and prison guards. That’s not surprising given the fact that it was only ten years ago that the Senate apologized for not passing an anti-lynching bill.

    “…the senators in essence admitted that their predecessors’ failure to act had helped perpetuate a horror that took the lives of more than 4,700 people from 1882 to 1968, most of them black men. At the turn of the last century, more than 100 lynching incidents were reported each year, many of them publicly orchestrated to humiliate the victims and instill fear in others. Lynching occurred in all but four states in the contiguous United States, and less than 1 percent of the perpetrators were brought to justice, historians say. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/13/AR2005061301720.html

    More proof that the US is a sewer of racism, misogyny, homophobia, immigrant bashing and union busting.

  23. GarySFBCN says:

    I don’t share your optimism, but I hope you are right.

  24. GarySFBCN says:

    Sorry, but calling society a sewer is not a personal attack. What you wrote clearly is a personal attack.

  25. FLL says:

    Voter fraud is a red herring. It’s all opinion but the numbers never verify that it’s a problem. Voter suppression efforts that target black precincts is a feature of every election, and you, and those like Bill Perdue who support you, use it to tilt the balance in favor of Republicans. I really don’t see that Mexican immigrants are hurting black people as much as Republican state governments that try to suppress the vote.

  26. Bill_Perdue says:

    I think the long and short of it is that Spain, France and other European countries are run by Social Democrats, who like most political parties are to the left of Democrats and Republicans but who accept capitalism, the large scale ownership of the economy. As I pointed out, with capitalism comes racism and all the rest.

    When I say socialist I don’t mean Social Democracy, I mean a movement aimed at fundamental and revolutionary change. There are very large parties in much of Europe that are for fundamental change and there has been a certain degree of reunification, here and across of the world, as the left prepares for showdown battles with the rich.

    You can see that in action here in the movement of the ILWU membership towards cooperation with anti-zionist and anti-racist groups and in the editorial policy of groups like the publishers of Coutnerpunch, etc.

    Earlier this month, a video of a white police officer shooting and killing a black man, Walter Scott, fleeing and clearly posing no danger to the cop in North Charleston, South Carolina—like multiple recent videos of unarmed black men being killed by police—went viral. What few know is that his brother is a member of a predominantly black labor union in Charleston—in a state far better known for trying to secede from the Union than organizing one. This union has declared it will protest racist police brutality on May 1, May Day, and called for others to join the protest with actions of their own.

    The San Francisco Bay Area longshore union voted to stop work at all Bay Area ports in solidarity. In a sad testament to the ubiquity of such shootings around the country, the walkoff was planned before the police killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. But the timing couldn’t be better to demonstrate the power of organized labor to forcefully intervene in policy discussions.


  27. FLL says:

    Calling U.S. society a sewer is a rather nasty attack as well. You’ll notice that Bill didn’t use the term “sewer” to describe the government or political parties or even a small minority of billionaires. He used it to describe U.S. society—obviously anyone and everyone who doesn’t kiss Bill’s ass and ask for his forgiveness. You’re both a joke. Bill is continually pushing voter suppression efforts, and since that is always targeted at black precincts, yes, it’s very obviously racist.

  28. GarySFBCN says:

    Living part time in a socialist country, on a mostly socialist continent, it is with great respect that I tell you that there is more racism here, but less violence. Socialism alone isn’t the answer.

  29. GarySFBCN says:

    ” A sewer, huh? You, Bill, are both the problem and the sewer, and I’m sure that African-Americans don’t appreciate it any more than most other people do. During election time, kindly stay in Nevada and keep yourself and your KKK robes out of Florida. ”

    Wow, on most blogs, you would be banned for that personal attack. Claiming that Bill is a member of the KKK shows just how extreme YOU are.

    The imposition of the death penalty by the police on black men has been happening all too often for the past decade that I can remember. Neither party has insisted that all police NATION-WIDE be screened for racists, anger-management or other mental/psychological issues; neither party has insisted that all police NATION-WIDE be trained to use non-lethal tactics; neither party has insisted that all police departments NATION-WIDE adopt shoot/TAZE-to-harm policies to replace shoot-to-kill policies. Why?

    In local politics it is because the police union chooses to defend the indefensible cops who kill, and any candidate for any political office who doesn’t have the police union’s backing appears to be anti law and order. At the federal level, all of these tactical weapons that police departments now have – thanks to homeland security dollars, come from the very manufacturers of tools for war, and who contribute to many members of congress.

    I stand with Bill on this one, as do many people. But even though you (FLL) and I disagree, I’m not going to call you names, claim that you are a member of a racist group, or worse, project what your motives are.

    You should be held accountable for your wild claims that are a personal attack and your nasty tone.

  30. Desertcatn says:

    It wasn’t a problem in Ohio, many voted more than once. If you want to talk about the real threat to diluting the Black vote, it’s the opening of our borders, that is the biggest threat to Black jobs and votes. Last time I looked, it is Obama who has our southern border wide open; how does this help the Black people?

  31. Brendan Christian says:

    americablog———-……. SEE MORE INFO <–

  32. cambridgemac says:

    I grew up in Maryland and some of us, including my father and at least two of my brothers, most definitely DID want to identify as southern – although, I’m pretty sure that if pressed, they would have waffled.

  33. Helen Morey says:

    Good Article but I prefer http://www.thefrontmail.com/ coz there is always some thing new here

  34. FLL says:

    Concentrate on intellectual substance. I simply notice a tendency to ignore voter suppression efforts—not among the bloggers, but among a few of the commenters. You know, nothing to see here, nothing problematic, just move along.

  35. mirth says:

    FLL, no matter how well you think you can cope without them, you should never skip your meds.

  36. heimaey says:

    LOL well every state has something bad about them, but if you ask anyone from MD if they consider themselves southern (from this century) they’ll say no.

  37. Ty Morgan says:

    Oh, I think white America understands, it’s just that most choose to ignore/ not care, or deny that that’s the way things are.

  38. FLL says:

    US society is a sewer of racism, immigrant bashing, misogyny, homophobia and union bashing.

    Does that include all the efforts to prevent or discourage voting in African-American precincts every election day? Oh, you know, Bill, all those planned efforts on the part of Republican state governments to make sure that black precincts don’t receive sufficient ballots, are stuck with voting machines that are not in working condition, shortened early voting hours, refusing to allow early voting on Sundays (knowing that African-American churches would gladly lead their parishioners to the polls on Sundays), insufficient staff at voting locations, lines of people waiting to vote that stretch for blocks and blocks, and even outright threats and intimidation to prevent people in black precincts from voting. You constantly encourage all of those efforts because… well, you know… all that voting by black people would endanger either a Republican victory that would take place at the time or the Marxist revolution that would take place in, oh let’s say 500 years or so… or even more likely, never. A sewer, huh? You, Bill, are both the problem and the sewer.

  39. Bill_Perdue says:

    It’s not a personal problem, it’s a political problem imposed on us by Democrats and Republicans who are too cowardly to tackle the institutionalized racism they created.

    US society is a sewer of racism, immigrant bashing, misogyny, homophobia and union bashing. That won’t change this side of socialism.

  40. AOM says:

    “if we really wanted to address this problem, it is well within our means to do so.”

    Honestly, I’m not entirely convinced that we want to address this problem, even those who are sympathetic to the plight. “How terrible, but better them than us” is the unspoken sentiment that is too common, at least among my “totally not racist” acquaintances.

    Also, in response to the question about how to end the cycles of rioting, police brutality and poverty in America: $$$. Protesting worked back in the day when politicians responded to this type of pressure. These days, politicians respond to one thing — cash. If all the protesters stayed home and contributed $50 to a PAC that acted to support political candidates who understand how we have come to where we are and who unwilling to let this cycle continue, that would be far more effective than a large crowd of brown faces (with some white ones mixed in) giving the news stations fodder for further demonizing them.

    Stop marching, start contributing $.

  41. 2karmanot says:

    Some of us remember Nuremberg.

  42. 2karmanot says:

    “she spurns the Northern scum!She breathes! she burns! she’ll come! she’ll come!” Sounds like the Miley Cyrus of the Southern States.

  43. caphillprof says:

    From the official state song of Maryland:Dear Mother! burst the tyrant’s chain,Maryland!Virginia should not call in vain,Maryland!She meets her sisters on the plain-“Sic semper!” ’tis the proud refrainThat baffles minions back amain,Arise in majesty again,Maryland! My Maryland!…I hear the distant thunder-hum,Maryland!The Old Line’s bugle, fife, and drum,Maryland!She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb-Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!She breathes! she burns! she’ll come! she’ll come!Maryland! My Maryland!”

  44. caphillprof says:

    “We as a nation cannot ever condone rioting and looting.” But apparently we can condone police violence and brutality, extrajudicial punishment and wholesale denial of constitutional rights. We can and do condone an economic system which thrives on the marginalized communities in Baltimore and elsewhere. And while we bloviate a lot about the sanctity of human life, that concern does not extend Trayvon Little or Michael Brown or Freddie Gray. Moreover, for us, property always trumps the sanctity of human life.

  45. heimaey says:

    I grew up in MD – we do NOT identify as a southern state. We are north-east or mid-Atlantic. Any other claims are insulting.

  46. dcinsider says:

    If you have not read it, I thought the smartest and most accurate statement on the issue has come from Orioles COO John Angelos. http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/04/orioles-john-angelos-baltimore-protests-mlb

    “Brett, speaking only for myself, I agree with your point that the principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law is of utmost importance in any society. MLK, Gandhi, Mandela and all great opposition leaders throughout history have always preached this precept. Further, it is critical that in any democracy, investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible.

    That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.

    The innocent working families of all backgrounds whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violence, surveillance, and other abuses of the Bill of Rights by government pay the true price, and ultimate price, and one that far exceeds the importances of any kids’ game played tonight, or ever, at Camden Yards. We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the U.S., and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic civil and legal rights, and this makes inconvenience at a ballgame irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans.”

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