A Klan Victory
The crowd swelled. The police panicked. People fled. The Klan
burned a cross to celebrate.
by Phil Campbell
he Ku Klux Klan won, and most Memphians couldnt even get close
enough to see them in their sheets, screaming their racial epithets.
The American Knights of the KKK won because they accomplished
exactly what they had set out to do. As police shot canisters
of Clear Out tear gas into a growing crowd of anti-Klan protesters,
Memphis Police Director Walter Winfrey had the white supremacists
escorted from the courthouse steps to their cars more than a block
And, as anti-Klan protesters some gang members, most not ran
through the streets of downtown chased by police, Klan members
were able to set their VCRs so they could watch themselves on
the evening news. The Klan had gotten the media attention they
wanted, both locally and nationally, without so much as stubbing
a toe in the process. The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which
city officials had hoped to celebrate with dignity and some pomp,
was mostly forgotten. Kings renowned philosophy of nonviolence
became a mere hypothesis, vanishing faster than the tear-gas fogs
that stung peoples eyes and temporarily cut off their breathing.
But what really happened Saturday afternoon? From one perspective,
the entire incident seemed completely inevitable. But, looking
back at the rally and the days preceding it, one has to wonder
if city officials couldnt have prevented the near-riot.
In the year that would mark the 30th anniversary of his assassination,
city leaders were planning more events than usual in honor of
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s January 15th birthday. Mayor Willie
Herenton had formed a committee in 1997 to ensure proper tribute
for King. The committee was composed of some of Memphis most
visible business leaders, including AutoZones Pitt Hyde and Marc
Jordan of the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce.
On Thursday before the Klan rally, Herenton called a press conference
to talk about Memphis Remembers Martin, but reporters questions
instead focused on the Klan. Why was the mayor allowing them to
rally? The government works for all people and all groups, Herenton
explained. I have every expectation that this will be a peaceful
This whole event is something of minor importance.
|PHOTO BY DAVID SPARKMAN
The mayor may have seen an opportunity to show people that, while
he could make Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan an honorary
Memphian in 1992, he could also let the Ku Klux Klan rant for
a few hours on the courthouse steps.
While he spoke, Herenton stood directly across from a portrait
of Henry Loeb, the mayor three decades earlier, when King led
the march supporting striking sanitation workers. A young Herenton
was one of the marchers. He would refer to the 68 march several
times before the weekend was complete.
In the weeks leading up to the rally, civil-rights activists and
religious leaders had urged Memphians to ignore the Klan. With
the NAACP, the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, the Downtown
Churches Association, and the local National Organization for
Women avoiding counterdemonstrations, it seemed that no organized
resistance would emerge. Eventually, however, two groups did announce
The Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence, operated by Arun Gandhi,
the grandson of Indias legendary leader of nonviolence, Mahatma
Gandhi, has operated quietly on the campus of Christian Brothers
University for the past six years. Gandhi and his wife, Sununda,
would be out of town on business during the rally, but before
Gandhi left, he spoke to television reporters: If we [Memphians]
dont come out and make a nonviolent, peaceful statement, we will
be branded for life, and we dont want that, Gandhi said.
Laura Pietrangelo, the soft-spoken 28-year-old executive director
of the institute, would organize the groups nonviolent protest.
Personally, I dont think there will be violence, Sununda Gandhi
said, for the same reason that hate begets hate, prejudice begets
prejudice. If you are nonviolent, that [other] person sees that.
The second group, a loose coalition of liberal organizations calling
itself Memphis Against Racism, was led by Thom Holcomb, a local
free-lance writer and graphics designer. The group may have been
given its impetus by The Memphis Flyer, when it published a commentary
identifying Holcomb and publishing his phone number. Holcomb says
that he received between 30 and 40 phone calls a day after the
commentary ran. He was called by reporters from The Commercial
Appeal, as well as most of the local television news stations.
He went on the radio talk shows in the days before the rally.
Memphis Against Racism evolved into a loose-knit coalitition from
groups like Holcombs Memphis Poetry Slam and Free Radio Memphis,
an unlicensed radio station. Most seemed to know each other beforehand.
At the largest of three meetings, about 50 people attended. Approximately
half were college students, most not much older. Only three black
Police Plans Revealed
In the meantime, the police organized. Major Ernest Dobbins, a
22-year veteran of the Memphis Police Department, was put in charge
of security. The commander of the departments TACT unit, Dobbins
has handled security for visits from Vice President Al Gore and
hosts of other dignitaries. The Klan rally, he said, would be
his biggest security challenge yet.
The media began hounding Dobbins the week before the KKK arrived.
Dobbins answered them all. No, the Klan didnt need a permit if
they were going to walk to the National Civil Rights Museum; theyre
still citizens. Just to take 10 or 15 of my buddies down the
sidewalk, I dont have to have a permit.
Yes, the police would have riot gear, as well as tear gas and
guns. Were armed with everything that were trained to deal
Yes, he had studied what had transpired at other Klan rallies,
mostly by calling police chiefs in cities like Detroit and Charlotte,
North Carolina. I also read up on a lot of this stuff, he said.
He was preparing for the worst and praying for the best, Dobbins
said. The unofficial police estimate on the crowd size? At this
point, 200 to 300 from the anti-Klan side, and 100 to 200 on the
Klan side. He came to this estimate after talking with MARs
Holcomb, who was apparently combining his numbers with those of
expected nonviolent protesters from the Gandhi Institute (Holcomb
later denied this. He said he had told Dobbins he expected anywhere
from 100 to 500 people.) Holcomb was the only demonstrator Dobbins
spoke with. During one conversation, which Dobbins repeated to
the media on Friday, Holcomb had assured the TACT commander that
he would be able to get his demonstrators out of the area if any
The police made one significant change in plans before the rally.
Director Winfrey made the decision. The anti-Klan demonstrators
initially were supposed to hold their protest on the south side
of the courthouse, while the Klan members were to be placed on
the north side. That way, the two sides would be unable to see
When Holcomb was told about this, he complained to Dobbins, who
relayed the complaint to Winfrey, who allowed the protesters to
be placed at the corner of Second and Adams. The Klan would be
placed on the courthouse steps at Third and Adams. It was only
fair, Winfrey explained.
This was how Thom Holcomb became, in the eyes of the police, the
voice of the anti-Klan protesters. It was a mistake that would
not become clear until Saturday.
An Early Warning
Mark Potok is the director of publications at the Southern Poverty
Centers Klanwatch in Montgomery, Alabama. He has a file on the
Klan group that came to Memphis. A day before the rally, he spoke
to a Flyer reporter about the group run by Klan Reverend Jeffrey
The American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is clearly the fastest-growing
and most heavily recruiting and aggressive [Klan] organization
in the country, Potok said.
In the estimated 73 Klan chapters around the country, there are
just under 6,000 members, according to Klanwatch. Potok said Berrys
group is growing at a fast clip, with at least 19 state chapters.
Berry claims to have 36 state chapters.
Potok said the Klan rally was about recruiting. Coming to Memphis
on Martin Luther Kings holiday is a golden opportunity to create
a confrontation. They use it to recruit from the most extreme
racist fringe of American society, Potok said. And Berrys group
has incited violence in at least two Klan rallies in the past
year and a half, one in Asheville, North Carolina, and one in
Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Historically, most violence comes from counterdemonstrators,
Potok warned on Friday. Its not because these counter-demonstrators
are bad people. But the Klan is very adept at manipulating them
into violence. It makes the Klan look good and will ensure that
the event will get a lot of press, which is what theyre seeking.
The Klan Arrives
The Klan parked their Chevy Cavaliers and Ford trucks around noon
in a small lot at the northwest corner of Fourth and Adams. Upon
arrival, they broke out the familiar costumes. Berry was in charge,
but Mike McQueeney, a bearded, hefty Grand Dragon of the sects
Wisconsin chapter, did all the talking. He was drill sergeant
for the day. Shields out! he screamed, and six Klansman jumped
forward with round wooden shields.
What about the niggers out there with their rocks? one tall
dark-haired Klansman asked. The question was flush with twangy,
Chill out, Robert, another Klansman responded.
Preparations were simple. Just put on the sheets white, green,
red, black, and purple and go. But the cops werent ready for
them and the sound-system technician hadnt set up yet, so the
Klansmen milled around, playing with their hoods, making idle
conversation while music blared from the back of a beat-up truck.
At one point a song compared blacks to donkeys.
It was a rag-tag crew. They looked like classic rednecks, fulfilling
all manner of stereotypes, including mustaches, sideburns, wild
hair matted under dirty baseball hats, Harley-Davidson T-shirts,
and Confederate paraphernalia. In person, Berry and his band of
racist hate-mongers seem like any other bunch of undereducated
good ole boys out to drink cheap beer, chew tobacco, and talk
This is history, insisted one black man excitedly. The Memphian,
who did not give his name, had come with a videocamera and was
taking in everything with an unblinking lens. He smiled as he
stood about 35 feet from a group of people who openly wished that
they could own slaves. Im really more curious than anything,
he says. Ive been here 39 years and I never have seen [the Klan]
This parking lot was the only place where the 45 Klan members
interacted with Klan protesters. Fortunately, few knew the location
of the Klans arrival, because for at least 20 minutes, there
were only a handful of cops on the scene. While the Klan dressed
up and psyched up, a growing crowd lined up along Fourth.
Curiosity, not tension, marked this part of the afternoon, and
jeering made the scene seem more like a carnival than anything
else. After one verbal exchange, the same black-haired Klansman
who had wondered about getting hit with a rock suddenly took five
steps toward the street and screamed, Show it with your fists,
faggot! Well see how bad you are!
I love you, man, a white twenty-something sitting on a parking
barrier cooed back. The Klan had lost that round.
Then someone in the Klan got into an argument with a white spectator,
a private citizen with an expensive camera and zoom lens. He was
obviously a member of the Jewish-owned media, one Klansman said.
Then they derided him as being gay. The man tried to argue back,
but he was shouted down. You admit youre a homosexual, they
told him. The citizen-photographer walked off. The mood at this
point among the Klan watchers shifted from casually sarcastic
to slightly unsettled.
There were still only six or seven police officers near the Klan,
none between the two groups. Police Director Winfrey later admitted
that this was a mistake, that he and other officials hadnt anticipated
anyone gathering here. This was the first indication that the
police hadnt brought enough officers to handle the situation.
As the day wore on, more and more officers would be called in
to fill positions throughout downtown.
Yet Grand Dragon McQueeney played the voice of reason. Dont argue
now, he cautioned his people. He wanted maximum attention, not
an early fight. Their power is no power compared to the power
of the mike and the power of the megaphone, he instructed, loud
enough for all to hear.
The Sheriffs Department and MPD now had a stronger presence.
Moments before, a Klansman had been quickly escorted to a squad
car. Police had found a stone the size of a golf ball in his possession.
He was hustled away with rapid efficiency. One of the officers
on the scene said he would probably just be held until after the
A Flyer reporter stood by as KKK members lined up to pass through
metal detectors and to get into formation for the short march
to the courthouse. So, are you all from out of town? the reporter
asked cordially. The question was directed at a blonde Klanswoman
in black and red sheets.
She was disappointed with the turnout. The weather got us, she
said, convinced that dozens more Klan supporters would have shown
up if it hadnt been for Thursday nights flash ice storm. Some
of the Klan members, the reporter was assured, are from around
Jeers and screams lapped over everyone in sporadic waves as the
Klan started moving, under protection of the sheriffs deputies.
To the left of the Klan parade, another anti-Klan crowd, numbering
in the dozens and growing, had formed. This counterdemonstration
group was standing on neighboring Jefferson Avenue, separated
from the Klan by an empty parking lot. Here was another place
where the police hadnt expected counterdem-onstrators to appear.
Its about time we heard something, McQueeney hooted. He pointed.
Look! That sign says, Fuck the KKK. Thats the kinds of things
theyre playing. Were peaceful and they do that.
The Organized Gather
Some members of MAR gathered at Precious Cargo on North Main to
go over final plans. Green armbands were passed around to assigned
peacekeepers, people who would keep track of other members of
MAR who would be handed purple armbands and organize a safe
retreat in the event that anything happened. About 50 people showed
up at the downtown coffeehouse for a last-minute pre-rally,
When the MAR group had passed through the metal detectors to the
Second and Adams anti-rally site, police were holding protesters
at the intersection. That placed them nearly a city block from
the courthouse steps where the Klan would soon appear. Holcomb
pushed closer to the front. The crowd was swelling. Were gonna
be stomped if people freak out, Holcomb said. Just as he uttered
these concerns, though, police let the crowd through, and people
rushed up Adams to find themselves nose to nose with a line of
cops in riot gear as well as the horses of mounted police. When
asked later why this was allowed, Winfrey explained: You always
put your perimeter back further than where you need it.
Now, however, with an hour still left in the Klans rally, the
protesters had no place to go if trouble occurred.
Tucked in the northeast corner of Adams and Second stood the 18
or so protesters from the Gandhi Institute. They stood out in
the crowd because they werent doing anything. They each stood
silent and smiling. The all-white Gandhi contingent carried professional-looking
signs that didnt mention the Klan but instead professed generic
love-thy-neighbor messages. Laura Pietrangelo had coached them,
reinforcing her verbal instructions with a small handout. Dont
chant, sing, move, or express anger. Demonstrate your displeasure
with the Klan merely by your presence.
Pietrangelo was confident that nothing more than a lot of yelling
would occur. Everybody reacts differently, she said. Some people
are reacting with anger, some people are ignoring it. I know some
people were in churches already this morning, praying. Just as
she was saying this, people behind the Gandhi group started shouting.
An officer walked past, ordering Pietrangelo and her group off
Things on the Klan side of the courthouse were dull and getting
duller. The police had changed its mind about allowing anyone
on that side of the barrier bus; only the media were allowed.
Most reporters had listened to McQueeneys practiced diatribes
about gays, blacks, and white supremacy before his public address.
The Klans litany of hate was provoking, but it was also clichéd
Mayor Herenton dropped by briefly, wearing a smart pair of sunglasses
and towering over even the riot cops. Law enforcement, the mayor
remarked, was handling things extremely well. He repeated earlier
comments that the Klan had a constitutional right to assemble
in public, just as he and other black activists had a right to
march 30 years before. As for the anti-Klan protesters, they were
boisterous and expressive, he allowed, then laughed. The mayor
had been booed when he showed up on the south side of Adams. It
seems like a lot of hostilities are directed at me for granting
[the Klan] their request, Herenton volunteered.
Winfrey, who was found accompanying the mayor, was also in good
spirits. As for personal feelings about the Klan, he had set them
aside today. Still, Winfrey couldnt help but feel some pleasure
at the irony of his situation. They were very polite, the black
director noted about Klan members. He had had a 45-minute meeting
with three of them in his office the day before. I thought [the
meeting] was historical. They came by my office and called me
Sir and Mister.
On the other side of the barrier bus, the anti-Klan crowd groaned.
In the Pen
Members of MAR and a few others had persuaded the police to let
them up the south courthouse steps, where they could see both
the Klan on the opposite side of the bus barrier, and the crowd
below them. They had the power of a bullhorn, and somebody had
set up a small P.A. system.
Holcomb sent mixed messages through his megaphone. Jesus was
a man of color! he shouted. But he also urged the crowd to divide
and conquer. As the 1 p.m. hour wore on, Holcomb replaced messages
of peace with snap remarks like, Fuck the police, and, Are
you [police] here to provoke or protect us?
The first use of tear gas at the rally occurred on the southeast
corner of Second and Adams. It was an isolated incident, but it
foreshadowed things to come. Several people had climbed small
trees to get a better view. The police didnt approve. Using a
device that sounds and looks like an oversized leaf-blower, they
sprayed tear gas into the trees. About three minutes later, three
canisters of tear gas were shot into the crowd, pushing the crowd
back before it surged forward again. Its unclear how much conversation
took place between demonstrators and police before gas was used.
The tear-gas story made its way to the Klan side, where Winfrey
spent much of his time. The director denied the report.
From the south courthouse steps, it was possible to get a better
sense of the Adams and Second Street crowd. It was packed in tightly,
and as it grew it compressed people together. The crowd ebbed
and flowed as people pushed, jostled, and nudged. Some claustrophobes
tried to get out, but most tried to get closer, to see the Klan,
to see hate and racism personified. Other times, the crowd seemed
perfectly still, a victim of its own density.
The crowd was never quiet. Radios blared, activists yelled, spontaneous
chants and songs erupted and died, people laughed and cracked
jokes. Most of the people couldnt hear what the Klan was saying.
The event was, all at once, a spectacle, a significant moment
in history, an insult the mayor should have prevented, a sign
that racism is dying in America, an indication that Memphis had
been set back 30 years, a chance to express nonviolent protest,
a potential opportunity to cause trouble. It was a moment of unity
and another example of our divided society. Whites clustered together
with whites and chanted left-wing ideology while blacks stayed
with other blacks, played Tupac Shakur and danced a hip-hop of
The crowd at Second and Adams wasnt the only anti-Klan crowd.
People were also lining Jefferson Avenue, and many stayed at Fourth
and Adams, waiting for the white supremacists to march back to
their cars. Estimates of the crowd size were made difficult because
of these three separate groups. By 1:30 p.m., one high-ranking
police official gave an estimate as high as 1,200, but The Commercial
Appeal would ultimately report it as being above 500. Whatever
the real number was, the situation was exacerbated because the
separate crowds had a specific set of goals: to see the Klan,
to hear the Klan, and to be angered by the Klan.
What would have happened had the police, knowing that things were
getting out of hand, decided to quickly escort the Klan out of
the area and open up all the physical barriers surrounding counterdemonstrators?
It might have meant admitting that freedom of speech and freedom
of assembly arent an absolute in a democracy, and that order
is sometimes the greater necessity. But it would have robbed the
anti-Klan crowd of their emotional target as well as their physical
discomfort. If the police in riot gear had then stepped back and
let everyone wander aimlessly, there might not have been an incident
|PHOTO BY JOHN HALEY
But thats not what happened, and the Klan rally had to end abruptly,
anyway. The packed crowd buckled and swayed. Seeing the Klan (those
who could) with a microphone was frustrating. Seeing such a large
contingent of cops in riot gear was disconcerting. Seeing officers
on horses so close to the edge of the crowd was a disturbing sight
for many. And everything was happening in an area too small for
people not content to remain in one place.
Shortly before the canisters fell, a man wearing a Confederate
T-shirt rushed through the crowd, beaten as he ran. He had been
trying to hand out racist literature. Police had to wade into
the mob to rescue him.
Then, according to witnesses, several people near the bus barrier
were either pushed or surged ahead of their own accord. According
to Winfrey days later, the mob moved forward uncontrollably. Other
incidents may have occurred, but, shortly after some individuals
broke through the police line, officers began shooting tear gas.
The next 30 minutes were a morass of running people, sprinting
cops, flying bricks, falling tear-gas canisters, and breaking
Klan members were herded out of the area unscathed. A riot-gear
escort surrounded them and marched them back to their cars. Police
fired tear gas into the Fourth and Adams crowd as they advanced.
The escort parted for the Klan before it reached the intersection.
Hoods off, sheets flowing, the white supremacists ran, clinging
to the side of a nearby building to minimize public exposure.
They were planning a cross burning that night, but there was just
no time for formal media invitations. Squad cars both led and
followed them out.
At the south courthouse steps, the MAR organizer got separated
from his group. The green-armbanded peacekeepers had fled like
everybody else. I retreated, Holcomb said. I tried to get people
to come back. I got hit in the head with a canister before it
exploded. It hit me in the ear and knocked my glasses off.
I was screaming. I was screaming at all the people around me.
They had to tell me to calm down.
At that moment, Holcomb came face to face with a cop. Instead
of moving away, however, the MAR organizer thought hed ask the
officer a question.
Are you in the Klan, Officer Gray?
No, Im not.
Are you in the Klan, Officer Gray? A second time.
You need to learn how to read, the officer responded.
Holcomb looked more closely at the badge. Oh, Im sorry. Are
you in the Klan, Officer Gary?
Though others were getting arrested for similar confrontations,
the activist claims both he and the police officer backed away
from each other. Holcomb then wandered off to find the other MAR
When the tear-gas canisters hit Adams, the protesters from the
Gandhi Institute held their ground. Almost everybody else was
running, dropping signs, and tripping over themselves to get out
of the way, but these nonviolent protesters stayed in place. The
police tear-gassed them, too. Pietrangelo maintained a sense of
calm, even though everyone was choking from the gas. A bottle
landed and broke two feet from her. Lets go! she said, almost
shouting. This way lets go! Pietrangelo marched her protesters
down to Main Street, up the steps next to the Shelby County government
building, and away.
In all, 26 people were arrested on a variety of charges, mostly
vandalism and disturbing the peace. Dozens of businesses downtown
experienced property damage, especially broken glass. Fortunately,
there were no serious injuries.
It got to the point where [officers] couldnt control it, Winfrey
said. And thats the decision that they had to make. Then he
added, We lost it, for whatever reason.
After 20 minutes had passed, Winfrey began to pin the blame for
the disturbance on gang members in the crowd. We knew that there
were going to be gang members, but they had a right to come,
the director said. They were the ones that started all the disorder.
The following Tuesday morning, in a press conference with Mayor
Herenton, the director said he had reviewed the police videotape
of the scene. Fifteen gang bangers, he confirmed, were to blame
in an already unruly atmosphere.
Major Dobbins couldnt answer questions at first because he was
busy trying to control the post-rally mob. When he did respond
to questions, he was walking fast and talking quickly. They were
getting out of hand. They were getting ready to tip over cars,
and we couldnt let them do that.
Herenton made his initial remarks at the Civil Rights Museum shortly
after the disturbance; he would repeat the comments at Tuesdays
press conference. The city, he said, must work together to achieve
a greater degree of tolerance, and the Klan must be allowed to
march when they want to. Again, he compared it to Kings 68 march
downtown. That demonstration also had been broken up.
As for the police, Herenton added, I have nothing but admiration
for the Memphis Police Department. I think the officers used a
great deal of restraint.
A young black man in the crowd asked Herenton why the KKK got
so much police protection. Herenton didnt respond. He turned
his back and got into a waiting limousine while the man and his
friends yelled after him. n
A Klan Victory
by Jacqueline Marino
After the bricks were thrown, the windows were broken, and the
people had finally coughed the tear gas out of their lungs, I
marched up to a group of young people with fury in their eyes.
Fuck peace! one young man yelled. He was looking up at a handful
of people watching the dissipating crowd from the top of a tall
building on Third Street.
They were white, probably in their early twenties. As far as I
could tell, they werent throwing anything off the building, shouting,
or causing any other kind of disturbance.
But someone felt sure they were Klan members and announced it
to the agitated crowd.
Afterwards, every time a tiny, white head peeped over the roof,
the people on the street would yell obscenities and threats.
Within seconds the yelling got louder. The police got closer.
And then everyone started running. The group of police in riot
gear ducked behind their cars. Some dropped to their knees and
aimed their guns.
Like everyone around me, I ran. Then we stopped. Then we ran again.
Someone said a gun went off.
But what I heard in my head sounded more like an alarm. I awoke
from my adrenalin-charged funk and realized I knew these people.
I recognized them from the grainy films of protests in the Sixties.
I remembered them from the television footage from the L.A. riots
after the Rodney King verdict.
Like the Klan, their influence is not consistent with their numbers.
They take advantage of potentially volatile situations, riding
waves of emotionalism, wreaking havoc and chaos, and harming anyone
in their wake.
I can ask them questions and write what they say down in my notebook.
But we do not understand each other.
I look at five people standing peacefully atop a building during
a riot and think they must be harmless observers. They look at
the same five and think they must be the KKK.
I look at the KKKs appearance in Memphis as free speech. They
look at it as disrespect.
I look at police in riot gear grabbing young black men out of
the crowd for mouthing off and think of it as overreaction that
must be tolerated under the circumstances. They look at the same
thing and think of it as oppression that must be resisted at all
A young father steering his two stonefaced young sons through
the crowd reminds me of our differences. As the police herd us
through the city streets, I ask him how he feels about the way
the police handled the situation. He stares at me in disbelief.
What do you think? he asks confrontationally.
I say I think it was a little rough.
He says it is racism in action. It is injustice. Its the same
as the riots in the Sixties, right down to the clueless white
reporters. The KKK gets first-rate protection while the black
people get gassed and thrown off the public streets.
If this were a different situation, he says. If we would have
been able to carry guns, you wouldnt be here right now.
Youre that angry? I ask.
What do you think?
I think so. I think Im angry too. And scared.
After the smashed windows and the tear gas, I walked up to a group
of people with fury in their eyes. When I walked away, I took
some of it with me. n
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