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Homeland militarization — tanks in Ferguson, Blackhawks in Minneapolis — must be stopped

REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Our military adventures abroad can have disastrous domestic consequences.

This week the helicopters that were sent off to Iraq and Afghanistan to protect us here at home were flying around downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Blackhawk helicopters were here on “urban training exercises” rattling the windows of residents’ condos, homes and apartments right here at home in Minnesota.

Why were they here? When did a city of civilians become the training grounds for the U.S. Army, and why has there not been a louder outcry against the intrusive presence of the military into what we have now come to call “the Homeland”? Perhaps because we believe it makes us “safer,” but citizen preoccupation with security is the spawning ground for national security states.

A day after the Pew Research Center issued its report on the strikingly divergent attitudes of whites and blacks about law enforcement following the death of Michael Brown, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sent to Missouri to meet with leaders there. According to the Pew Center, “blacks and whites have sharply different reactions to the police shooting of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Mo., and the protests and violence that followed. Blacks are about twice as likely as whites to say that the shooting of Michael Brown ‘raises important issues about race that need to be discussed.’ Wide racial differences also are evident in opinions about whether local police went too far in the aftermath of Brown’s death, and in confidence in the investigations into the shooting.”

A lasting memory

I live in a predominantly white middle-class neighborhood in Chaska. The police aren’t around much except to pick up a dead opossum that tried to cross the street. We don’t think much about the police where I live. But I also have a memory from the summer of 1968 that puts me with those who believe that race and institutional violence — particularly police violence — are tied together in places like Ferguson or North Minneapolis, and other places that feel to their residents like a military occupation.

The time I’m remembering came on the heels of The National Commission on Civil Disorders (known as “the Kerner Commission,” so named after its respected chair, Otto Kerner) warned that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” President Lyndon B. Johnson rejected the commission’s multiple recommendations for addressing the problem of growing economic disparity between whites and blacks.

Back then I was a 26-year-old assistant pastor of a downtown church in Decatur, Illinois. What I experienced on the church parking lot etched the report’s findings in my heart and mind. I’ve never seen our society the same since.

The summer program for youth from the public housing projects let out at 10 p.m. Ninety-eight percent of the kids in Teen Town were black. The program had been a success by every measure, drawing 100-500 youth from the tenements to the downtown church on any given night. Until a neighbor from the adjacent apartment building called the police at closing time.

By the time I made it up the stairs from the recreation room, the squad  cars were plunging into the crowd, billy clubs swinging in every direction, mace spraying indiscriminately in the kids’ faces, police officers choking the program’s assistant director with a billy club, handcuffing him and shoving him into the back of the paddy wagon.

That night 40 store windows were broken out in downtown Decatur near the church. I drove home, slapped on my clerical collar and waded into the melee. It was clear to me that this was what the Kerner Commission described. This was the result of a police riot. It should never have happened.

Neither should what happened in Ferguson, Missouri. You don’t need to shoot a kid six times — and the sight of law-enforcement officers riding armored tanks with guns pointed at civilians reignites the enduring embers of the tragedy of race in America.

Blurring the line between military and civilian life

The Kerner Commission Report was issued as a result of urban civil disturbances in America’s major cities. It spoke of race and the police and National Guard violence — a systemic problem that threatened American society itself. Back then armored tanks with gun turrets patrolled the streets of Detroit. This month the very same thing happened. The only difference is that this time the officers were dressed in camouflage pants that looked like U.S. Marine or Army attire. That was in Ferguson, Missouri.

The Night Hawks in their Blackhawk helicopters flew around the Twin Cities from Monday through Thursday night. It is no assurance that, according to the unit’s Fort Campbell, Kentucky commander, the same “urban training exercises” have taken place in San Diego, Phoenix, and other major cities. It doesn’t make it right, and it provides little comfort to those who value keeping a hard line between military and civilian life.

Our military adventures abroad can have disastrous domestic consequences. What we sent off to Iraq and Afghanistan are now training in our own backyards. The message the commander wants us to hear is that they are here to protect us, our best friends, as it were, among our neighbors. “There are terrorists in every city,” he said, wanting to assure us. But the presence of the “urban training” exercise feels more like an occupation by a national security state.

Ferguson, Missouri, and the Twin Cities of Minnesota are not in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they feel more and more like them every day.

The questions are moral and spiritual, just as they were when the Kerner Commission identified the drift toward two societies, one white, one black. Just as they were in Abu Graib. Just as they are now when the U.S. Army special forces unit is using our own cities as military training grounds … for what purpose?

How do we stop this before we’re all dead opossums? I wish I knew. So, I’m sure, do Eric Holder and the president.

The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart blogs at Views from the Edge. He is pastor of the Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, where he serves as moderator of First Tuesday Dialogues: examining critical public issues locally and globally.


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Comments (38)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/22/2014 - 07:22 pm.

    Challenging Question

    In my years as a teacher and pastor, I couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be two types of law enforcement personnel:

    1) those whose experience had jaded them so thoroughly that they saw every citizen as a criminal who hadn’t been caught, yet (or who came into law enforcement based on their own dysfunctional need to exert power over others in order to bolster something lacking in their own psyches, which tended to undergird and exacerbate that attitude that everyone’s a “perp,”)


    2) those who saw even those whom they had to arrest and detain as human beings, misguided, mistaken, dangerous even, but human nonetheless.

    The #2 types tended to have a gift for turning situations around, de-escalating them, and minimizing the damage to themselves, those they dealt with, and bystanders (and I thank God for the positive influence they had in the lives of troubled individuals).

    The #1 types tended to make any situation they entered WORSE, escalating tension, provoking violence, and increasing the damage to themselves, those they dealt with, and bystanders.

    It seems to me that never getting out of your patrol car to actually interact with the community you serve, but only interacting with those you need to arrest (a long standing and VERY destructive practice),…

    and entering a tense situation dressed to do battle,…

    both tend to push law enforcement into the #1 mode of operation.

    By providing our law enforcement personnel with the tools and practices to do battle with the “terrorists in every community,” we make sure that people whose own dysfunctions might incline them to act in antisocial ways are unconsciously encourage by law enforcement to BECOME the terrorists those law officers have allowed themselves to be convinced MUST SURELY be there.

    In militarizing the police we push our police officers in the direction which will surely CREATE exactly what we are pretending we’d like to avoid.

    Why are our leaders, both civic and military, not aware enough of the working of the human psyche to realize that this is the case?

    • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 08/22/2014 - 07:21 pm.

      Birds of a Feather?

      Gregg, I don’t know how to read the silence in response to your comment. I found your reflections on target. As former executive director of a poverty law firm and a friend of the Chief of Police here in Chaska who is, by the way, a national spokesperson for stronger gun control legislation, I know first hand the difference between the two types drawn to the vocation of “protect and serve.” There are great officers who do just that, and there are officers like the ones who dumped two inebriated people in the parking lot of the Little Earth Housing complex (south Minneapolis) in sub-zero temperatures and, according to witnesses, urinated on them. When a police force drives around town in cars that look like armored vehicles instead of in cars or on foot, or on horseback, and when they don’t get out of their cars, the message is different from serve and protect. Thank you for your insight.

  2. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 08/22/2014 - 09:15 am.

    a provocation…

    Had this been the Ukraine and the Russians flew some helicopters over city while protests were happening in another city it would have been called a provocation. The purpose is to intimidate not train. What is ironic is that this kind of stuff happens when “the most liberal president in history” is in charge. This country is drifting toward a right wing revolution and if it is successful we’ll be seeing these helicopters everyday gunning down protestors. Call me chicken little but we’ve moved a long way in that direction in the last 20 years. Give it a few more decades as they gradually normalize and mainstream the nonsense from the far right.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/22/2014 - 10:51 am.

      Unless I’m mistaken, it is the left that is pro-Big Fed and anti-federalist. States rights is a dirty word, remember?

      Loss of freedom is the inescapable consequence of handing our responsibilities.

    • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 08/22/2014 - 06:20 pm.

      Can you support your statement

      You say the purpose is to “intimidate, not train”. Can you provide some support for that statement? If you want to intimidate, you make it very public. This wasn’t.

      While I think the militarization of police has gone way far overboard (and has an element of “boys with their toys” to it), I can conceive of legitimate need to train for a possible terrorist situation in major cities that hold very high profile events (Super Bowl, national political conventions). And no, this does not include the Keene NH Pumpkin Festival.

  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 08/22/2014 - 09:16 am.

    then too…

    Lest we forget the Republican Convention before the last election where two footed “black hawks’ – local and imported called ‘security enforcement’ turned St Paul downtown streets into a military zone and denied the civil liberties of those who protested..homegrown injustice yes indeed?

    So we do watch the “real” and somehow pocket these uncivil liberties as if it were a movie that will go away; a virtual playground of the mind denying, failing to ignore what happens.

    All I can say is sorry baby, you ain’t gonna be able to turn the dial and make it go away if we do not recognize and demand justice when it happens here or there?

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/22/2014 - 10:36 am.

    I agree 100% with this commentary. Although the Facebook pictures of Brown brandishing a pistol and the video suggesting he had just robbed a convenience store are hard to overlook, the cops have no right to shoot unarmed civilians; period.

    And the militarization of civilian police is a clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act. We have federally armed and trained soldiers patrolling our streets.

    I see this as an opportunity for conservatives and moderate Democrats to unite in a common cause. The key to succeeding in forcing changes is keeping the majority of people invested. To do that, we have to stop fringe left groups like “occupy” and self serving opportunists like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton from hijacking the issue.

    I’m having lots of success among my conservative and moderate left friends, but I can see how easily the fragile coalition could collapse.

    • Submitted by E Gamauf on 08/23/2014 - 02:00 pm.

      Hard to overlook?

      Context matters?
      You can’t write a justification for the police after-the-fact.

      There was no valid reason for the police to propose Michael Brown might have been the person on the convenience store footage – at the same time as they released the shooter’s name, unless doing so was intended to distract from the shooting itself.

      Cobbing a box of cigars from a convenience store, was not the reason the cop challenged Brown.
      (it is not substantiated, per my last read, that this was Brown in the convenience store footage – “resembling him” is not a valid accusation).

      I have heard they also proposed traces of marijuana in his system – again, what is the purpose of such information at this time? In no way would that change an execution.

      They hadn’t even taken statements from witnesses to this point –
      and they took steps to massage the message?

      It is very hard, if not impossible to see where any of this justifies a death.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/25/2014 - 05:44 pm.

        I agree with your first proposal, re no after the fact justification, but you’re off track with the video ID. We had an unusually large man wearing a red ball cap, white tee shirt, khaki shorts and flip flops. Three blocks away is an unusually large man wearing a red ball cap, white tee shirt, khaki shorts and flip flops.

        As I said, that doesn’t justify shooting an unarmed man, even if he’d just jacked a convenience store, but let’s keep it real.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/22/2014 - 10:06 am.

    BTW. The SPPD has said they don’t expect to receive any military hardware for cooperating with the Army. That sounds like complete BS to me and others.

    Maybe the Minnpost can send someone down to HQ and ferret some truth out of them. Taking a peek into the garage would be a great place to start.

    • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 08/22/2014 - 10:51 am.

      Perhaps if we had better gun control laws

      there wouldn’t be such a perceived need for police to have military hardware?

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/22/2014 - 12:07 pm.

        LOL! Can I quote you on that, Bill? Sheesh.

        • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 08/22/2014 - 12:23 pm.

          It’s a valid question. Don’t most police departments support stricter gun control measures? Isn’t some of their justification for being equipped as a paramilitary force the ready availability of military-grade weaponry available to the general public?

          • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/22/2014 - 01:50 pm.

            No Jon. Most rank and file cops are 2nd amendment supporters. Do not confuse them with the leaders that serve at the pleasure of leftist mayors and city councils.

            • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 08/22/2014 - 03:34 pm.

              You know, one can be a 2nd amendment supporter AND a gun-control proponent simultaneously. Please, call me Jonathan.

          • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/22/2014 - 02:04 pm.

            Also, and perhaps more importantly, civilians do not have ready access to military grade weapons.

            To own an automatic weapon, you must receive a license, which requires a thorough FBI background check, as well as agreeing to Onsite inspections from the ATF.

            • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 08/22/2014 - 03:52 pm.


              Indeed, to legally own a fully automatic weapon, you do need to coordinate with the ATF. No such requirement is necessary for burst-fire or semi-automatic, of course.

              Now, how many people purchase civilian variants of weapons and then illegally modify them to be able to fire on full-auto? I have known at least 2 people who have done this.

              • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 08/22/2014 - 06:14 pm.


                Burst fire is considered automatic and falls under those restrictions.

              • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/25/2014 - 11:52 am.

                I suppose you can label becoming a gunsmith as “ready access”, but I wouldn’t.

                I’m aware of what it takes to modify a rifle from semi to fully automatic fire. Even with “off the shelf” conversion kits (which are no longer legal) it takes skill and knowledge the general public doesn’t have. Most attempts by basement armorers are going to result in creating a non-functioning wall decoration. Your criminal acquaintances are not mainstream gun owners.

    • Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 08/22/2014 - 11:58 am.

      I have the greatest respect for the SPPD.

  6. Submitted by mark wallek on 08/22/2014 - 11:11 am.

    Not stopping

    If you pay attention to the trends, it’s clear that the paranoia pump has been working full time since 9/11. The nations’ population is being reshaped into something more toady, more compliant. These little rough patches should not be confused with the racial and anti war movements of the 60’s. Ferguson is, from this perspective, a brush fire. Nothing like Watts in the bigger picture, though just as hellish for those living in the chaos. Manageable from the perspective of the powers that be. No real hindrance to the ongoing effort to corporatize the nation for the benefit of those not the human citizen.

  7. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 08/22/2014 - 11:48 am.

    ;;;for what purpose?

    That’s a fair question and should/must be answered. The situation in Ferguson and especially Watts apparently was a full-scale riot that required greater than “normal” resources to manage and protect people and property.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/22/2014 - 02:38 pm.

      Chicken? Or egg?

      Was the full-scale riot provoked, or prolonged, by the appearance of police in body armor, brandishing weapons?

      The former Seattle Police Chief who received so much criticism for his handling of the anti-WTO riots in 1999 said during a BBC interview recently that the police in Ferguson handled the situation wrong. His experience (from which he seems to have learned much) was that the police use of tear gas was the first step of the escalation of violence. A show of force isn’t going to make people pack up and go home, it’s going to provoke them further.

  8. Submitted by Ken Jopp on 08/22/2014 - 01:07 pm.

    Mapping the Spread of the Military’s Surplus Gear

    The Pentagon is dumping military gear on local law enforcement around the country. The locals tend to say that they don’t know what to do with it all. They get no training on how to use it. But, anyway, it’ll be there, ready for use, if the military ever feels the need to usurp civilian law enforcement authority.

    And don’t expect Posse Comitatus to prevent that from happening. It could go out the window in a heartbeat.

  9. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 08/22/2014 - 01:39 pm.


    Rev. Stewart’s opinion piece confuses several matters and gets at least one wrong, to its detriment. The Ferguson matter is one of race, law enforcement and domestic politics — unconnected to Iraq, Afghanistan or any other foreign situation.

    Yes, there are reasons to be concerned about the so-called militarization of police, and certainly the heavy-handed behavior of the Ferguson police made matters worse.

    But the downflow of surplus military equipment to police forces does not automatically transform those departments into small armies. Assault rifles equalize the firepower between the police and the bad guys, who these days have easy access to automatic rifles and hand-held submachine guns that can overwhelm patrol officers with six-shooters. I’ve not heard of any police departments obtaining artillery, mortars or tanks.

    BTW, the heavy armored vehicle used in Ferguson is not, as alleged, a “tank,” but an MRAP — a heavy vehicle designed to minimize the effects of bombs planted under roads in Iraq, Afghanistan or other places where U.S. forces have fought terrorists such as the Taliban. I’d be astonished if a U.S. police department ever obtained or operated and Abrams tank.

    Helicopter crews that might need to operate in urban environments — outside the United States — have to train somewhere. They pose no threat to civilian governance.

    Which brings me to Mr. Swift’s apparent misunderstanding of the Posse Comitatus Act: Its purpose is to prevent use of federal troops for law-enforcement activities. To the best of my knowledge, dressing police officers in helmets, cammies, boots and battle vests does not make them U.S. armed forces — and governors are free to use National Guard forces under state control for law enforcement emergencies.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/22/2014 - 02:00 pm.

      Neal, I not only understand the letter of the act, I understand it’s intent.

      Didn’t the Twin cities just endure a training excersize that included Army and civilian police working together? Where do you think the police get all that military hardware? You and I clearly do not see the same fine line.

      You’re right about tanks/MRAP’s, but IMO the point is moot. The vehicles deployed in Ferguson had intact mounts for M1A1 machine guns. Why would they retain them if they didn’t also have the weapons to fit into them?

      And how many IED’a have the civilian police encountered on the mean streets of Duluth?

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 08/22/2014 - 03:10 pm.

      Posse Comitatus Act

      If people are going to discuss the Posse Comitatus Act, it might as well be at least somewhat informed. Wikipedia is not necessarily the most authoritative source but at least it does have some sources which are linked to actual pieces of legislation and historical discussions.

      It’s interesting to note how the Posse Comitatus Act was enacted as part of a compromise over another disputed election, in which the republican Party got Rutherford B. Hayes as President in exchange for withdrawal of federal troops from the insurrectionist Confederate South. Federal forces had remained after 1865 as part of Reconstruction where they had been needed to suppress the Klan and similar groups. I think one can connect the dots between this Act, the rise of Jim Crow and the racial segregation that still remains in this country, most visible in places like Ferguson.

      Wikipedia explains too how federal troops have been used in the past 60 years to suppress insurrections. I always wondered by what authority LBJ dispatched U.S. Army units to Detroit in 1967 along with tanks. I don’t think they were Abram tanks but they were tanks.

      • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 08/22/2014 - 07:10 pm.

        Thanks for the clarification

        Jonathan, the information you provide here on the Posse Comitatus Act is new to me, but I remember all too well the U.S Army with its tanks in the streets of Detroit in 1967. This is not new but it’s no less a tragic commentary of the complexity and simplicity of racial and economic disparity in America.

    • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 08/22/2014 - 07:38 pm.

      Mistake and Misunderstanding

      Because I am less familiar with military equipment, I mistakenly called the MRAP a ‘tank’. I confess, I barely know the difference. I take your word for it, sir, that it is not a tank and thank you for the clarification. Nevertheless, the point of the commentary is not compromised. What’s an MRAP doing in Ferguson, Missouri? How did it get there? It’s U.S. military equipment, not the normal vehicle of a local police department. The connection between our foreign adventures into Afghanistan and Iraq and what’s happening on the streets and in the airspaces of American cities is visible to the naked eye. The point of the commentary is that we are becoming an increasingly militarized and violent society, and the question I sought to raise is how do we stop it? How do we stop it before the “good guys” become indistinguishable from “the bad guys”?

  10. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 08/22/2014 - 02:09 pm.


    So-called SWAT teams have legitimate reasons to wear helmets and other military-developed protective gear, and their distinctive uniforms and weapons can help intimidate holed-up suspects (supposedly), but IMHO, they should not wear what appear to be armed-forces uniforms. The distinction between police and military members should be maintained.

    Police are not trained to be soldiers and soldiers (except for some military police) are not trained for law enforcement. They are very different lines of work, knowledge and skill. Looking the same can confuse — and as we see from Rev. Stewart — alarm people.

  11. Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 08/22/2014 - 07:06 pm.

    Thank you all for your comments. It once was the case that police officers were “peace officers” – they still are, according to Minnesota law. My point in writing this piece was that we are an increasingly militarized and violent society, creating a domestic life that mirrors what we have done around the world. War games, guns, and other violent video games are now the primary baby-sitters for America’s children. It’s about control and about stuff – who has it and who doesn’t. Increasingly we have neither, and the economic gap widens every year between those who have and those who don’t, two societies on collision course, unless and until we (the American people) say enough. Enough to gross economic inequality. Enough to assassinating duly elected presidents as in Iran and Chile, alienating whole nations because of our economic and military presumptive entitlement to their resources and political process. Enough of treating American citizens and the place we live as potential enemies of the State. The question of why is also the question of how: how do those who love our country turn the ship of State around? The beginning, I was proposing, is connecting the dots between what we see: in Ferguson, in the air space of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and, I would add here, in the arms and gun manufacturing industries which are exempt from the consumer protection laws and making a killing both at home and abroad.

  12. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 08/22/2014 - 09:30 pm.


    “why has there not been a louder outcry against the intrusive presence of the military into what we have now come to call “the Homeland”?

    It is because we don’t mind.

  13. Submitted by Fredric Markus on 08/23/2014 - 07:32 am.

    Forwarded from Minneapolis Issues

    As seems ever more obvious IMHO flashing state of the art military armaments in view of the general public in Minneapolis signals a capacity and a willingness to wreak havoc at the command of a remote controller who need pay no heed to our elected civilian leadership.

    No way am I reassured by these low-flying military aircraft. To me they convey an implicit threat that large public gatherings are easily vulnerable to military overkill. These are not reassuring presences. The personnel in these helicopters are themselves impacted by the scale of and intrusive nature of these exercises and one must wonder about the efficacy of purposeful restraint given the impact of this blatant show of force.

    Given that Google maps shows very thorough street-level views of the areas impacted by these overflights and given the undoubtedly detailed information available from many other public sources, including our own police department and other municipal agencies involved in digital information management, and given the ease of cross-jurisdictional communication assets in this contemporary setting, what real utility do these low-level overflights contribute to the ostensible purposes of “homeland security”?

    What may well pass through the minds of supervisory personnel in situ is the notion that whatever worst case civic upheaval they may imagine will be more manageable and efficient with those federal assets overhead and capable of injecting force majeur anywhere on very short notice and with no credible civic backlash.

    “I’m in charge here” sounds great, but what if the speaker is dead wrong or acting on base motives? How, in short, does one guard the guards?

  14. Submitted by Sharon Fortunak on 08/23/2014 - 09:11 am.

    Military aircraft creating air and noise pollution

    A very basic issue here–air and noise pollution from unnecessary military (and other!) aircraft. Also the unwise consumption of precious fuel. We all must be aware of how our actions affect the environment.

  15. Submitted by John Reinan on 08/23/2014 - 09:48 pm.

    More crowd control weapons are coming

    If this topic interests you, it would be worth reading up on other military-based crowd control weapons your government is developing, such as sonic cannon and heat-ray guns that penetrate the skin and set the fluids in your body into a brief broil. Your tax dollars at work.

  16. Submitted by Jon Lord on 08/26/2014 - 01:37 pm.

    We are not nearly close to having terrorists in the streets and it’s highly unlikely ISIS will try overrun us. Nor will Russia, or any other country or militarized groups…with the exception of the right wing militias like in the Bundy affair. Where the ‘blank’ were the military, or law enforcement, for that ‘uprising’? Those folks were directly threatening law enforcement with assault weapons. And not just a few.

    If the police are becoming more militarized then we have something to fear in the future. Civil disobedience is at risk which means so is freedom of speech. We do have an answer to that. I believe camera’s with voice are, and should be, a necessity for all law enforcement and all military who serve in a civilian capacity. It will help control any situation that is in question when it comes to their interaction with civilians. Both sides will benefit. Won’t they? They should be a part of social media for all our sakes.

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