As New York’s minority communities fume over the controversial crime-fighting tactic known as stop-and-frisk, one camera-wielding ex-con makes it his mission to catch the cops in action.
He was racing like a madman somewhere on the edge of the Bronx, listening to a police radio and hoping to catch some cops on camera, when suddenly he got lucky. Two officers were approaching a young black man on Bruckner Boulevard, a location Jose LaSalle had marked on his map, which he uses to track citizen complaints of the NYPD routinely and unreasonably stopping and frisking people on the street. LaSalle and his crew, a troop of middle-aged Bronx residents and young female activists, got there within seconds, pulled out their phones and surrounded the officers with cameras. Baffled, the police backed away from the young man.
LaSalle’s gold tooth was gleaming in the lights of passing cars; he couldn’t hide his excitement. “Those were rookies,” he laughed as the officers walked away.
The badge on his vest reads “Cop Watcher,” and he never leaves home without his camera. At night, he works for New York City’s parks department, but by day LaSalle patrols some of the poorest and most violent areas of New York City, places like the South Bronx and Brownsville, Brooklyn, where the police make up to fifteen times as many stops as in New York City in general.
New York’s stop-and-frisk program, which enables officers to stop, question and frisk people on the basis of reasonable suspicion of illegal activity, expanded tremendously during the Bloomberg administration. The police defend the practice as a tool for getting guns off the street and keeping crime low in the city, but opponents call it racist and unconstitutional. While a back-and-forth legal battle continues to wind its way through the system, Jose LaSalle and his crew of cop watchers are monitoring the NYPD on their own.
“Basically, I am patrolling the police just like the Black Panther Party did in California in the 1960s,” says LaSalle. “I just traded the shotgun for a digital camera.”
At forty-three, his face is scarred from prison gang fights and his body is covered with tattoos, revealing a different and darker life. In his apartment in the Bronx, he still keeps the bullet that nearly killed him in a turf war over the corner of Lexington Avenue and 123rd Street back in the late 1980s. When he folds his left hand around his camera, the letters L-O-V-E emerge on the back of his fingers from an old faded tattoo, and on his chest, close to his heart, he keeps the ink contours of a woman who saved him from the drug world many years ago, but who now exists only in his memory.
I first met Jose LaSalle about a year ago. Originally from Puerto Rico, he grew up in East Harlem and told me he didn’t like talking to white people. “Can’t trust them,” he said. He finally gave in one day on the outskirts of East New York, relenting to my many months of stalking and, perhaps, a desire for company. “Come on my little white friend,” he said, and we began hitting the streets together: He constantly preaching about the evils of stop-and-frisk and always two steps ahead, as if he knew that the darkness hiding inside him would catch up if he paused.
“I miss my wifey,” he would say sometimes when we sat down for coffee or waited for the train. For a moment, he would segue into his own thoughts, but wherever he traveled in his mind, he never stayed long before distracting himself with one of his fiery speeches about the police, or pulling out an iPad to show off his video library of what he said were unreasonable stops and unlawful arrests. He was not only fighting the cops, I would learn. He was fighting himself, too. As we walked the streets of New York, Jose LaSalle unfolded his story.
* * *
When he was thirteen, his father died. New York was the richest city in the world, but East Harlem—”El Barrio”—where he was growing up, was one of America’s poorest and most devastated neighborhoods. Buildings were crumbling around him and entire blocks were abandoned. LaSalle used to dig for fruits and vegetables in the garbage and eat the parts that weren’t rotten. Other kids made fun of his tattered clothes and cheap shoes.
In 1985, three years after he lost his father, the world around him changed. Crack cocaine hit the streets, and president Ronald Reagan warned the nation of a smokable epidemic haunting America. Suddenly anyone could buy a gram of cocaine, cook it up with water and baking soda on the stove and double their money in the rising underground economy. Eager crack entrepreneurs occupied the corners of East Harlem, and a scramble for street control began. Gunshots rang out almost every night and parents made their babies sleep in bathtubs to avoid stray bullets as the violent crime rate soared.
On every corner of El Barrio, crews of young men shouted out the brand names and colors of the vial tops indicating the quality of the drug—blue tops, red tops, pink tops.
LaSalle began selling black, green and purple tops on Lexington Avenue from 133rd Street to 116th Street. And suddenly he had “the gold, the green, and the girls.”
He soon managed a crew of thirty drug dealers and began selling heroin. His team would easily make $100,000 in a few days. At nineteen, he had a van with chrome rims and almost enough gold chains to sink a ship. Finally, he was getting the respeto he had been searching for.
Then one day in the early spring of 1988, a drug dealer from a rival crew shot him twice in a territorial fight over a street corner. One bullet missed his vital organs and went through his stomach. The other lodged in his chest and nearly killed him. He woke up in an ambulance, breathing through an oxygen mask and on his way to spending twelve years in prison.
* * *
While LaSalle was locked up, New York City was poised for dramatic change, as former prosecutor and newly elected mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared in his 1994 inauguration speech. Giuliani and police commissioner William Bratton set out to clean the streets with a zero-tolerance strategy of cracking down on petty crimes by targeting vandalism, broken windows, graffiti, litter and other so-called quality-of-life crimes in the hope that reducing minor offenses would bring down major felonies, too. Helped by the data-driven mapping system known as CompStat, the NYPD was able to dissect crime trends block by block, sending more officers to aggressively patrol and pursue serious crime in the most troubled areas.
From 1990 to 2003, New York City experienced an unprecedented drop in crime. Despite other factors like the booming economy, a saturated crack market, declining unemployment, and the fact that crime began lowering even before Giuliani and Bratton took office, the police were hailed as the saviors of the city. Many minority residents, on the other hand, felt they were paying a high price for this new, aggressive policing strategy, which they associated less with decreased crime than with harassment and alleged police brutality, culminating with the death of Amadou Diallo, the immigrant from Guinea who was shot forty-one times by police officers mistaking his wallet for a gun. As a response to Giuliani and Bratton’s intense policing in minority neighborhoods, former members of the Black Panther Party announced in 1996 that they would put away the .9mm and pick up the 8mm camera. Armed with celluloid, the Panthers created the first cop watch patrols in New York City.
“We were aggressive. We didn’t just stand back and film, we walked straight up and confronted the police, commanding them to step back and stop harassing people,” says Shepard McDaniel, a former member of the Harlem chapter of the Black Panther Party.
In prison, Jose LaSalle didn’t care much about the Black Panthers or racial profiling. He was too busy trying to stay out of the gangs that ruled the corridors of Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Upstate New York.
* * *
The Latin Kings, the largest Hispanic drug gang in America, perceived his lack of engagement with their group as betrayal. LaSalle heard rumors that they would take him down, so he prepared carefully in his cell. At night, he broke off little pieces of the ceiling fan and wrapped them in metal wires to fabricate a shank that he would carry under his clothes.
The Latin Kings waited patiently. One day, when he went to the bathroom unprotected, three of them came up from behind and one sliced his lip. LaSalle couldn’t feel a thing, just kept stabbing his knife in all directions while blood was dripping from his mouth.
“In there, you become an animal. It’s all about survival,” he said one night as we rushed through the subway system, from Rockaway Avenue towards East Harlem and the Bronx. “I remember thinking that if they didn’t kill me, I would kill them. I just wanted to get out alive.”
His shank hit one of the gang members in the eye, popping it, and LaSalle was transferred to the D-Block of Clinton Correctional Facility, the largest maximum security prison in New York. He can’t recall exactly how much time he spent in Clinton—he was transferred a lot—but he does remember that he was put in solitary confinement for more than a year. In total, LaSalle spent four years in isolation. Somewhere in a dark corner of his loneliness he discovered something that would help him in the streets many years later.
“At first, I was just running around desperate in my cell, screaming to myself, but that didn’t get me anywhere,” says LaSalle. He couldn’t see beyond his room, except for those few seconds a day when food was delivered through a small hole in the door. So he began using his ears to envision the world outside, listening to every little sound: footsteps, conversations. “I became patient, and I became an observer,” he says. “And that taught me to stay in control of my rage and channel it in ways that would actually reach somebody.”
* * *
When LaSalle was finally released in 2000, the streets of East Harlem were barely recognizable to him. Most drug dealing had moved inside, and he was constantly stopped, questioned and frisked by the police. El Barrio was slowly gentrifying, and renovations were taking place everywhere. But it wasn’t only New York that had changed. LaSalle was different, too.
He no longer felt at home in his apartment, so he tried to make it look like his solitary cell. He painted the walls black, blinded the windows and kept himself in darkness for nearly six months while searching for a way back into the drug trade. He’d probably have found himself behind bars again if it hadn’t been for a slender brown-eyed girl who lived next door.
“She looked like a queen, everything was popping out. I felt something, so I began to say ‘hi.’ And one day, she said ‘hi’ back,” he recalls. Her name was Nancy Ocasio, and with her, LaSalle became a law-abiding family man. He moved into her apartment, got a job at a moving company, and ten years went by.
“I guess she taught me to love myself, and that was really what I’d been looking for my whole life,” he says.
Nancy cooked for him when he came home from work and they talked for hours at night. She was the kind of woman everyone in the community bent an ear to, and she would tell LaSalle all about the neighborhood. He often said that he wanted to do something for his community, be like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. In prison, he’d become a member of the Five Percent Nation, an organization founded by one of Malcolm X’s early students. The group taught members to rise above street life in order to free their communities from oppression. But at the time, LaSalle didn’t know how to do it.
“I was in love, I was happy and I didn’t want to lose all that, so she kept me off the streets and out of trouble,” he says.
LaSalle took care of Nancy’s kids like his own, especially her son Alvin. His biological father, a police officer, hadn’t been present much in Alvin’s life, so LaSalle stepped up as a father figure.
In his early teens, Alvin was a member of the Explorers, an NYPD youth program designed to guide teenagers into careers in law enforcement. But in the spring of 2011, LaSalle noticed that Alvin wouldn’t leave the apartment, claiming that the police were hunting him all over Harlem. LaSalle thought his stepson was being paranoid, but on the night of June 3, something happened that made him think otherwise.
Alvin was walking home from his girlfriend’s house when three police officers jumped out of their car on 116th Street between Madison and Park Avenues.
“You look very suspicious when you are walking the block with your hood up and you keep looking back at us like that,” one officer said.
Alvin tried to explain that he was wearing a hoodie because it was cold, and that he was only looking at the officers since they’d already stopped him a few blocks away.
“Do you want me to smack you?” the officer said. Then he pushed Alvin and twisted his arm while he aggressively frisked him, threatening to break his arm and punch him in the face before he handcuffed him.
“What am I being arrested for?” Alvin wanted to know.
The officer drew close and yelled into his face: “For being a fucking mutt.”
“Is that a law, being a mutt?” Alvin asked before the cops left him in the street without any explanation.
You couldn’t blame Alvin for wondering if there actually was a law against being brown-skinned. Within the previous few months he’d been stopped, questioned and frisked multiple times for no other reason than looking “suspicious.” That year, the NYPD stopped a record-high number of almost 700,000 people. Nine out of ten were young black or Hispanic men like Alvin.
Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, the stop-and-frisk program expanded 500 percent, growing from 97,296 people stopped in 2002 to 533,042 in 2012. More than five million people were stopped in New York City during the Bloomberg administration; 4.3 million were black or Hispanic.
What made the stop on the night of June 3, 2011, different from those millions of others was that Alvin had secretly hit the record button on his iPod.
* * *
When LaSalle heard Alvin’s recording, he immediately woke Nancy up and they went to the 25th Precinct. LaSalle was furious, and Nancy yelled at the officers. She asked for an explanation, demanded someone be held accountable. They filed a complaint to NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau but never heard back.
Months went by. Then one October morning, just before the first rays of light hit Harlem, life knocked LaSalle back into the dark. Nancy made him breakfast as usual, eggs with fries and ketchup, and he left for work before the sun rose. Three hours later, her children called. Nancy wasn’t moving, they said. LaSalle rushed home and found Nancy lying on the sofa. Her face was pale.
He kept blowing air into her mouth even though her lips had turned purple, and he knew it was too late. She had died of a heart attack. “Her body…there was nothing there. Whatever kept her alive was gone,” he says. The kids cried and screamed. LaSalle waited for the ambulance to arrive before he stumbled down the stairs, dizzy and disoriented, and for a moment stood paralyzed in the hall.
“I was messed up, I was hurt, and I didn’t know what to do. The only thing that had kept me on the straight and narrow path, that kept me being a righteous person, was gone,” LaSalle says.
He left the kids with relatives and disappeared for weeks. At night, he moved into different hotels. He didn’t show up for work in the mornings, wandering the streets aimlessly all day. He had no idea where he was heading. He just kept walking, hoping that each step would lead him further away from the pain.
* * *
He was roaming the streets somewhere around 135th Street and Amsterdam Avenue when a young man handed him a flyer about a rally against stop-and-frisk. LaSalle noticed that Cornel West was speaking at the event. He’d read several of his books while in prison and thought the Princeton professor was right when he said that American racism is as prevalent as ever, that American society is designed to protect the white and the privileged, and that none of it will change until the people themselves take care of it.
LaSalle went to the rally, mainly to get a picture with his jail-time hero. When he arrived, West, dressed in his signature black suit matched with dark shades, was roaring about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and the need to stand up for the young generation.
A woman was walking around with a notepad asking people to sign a sheet. LaSalle, eyes focused on West, wrote his name thinking that he was signing up for a newsletter. But then the woman started shouting out the names on her list. She called his name.
The protesters instantly began cheering and patting LaSalle on his back. He hadn’t signed up for a newsletter. He’d volunteered to block the NYPD’s 28th Precinct in order to get locked up in an act of civil disobedience that marked an escalation in the fight against stop-and-frisk.
LaSalle desperately looked for an escape. There was no way he was going back to prison, he thought. But the protesters kept pushing him forward, cheering and clapping.
“They were constantly telling me how brave I was, and saying that I was ‘the man’” says LaSalle. Suddenly he was standing next to Cornel West. For a brief moment the pain felt a little less piercing, and right there, on the corner of 125th Street and 7th Avenue, where Malcolm X held his legendary speeches back in the 1960s, LaSalle’s life as a crusader against stop-and-frisk began.
* * *
Cautiously he started sneaking around in the streets, watching the cops in secret. He mostly walked around with just a pen and a notebook, writing down whatever he witnessed. If he saw an officer acting particularly aggressive towards people in his neighborhood, he sometimes took out his phone, but he always kept his distance and immediately put it away if the police noticed him.
He always carried a copy of Alvin’s audio recording on his phone, but he couldn’t figure out what to do with it. He played it to anyone who would listen and sent it to all the media outlets he could think of, from Channel 7 to CNN, but none would publish it without revealing Alvin’s identity, and LaSalle was scared that the officers might retaliate against his stepson if they saw his face on TV. He carried the recording around for almost a year, until a filmmaker LaSalle met through the activist network convinced him that Alvin had to step forward in order for the recording to have a real impact.
On October 8, 2012, The Nation published a short documentary about Alvin on its website. Called The Hunted and the Hated, it quickly generated almost 900,000 views, spread across the Internet and amplified the debate about stop-and-frisk in the mainstream media. It also infuriated New York City Council members when it was played a few days later at a meeting of the council’s public safety committee. “It’s totally despicable, totally unacceptable,” council member Robert Jackson said during the meeting. “It should not be tolerated in our NYPD.” Alvin became the poster child of a policy that many felt had grown out of control, and LaSalle vowed he would do everything in his power to protect Alvin and teenagers like him by watching their streets. He studied the law, realized that watching the cops was well within his rights, “and one day I just didn’t step back,” he says.
* * *
LaSalle usually gives his phone number to young men he meets on his walks, and sometimes they call to him: “Yo, Jose. The cops are working some kid over here. Come over.” LaSalle then patrols the area intensely to let the police know he is watching. Some of the areas he patrols, like Brownsville in Brooklyn, are home to members of notorious gangs like the Crips, Bloods, Latin Kings and MS-13, who fight turf wars with each other, often turning their neighborhoods into bloody battle zones. LaSalle fears that if the good kids don’t feel they can trust the police, they will become easy targets for such criminal gangs. “I don’t want that life for anyone,” he says. “I hope to be at least one person in the street that they can trust.”
When he spots a new officer, he walks up and introduces himself. “Hello, my name is Jose, I’m in charge of the Cop Watch Patrol Unit, patrolling this area to make sure you’re carrying out your duty of Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect. So, be safe and see you around.”
One freezing January night, we passed an officer at Thurman Munson Way in the Bronx. Jose handed him one of the brochures he normally gave people in the streets. It outlined do’s and don’ts for citizens stopped by the police and explained the concept of cop watching.
The officer, who is black, browsed through the material while his white partner came over. LaSalle handed him a brochure, too.
“It doesn’t matter if the cop is black, brown, white or yellow. Once he puts on that uniform he becomes alienated from the community,” LaSalle explained. The officers looked puzzled.
“So you are running around filming? Waiting for us to punch somebody in the face?” the black cop asked.
LaSalle laughed disarmingly. “As long as you follow the procedures you’re not in trouble,” he said. “But you have to remember that you are out here to protect and serve us. You are not out here to harass us or make us afraid of you, but that’s what’s happening. We’re not gonna stop until this ends—”
The white cop interrupted him. “They almost eliminated stop-and-frisk in Philly and look what happened.” The officer was referring to a class action lawsuit settlement that caused reform of stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia, while the murder rate had gone up.
“All that talk about guns is just bogus,” said LaSalle, “You stop 1,000 people to find one gun. When 600,000 innocent people get stopped and almost all of them are people of color, we have a problem.”
The officers began fidgeting. They had to get working, they said.
One day, LaSalle got a chance to talk to Ray Kelly. It was a sunny September afternoon during the African American Day Parade in 2012, and the police commissioner was visiting Harlem. With the green, black and red Pan-African flag in one hand, LaSalle marched straight up to him. They were an odd couple: Kelly in a hand-tailored suit and silk tie and LaSalle in a Yankees cap, drinking a Red Bull to keep himself energized.
“Ray Kelly, my man, I think you are doing a great job,” he recalls telling him. He only offered that praise to get his attention, and it worked. “But I have a problem with the stop-and-frisk. You have to end it,” he then told Kelly, pointing his flag at the police commissioner. Kelly told him to put it away, but LaSalle was so eager that he couldn’t stop pointing. Kelly grabbed the flag and his bodyguards moved closer. Then he asked LaSalle: how he would otherwise get guns off the streets?
LaSalle told him that stop-and-frisk wasn’t getting guns off the streets. In fact, NYPD’s own data show that a gun was found in only .15 percent of stops in 2012, and that most guns are recovered outside stop-and-frisk hot spots.
“I just got brave out of nowhere,” LaSalle says of his encounter with Kelly. “I always wanted to be able to stand in front of the police and let them know that what they’re doing is wrong.”
* * *
Since the first day I met him, LaSalle had been talking about the court case against stop-and-frisk, a class-action trial suit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. In Floyd vs. the City of New York, four black men and the Center for Constitutional Rights challenged the department’s use of stop-and-frisk as racist and unconstitutional.
When the first day of trial finally arrived, the courtroom was crammed; even the overflow room was flooded. Social workers, lawyers, community organizers and scholars of all kinds were taking notes. This was not just the case of a few bad apples in the police department or a single incident of cops crossing the line. This was an entire practice of the NYPD going on trial.
Black and Hispanic teenagers, Muslims and members of New York’s LGBT community rallied outside the courthouse nearly every day of the hearings. Floyd vs. The City of New York had become the symbol of injustice in minority communities. Meanwhile, the long-shot mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio was starting to gain momentum based on his “tale of two cities” platform and aggressive opposition to stop-and-frisk.
Inside the courtroom, whistleblowers documented that CompStat had turned into a numbers game, constantly demanding officers to stop and frisk more people in the streets. They also documented what black and Hispanic teenagers had complained about for decades: that they were being stopped because of the color of their skin.
On an audio recording from 2011 that was played during the trial, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack told officer Pedro Serrano that in order to suppress violent crime in the 40th Precinct they had to stop, question and frisk “the right people at the right time at the right location.” Serrano asked who the right people were.
“I told you at roll call, and I have no problem telling you this: male blacks, fourteen to twenty, twenty-one,” the commanding officer replied.
A wide range of officers were questioned: Sergeants, lieutenants, commanders, the whole chain going all the way up to the recently retired Chief of Department, Joseph Esposito. Meanwhile, Judge Shira Scheindlin sat rock solid behind her desk, sipping large cups of Diet Coke while listening to testimony from more than a hundred witnesses and reading the transcripts on her computer in real time. She’d been hearing lawsuits against the NYPD for more than a decade, and now she was faced with a rare chance to rewrite the rules and end an era in the history of New York City.
In the third row sat Yolanda Matthews, a volunteer with LaSalle’s cop watch unit in Brownsville. She showed up in court every day, as long as the trial went on.
“Finally, karma is coming back,” she said.
LaSalle, however, was nowhere to be seen. A few days after the trial began, I found him in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. The streets needed him, he said. He’d been out there every day since a young black teenager had been killed by the police on March 9. Two plainclothes police officers shot Kimani Gray seven times just before midnight on East 52nd Street; three bullets hit him in the back. The officers said Gray, sixteen, had a gun. A loaded .38 caliber was found at the scene, but at least one witness said Gray was unarmed.
A little less than a year earlier, Shantel Davis, twenty-three, black and unarmed, had been shot and killed by a narcotics detective just a few blocks away, and the community was outraged. Following Gray’s shooting, young people filled the streets. Forty-six were arrested, and police occupied the neighborhood. Cops were everywhere: on rooftops, along buildings, two on almost every corner.
It had been more than a week since the shooting when I found LaSalle. Things had cooled off a bit, but on the corner where Gray used to hang out a crowd of two dozen protesters refused to give up. LaSalle stood in front of the police, all fired up and showing teeth.
“Whose streets? Our streets!” he kept roaring at the protesters, leading them on. He had hardly any voice left, and he looked exhausted.
“But this gives me energy,” he said. “This is my new family.”
* * *
When the public learned about Alvin, the police finally began investigating his case. At around the same time, his biological father stepped into his life, and Alvin now lives with him in Harlem.
“Alvin really needed that. Nothing can replace the biological father. They will always have a special bond that a stepfather can’t give,” says LaSalle. His voice turns almost silky when he speaks of Alvin, and he always refers to him as his son. “Of course I miss seeing him every day, and I wish I could bring him with me wherever I go, but I just want him to be happy,” he says.
Sometimes, Alvin bumps into the officers who handcuffed him and called him a “fucking mutt” on that summer night in 2011, but they haven’t touched him since. Other officers have stopped and frisked him, though. So when Judge Scheindlin ruled against the NYPD on August 12, stating that New York City’s stop-and-frisk practice was unconstitutional, Alvin was excited.
“This is what I’ve been waiting for for a very long time,” he said.
A federal appeals panel later removed Judge Scheindlin from the case after questioning her impartiality, and the city has asked the court to vacate her order that stop-and-frisk be reformed. Regardless of the court case’s final outcome, Mayor-elect de Blasio has pledged to change the program and install new leadership at the NYPD.
* * *
Since Nancy died, LaSalle has been living with his seventy-four-year-old mother in the Bronx. She was recently diagnosed with cancer, and LaSalle is terrified that she will die just as suddenly as Nancy did. Sometimes he finds himself sneaking into her room at night with a flashlight to make sure she is still breathing. He can’t let go of the thought that Nancy might be alive today if he hadn’t left her to go to work.
Whenever he is not patrolling the streets he makes sure he is there for all the families who’ve lost their loved ones to confrontations with the police. He marched with the fiancé of Sean Bell, a young unarmed black man who was shot on the morning of what would have been his wedding day.
He showed up at Ramarley Graham’s house on the day after the unarmed eighteen-year-old was shot and killed by an officer who chased him, based on false information that he had a gun. The officer kicked in Graham’s door and shot him in the bathroom, in front of his grandmother and six-year-old brother.
And he spent every moment he could in East Flatbush to support the family of Kimani Gray.
“I am doing all I can to help them find some form of peace. When someone you love is suddenly taken away from you, you are searching for answers. You keep torturing yourself with the question: What could I have done differently to prevent this from happening? And you feel so lost, so alone,” he said.
The protesters on the corner were waiting for a cue from LaSalle to move on. They would march to Gray’s home and then to the precinct to show their anger.
“I never knew I had all this inside me,” said LaSalle. ”I guess I had to go through all that shit to find myself. That’s the funny thing about death: sometimes it pushes you to your right place.”
* * *
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