Where Others Fear To Tread
The streetlights are ablaze at the busy intersection of Lake Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, and V.J. Smith--a burly 44-year-old urban missionary--is hitting the pavement. He lingers on the corner for a moment and zips his suede jacket against the late-autumn chill. He nods at a couple of older men passing a bottle of malt liquor beneath a stoplight, then drifts south on Lake, into the shadows. A half-block later he emerges into the dim illumination around a bus kiosk that smells faintly of urine. It's flanked by a dozen or so kids, several of whom break into a scowl as Smith nears. Black and white, boys, girls, they're passing a one-hitter packed with pot and pitching quarters on the sidewalk to pass Saturday into Sunday, ten bucks a toss.
"God bless. How y'all doing?" Smith inquires energetically, offering his right hand for a soul shake to anyone who might take it. A few of the older kids, who look to be pushing 20, mumble "What's up?" Two boys, still young enough to be in grade school, grubby jeans riding halfway down their skinny butts, slip into the bus shelter to avoid the ovation. Everyone else turns their backs and readies their next bets.
"Anybody here interested in work? A little training?" With that, the indefatigable Smith produces a stack of bright yellow flyers. On one side is an invitation to an orientation at the Sabathani Community Center a few blocks away, where unemployed minors can earn a monthly stipend from the nonprofit job training program YouthBuild. On the flip side is a description of MAD DADS, which stands for Men Against Destruction/Defending Against Drugs and Social-disorder: "Tired of the violence, drugs, murder, pain, and anger of our youth? You can do something about it!! Come out and join forces with MAD DADS and the Moms division. Help to secure our streets and let grandma and our children walk to the store without fear."
MAD DADS, the group Smith is out promoting tonight, was born a decade ago when Eddie Staton, a black businessman living in Omaha, Nebraska, got a desperate, late-night call from his friend John Foster. Foster's college-age son had been beaten to death the night before by a group of local gang members. Foster had immediately taken to the streets armed with two shotguns, but the assailants had vanished. After calming down, he asked Staton to help him organize a group of black men to address an interdenominational alliance about the spread of gang violence in north Omaha. That group of 18, led by Staton, Foster, and Bishop Robert Tyler, became the nucleus of MAD DADS.
Just ten months after its founding, then-president George Bush named the group as one of his Thousand Points of Light. In 1994 President Clinton presented MAD DADS with a prestigious award for its volunteer efforts. Today the organization boasts 55,000 members, 57 chapters, and a presence in 15 states, including Minnesota, where Smith started the first and only branch, in 1998, in Minneapolis's Central neighborhood. (Central is bounded by Lake Street to the north, 38th Street to the south, Interstate 35 to the west, and Chicago Avenue to the east.)
MAD DADS' mission statement is a tall order: to "seek out, encourage, motivate, and guide committed men in the struggle to save children, communities, and ourselves from the social ills that presently plague neighborhoods." They are a "God-fearing" collective that "will yield to no evil."
In practical terms this statement is all about showing up on city streets it appears the police have all but ceded to crime--where social service organizations have an abundant clientele but lock their doors at nightfall, and where young black men are being murdered in epidemic numbers. When members canvass a corner rumored to be rife with petty crime or gang recruiters or drug dealers, Smith says, they're attempting to teach by example, to show "parental concern." In short, to say hello, offer a little help, and then, week in, week out, to keep coming back.
A few of Smith's cohorts, walking this week's Saturday night "street patrol," amble across the intersection to provide backup at the bus stop: Nathaniel Howard, president of a MAD DADS chapter in Chicago; Bobbie Goodlow, a middle-aged mother who has spent the last three years running crack dealers off her corner in north Minneapolis; and Sandy Fliehs, a 58-year-old grandmother turned MAD mom who raised her two children on the south side. They're all wearing MAD DADS "gang" colors--black-and-green polo shirts and matching baseball caps.
"We ain't no policemen, ain't no narcs," explains Howard, who has come to Minneapolis this weekend to show support for Smith's fledgling operation. "We're just ordinary folks who want to help."
This is a particularly tough crowd, though. Stoned or drunk, these kids are indifferent to the idea of mentoring, a typical first response to a MAD DADS pitch. More than that, they seem irked by it, in part, no doubt, because Smith has interrupted the rhythm of their game ("Can you believe this ridiculousness?" Howard asks under his breath. "No one's going to win any money pitching quarters, man. But they're dead serious"). There's also a good chance these kids have run into MAD DADS patrollers a few times before and still aren't sure what to make of their bold presence.
And for good reason. Smith sells his criminal background as an asset, reasoning that it affords him the intimate knowledge of urban street life needed to connect with kids like these. His checkered past, though, has made it hard for him to earn the trust of the Minneapolis Police Department; at the same time, his association with the police, with whom he regularly shares information gathered while on patrol, causes suspicion with the people he's trying to counsel here in Central, many of whom are wary of or downright hostile to authority in any form. MAD DADS is also a Christian organization, attracting volunteers anxious to save souls for the Lord. That zealotry might play well in church, but this street corner isn't church.
Just as Smith, Howard, and Fliehs are making moves to decamp to another of tonight's hot spots, an opportunity peeks from under the bill of a beat-up Yankees cap. Fliehs and one of the sidewalk gamblers exchange glances of recognition. She approaches the teen, rests her wrinkled white hand on his bony shoulder, asks how things are going. The kid shakes off his cool veneer and he allows a quick, silver-capped grin. Things are going okay, he says, and he has been trying his best.
"How many babies do you have at home?" Fliehs asks.
"Two," he answers.
Smith, overhearing, moves in. He gently encourages the young man to step up, take responsibility, grab a flyer and learn some skills. The response: "I got plenty of skills."
In that instant Smith decides to play it cool. "We've got ourselves one of those brothers, man," he says loudly to Howard. The teasing is meant to be friendly, but it stings all the same. "Knows everything about everything. Doesn't need any help. Has everything under control...."
The kid frowns and turns to avoid the hassle. Smith changes tactics again by gripping the boy's elbow, leaning in and lowering his voice to a murmur. "No, no, no. Now seriously, brother, take one of these flyers," he cajoles softly. "Go ahead. Just check it out." The kid considers the sheet for a few beats. Smith makes eye contact and nods solemnly, keeping hold of that elbow.
The flyer changes hands.
An hour later--MAD DADS long gone for the next corner--the kid in the Yankees cap is killing time at the corner of Lake and Chicago. Nodding slowly, he's showing Smith's yellow flyer to a friend as the two pass a joint back and forth under the blazing streetlights.
The first time I meet V.J. Smith he's serving orange drink to a room full of kindergartners whose parents live at Legacy Village in north Minneapolis, one of nine low-income housing projects run by the Legacy Management company for whom Smith works full-time organizing activities for residents. Today he's dressed in a midnight blue, three-button suit. The brown of his pinpoint shirt is tastefully set off by a brilliant red woven into a silk tie and matching breast pocket handkerchief. The last time we talk, Smith is decked out in a sky-blue sportcoat, buffed wingtips, and a patent-leather bow tie, with his handkerchief as white as his starched dress shirt. Smith's natty attire is a trademark, the tasteful wardrobe of a hustler turned DJ turned street-stationed disciple.
Consider, for a moment, the story behind a simple turtleneck. Smith's mother and father abandoned him by the time he was nine years old. For the next seven years, he was shuffled from one foster home to the next in Kansas City, Missouri. When he turned 16, he finally landed with a long-term family, and put down what passed for roots. The father of the house was decent to him, he remembers, and things were stable enough. Along the way, though, Smith figured out that he was being used.
"You see, that was when turtlenecks were really, really popular. Everyone was wearing them," he recalls as we sit down to talk in his office at Legacy Village, all the while fiddling with the flawlessly dimpled Windsor knot at his neck. "My turtlenecks would always slop way down on my chest. But I noticed that everyone else in my family, their turtlenecks stuck to their necks. And I realized they were going to Kmart to get my turtlenecks and they were going to places like Dayton's to get theirs. But they would take the Dayton's receipt to the county for a reimbursement, as if those turtlenecks were mine."
Fed up with the scam, Smith moved into a motel during his senior year in high school. To make rent he started taking crazy risks, breaking into houses, shoplifting, jacking cars, and mastering the ABCs of petty crime. His antics, his swagger, his talent for the grift caught the attention of a crew of local drug dealers, most of them middle-aged ex-cons who, after Smith earned his diploma, took him in as their protégé. Smith spent the next six years in what he calls the "college of dealing," where earnest students could earn a "masters in drugology."
"I was never part of a gang," Smith clarifies. "I was part of organized crime, where everyone works together like a business. We don't stand on no street corners, we don't wear no gang colors, we don't make no gang signs. We handle our business, we stay as inconspicuous as possible, and we don't play games on the streets with nobody."
Smith says he was never arrested in Kansas City, so there is no official record of his transgressions. He does allow that when "someone messed with the group, things were taken care of." And, he reflects, as he rubs the manicured stubble of his goatee, he did some "bad, bad" things that included seriously hurting others. Whatever those bad things amounted to, they were enough to make Smith a wanted man by local authorities. In 1977 he threw his life into a car and traveled to the Twin Cities.
After spending a brief time collecting public assistance, Smith got a job at a now defunct clothing factory near the First Avenue nightclub in downtown Minneapolis. He soon convinced his boss to give him a discount on a new designer suit--a bright yellow vest and matching slacks. "It was cool, though," Smith says when he sees me chuckle. "I got a really nice deal." The outfit gained him admission to circles in which deals were struck not over street drugs and patter, but over vodka martinis and genteel conversation.
"One day I was hanging out on the corner and somebody told me, 'The way you talk, brother, you talk too slang for these folks here in Minnesota. They scared of you.' I really did, I scared people. I'd walk up to someone and start talking and they didn't know what I was going to do. I was a hustler. It was the only thing I knew. I decided the best way to learn wasn't to go to where the African Americans go. So I would put on that suit and go to the top of the IDS, have a few cocktails, and listen to how the businessmen talk. I studied the way they did business. I learned."
After graduating from happy hour, Smith set a new linguistic course, imitating his favorite radio disc jockeys, mastering the vocal dynamics, the up and down speech ribbons, the salesmanship. Then he started haunting local clubs, compiled a dance-record collection, and designed a business card advertising the services of "V.J. the DJ." The experiment went so well, he eventually spent a year spinning discs at KMOJ-FM (89.9), the Twin Cities' only station catering to a primarily black audience.
To augment his income, Smith says, he spent most of the Eighties dealing cocaine, heroin, and speed. "Near the end of it all, I had a friend who knew that I knew how to move merchandise. He told me he had five kilos and didn't know what to do. So what are you going to do? I was back in the business full time, watching money fall out of my pockets. And I had to look good. I had to be the baddest looking DJ in the land."
In 1987 Smith's run of luck ran out. An informant tipped the police to Smith's apartment in north Minneapolis, where he and his friend were storing their inventory. The officers used a battering ram to splinter the front door, and Smith, jolted from sleep, came out of his bedroom wielding two pistols. The rest is a blur; Smith remembers getting tackled, punched, kicked, and rolled on the floor. By sunup he was in jail nursing a broken rib and facing possession charges.
Smith used his one phone call to work a connection. He promised to plug a local attorney friend's services on the radio in exchange for counsel. He was released before nightfall and eventually sentenced to two years of probation. Still, Smith says, the incident was the wake-up call he'd been waiting for.
He left town for Oklahoma City in the hopes of getting his head together. There a friend extended an invitation to the church she attended. Why not? Smith went, and something about the preacher's sermon sunk in. Sunday services and a weekly prayer group became a habit for Smith, who over the following few months came to believe that divine intervention had saved him from ending up dead or behind bars.
Back in Minneapolis he volunteered for the Phoenix Group (a locally based nonprofit that provided housing in the Phillips neighborhood), Smith says, by way of "penance." He enrolled at the Minneapolis Community College, became president of the school's African-American Student Association and student senate, then spent four years working in plant maintenance for Northwest Airlines. He married his first wife Ruthie Boyd, began caring for her young son Steven, and was reunited with his own teenage son Imani, who had been living with his mother, one of Smith's many girlfriends ("I was a bit of a ladies' man," he admits, and a sheepish look crosses his face).
Still, something was keeping Smith up nights. At first it was the memory of that 4:00 a.m. police raid; since then his paranoia had only gotten worse. He had serious trouble sleeping, and he would wake up startled and bathed in sweat. In 1996, after he bought a house and moved his family into the Central neighborhood, though, the nighttime anxiety took a different form. He could hear the gangbangers rolling past his windows on Oakland Avenue and the gunshots going off in the dark; and he could smell the dope being peddled down the street. The life he'd left behind was taking place right outside his front door. He prayed about what to do. He lay awake for hours. He prayed some more.
Thirteen months ago Smith got his answer when a friend told him about a national organization called MAD DADS. He quickly recruited a handful of volunteers for a local chapter based in Central, raised a first-year budget of $2,000 from private donors, and started "walking the streets" again.
Just last week Smith flew to Washington, D.C., where Attorney General Janet Reno presented him with the Ameritech Award of Excellence in Crime Prevention. Given by the National Crime Prevention Council, which is made up of U.S. law-enforcement officials, the honor was bestowed on only six other individuals nationwide. During the presentation Smith, who says he has been sleeping just fine lately, was described as "an ordinary person doing the extraordinary."
Whenever MAD DADS has a meeting, which is often; whenever they go out on street patrol and whenever they come back; really, whenever the spirit moves, MAD DADS circles up for prayer. Oftentimes Smith improvises grace. Other times he passes the Bible. This Saturday night, as the four men and seven women who've gathered at the Center for Fathering--their makeshift headquarters in Central--ready themselves to make the rounds, Smith asks Calvin Declouet to lead the invocation. Declouet, a wiry, raspy-voiced native of New Orleans, came to Minneapolis in 1996. Now he lives on the north side, where he works his front stoop like a pulpit and tells everyone passing by that the Lord saved him from a gangster's life. After a season of study with Smith, he's planning to christen a chapter of MAD DADS in his own neighborhood.
Hats off, heads bowed, the assembly provides a backbeat to Declouet's murmuring cadence. Every other phrase of thanks is answered with an amen; requests for safety and strength out there are accented with a yes, Jesus. There is no shouting, no waving of arms. The room just hums.
"Now Calvin, he's got that special something," Smith exults. "He's going to be good. He's just the kind of guy I need." Translation: Declouet is a God-fearing black man willing to serve. The type of guy who knows what it's like to be down on his luck and is unafraid to mix it up on a busy inner-city street corner or to walk the alleys after dark; who is willing to sign up and stick with it. The type of guy that MAD DADS was designed to attract in the first place.
"MAD DADS was founded by a group of concerned African-American men--parents who were fed up with gang violence and the...flow of illegal drugs into their community," the national organization's promotional literature reads. "These men realized that they could hold no one responsible for this but themselves; they had allowed this to happen. So they united as a handful of community fathers who have come to know that they must be the force behind the change."
In Los Angeles MAD DADS has spearheaded programs to buy guns and get them off the street. The Omaha chapter has just started a special division called the G Crew, made up entirely of former gang members. In Chicago, MAD DADS sponsors demonstrations in support of public policies aimed at helping kids steer clear of gangs. For now, though, Smith is sticking to the basics, what got it all started in Omaha: street patrol. Everyone in his organization gathers on Saturday nights at 7:00 p.m., prays, then travels to troubled areas in the neighborhood to meet and mix until they get tired, usually just before midnight. They are always well-stocked with information about employment opportunities and job training. They can also speak fluently about the many social services available in the Twin Cities for those suffering from hunger, homelessness, or chemical addictions.
"We arm ourselves with the word of God, powerful prayer, and good, useful information," the Chicago chapter's Nathaniel Howard explains when asked about street patrol. "We win trust by being visible, by being consistent, by being an example."
Resistance to groups like MAD DADS, whose purpose is to expand the fold of believers by concentrating their message on society's most vulnerable (mostly poor, mostly black, mostly kids from single-mom homes, often runaways, school dropouts, addicts, hookers, gang members), has long run deep in many quarters and across the political spectrum. That's unfortunate, says Kate Cavett, a local social worker and researcher who has just published a 160-page resource report on gang activity in Minnesota. According to her research, an overwhelming percentage of the 103 active and inactive gang members she interviewed during the last three years exhibited nothing short of a "hunger" for spirituality. In his 1999 book Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, psychologist James Garbarino cites several studies establishing that young people rooted in "nonpunitive" religion are less apt to be depressed, less prone to substance abuse, and better equipped to deal with trauma. Spirituality, he writes, can "fill in the holes left in the story of a boy's life and help him develop both a strong, positive sense of self and healthy limits, thus forestalling the need to compensate with grandiose posturing and deadly petulance."
"One thing we have to address in our attempt to reach young people is this issue of spirituality," Jan Roesler, an activist resident involved in the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association says. "And MAD DADS is doing that. Yes, they are a Christian organization, which some people may take offense at. But I don't think that V.J. would ever deny someone a spirituality of another form. He's not an in-your-face kind of guy. For him Christianity is an expression of his spirituality."
It's not unusual for some members of MAD DADS to remain behind on any given Saturday night to provide "prayer cover" for those out on street patrol. It is typical of Smith to utter a God bless or two when first meeting people on his rounds. And if someone group members encounter in the field wants to pray (and "80 percent of the time they do," Sandy Fliehs says), there will be a prayer. Still, MAD DADS' national office cautions satellites against banging the Bible in public, in large part because the organization means to set itself apart from the hordes of street preachers and sky pilots crowding the hearts of American cities with more to offer, as it's been said, in the afterlife than in this one. "I don't know how many churches are out there passing out tracts, but there are lots of them," Smith notes. "These kids are getting handed tracts and tracts and tracts. And no, that's just not going to do it."
Calvin Declouet is still in the habit of waving his Bible and quoting Scripture as soon as he meets someone; and he likes to hand out tracts from his own church in north Minneapolis when he's out with MAD DADS. Still, as Smith watches Declouet barrel from corner to corner on Saturday nights, he can't help but break into an approving belly laugh. Declouet will learn, after all. And what he lacks in subtlety he makes up for in pure energy. "I don't know, man," Smith exclaims, holding his chest in mock exhaustion. "I don't know if we can keep up with Calvin."
Declouet is almost a half-block ahead of the group, chatting up a couple of teenagers loitering in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant, his arms raised to the heavens. "Wait up, Calvin!" Smith shouts theatrically. "Wait up, brother."
In the early 1980s a spike in crack use led to an explosion of gang activity in Central. Dealers set up shop in abandoned houses or took over entire apartment buildings, and shootings, a number of which were fatal, weren't unusual. In the early 1990s neighborhood activists stepped up their pressure on the city for help in rehabilitating Central's dilapidated housing stock and bad reputation.
In June 1996 the Minneapolis Police Department conducted a series of "street sweeps" and raids on residents with the aim of making life difficult for leaders of the Rolling 30s Bloods, a gang that still considers Central its home territory. In the ten-month period after the crackdown, according to the Star Tribune, there were 807 criminal offenses reported in the neighborhood, down from the 1052 in the same period the previous year. According to preliminary statistics provided by Karen Skrivseth, Central's crime prevention specialist at the MPD, these lower crime stats held steady or dropped for more than two years. Soon after, housing values increased in concert with the citywide 1998-99 real estate boom. There were still scores of abandoned houses in Central, and boarded-up storefronts lined Lake Street, but until early this year neighborhood activists agreed that the area was enjoying a kind of renaissance. In recent months, though, Skrivseth allows that there has been a revival of gang activity along Fourth Avenue between Lake and 38th streets, and a jump in shootings related to crack-cocaine trafficking.
"On the one hand, we see people getting involved, property values going up," observes city council member Brian Herron, who lives in Central. "On the other hand, we've had a resurgence of drugs and prostitution this past summer that have in some ways been disheartening. It's become intense again. We were on the verge of ridding the neighborhood of that hard-core criminal element. Now, in some ways, we have to start from scratch."
Asked if the MPD has been willing to cooperate with community leaders like V.J. Smith in Central, Herron pauses--then chuckles. "I think it's beginning to happen," he allows diplomatically. Others working in the trenches aren't as generous. They complain that the police are too quick to use force and too reluctant to walk the beat. "The police chief is a weasel," one business owner on Lake Street sniffs. "He needs to tell his people that to say hello to a drug dealer, [that] to learn his name and understand his situation is not compromising their position of authority."
Fliehs says she signed up to be a MAD mom because she loves Central, her home for 27 years. She finally moved out of the neighborhood, in large part because of her frustrations with law enforcement: "When the police are called, they are slow to respond, and then, when they do come, they're very rough. They treat people like they're subhuman. That's because they don't get out of their cars, walk the streets, get to know the people they're supposed to serve."
MAD DADS members, for their part, do just that: hit the pavement, mix it up with whoever crosses their path, become a familiar presence on the street, all of which Smith believes helps to prevent violence where it tends to start. "I think if I can get to a kid before the police have to, then maybe I can make a difference out there. That's what it's all about."
Which is to say that MAD DADS is all about preventing street crime. And that, according to the organization's national bylaws, means collaborating with law enforcement. Smith often trades favors with the MPD's Karen Skrivseth, who has been known to get out and walk the beat and, for that, earned high praise among neighborhood leaders. She is in the habit of reporting trouble to MAD DADS--drug dealing at 38th and Chicago; kids begging for food on Fourth; the recent flood of Detroit Boys gang members into Central. On that information, Smith's membership decides where to show up on any given night. In return MAD DADS makes a point of knocking on doors and chatting up residents with concerns about the boarded-up house next door, say, or gunfire last night, or vandalism in their alley; members then put them in touch with the right desk at the police department, and share information with Skrivseth.
The arrangement could sit wrong with Smith, but it doesn't. "The one thing I've learned in my life is that the past is the past," he insists. "If I was to dwell on the past, I would be pretty angry. I would be unable to have any kind of communication at all with anybody on the police department. But I don't think about the past. I think about the future."
At the end of August, when the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that V.J. Smith had won the Ameritech Award of Excellence in Crime Prevention, Mark-Peter Lindquist, who as director of the Center for Fathering works with hundreds of families in Central, told the newspaper that MAD DADS had already steered some 200 people to job-training programs and at least 100 more into chemical-dependency treatment.
Well-informed estimates like Lindquist's notwithstanding, there are no hard numbers available to chart whether MAD DADS' approach is working. The evidence is entirely anecdotal--stories down the grapevine of a young man who returned to school, another who went clean and started a new job last week. The national leadership has hired a New Orleans consulting firm to assess the effectiveness of its programs, but that report isn't due until sometime next year. No such study is planned locally. Still, there is a sense among even the most skeptical of neighborhood mainstays--such as Wizard Marks, who has been living on Oakland Avenue for almost 25 years--that a positive adult presence on the pavement is just what's needed to keep Central on track and its young people out of harm's way. "I think what MAD DADS is doing can only help," Marks says. "Sure, they might only get to one troubled kid in 20, but that's one less you have to contend with. V.J. is a black man with some been-theres and done-thats. I say, more power to him."
One of those kids, a 17-year-old named Tim, is leaning against the wall outside Cup Foods at the corner of 38th and Chicago. Smith says things are slow at the intersection this Saturday night. When it's warmer there are usually more young men from the neighborhood out and about, huddled around each other's cars, some selling, some buying, some just looking to blow off a little steam. Smith figures it's a good place for MAD DADS to put down stakes for a half-hour or so. On an opposite corner, in the parking lot of a SuperAmerica, a silver Suburban idles by the pump, packed with white teens who, he guesses, have driven in from the southern suburbs to score drugs. Across the street from them, three prostitutes lean on a bus bench, halfheartedly trying to flag tricks.
Smith, Howard, Fliehs, Declouet, and the rest are passing out flyers, pressing the flesh, trying to engage the teenagers who are milling in and out of the corner grocery. After a while the crowd thins and the 13 MAD DADS on tonight's patrol get ready to move on. As Smith walks away, Tim--his eyes quickly scanning the sidewalk to see if anyone's watching--signals for him to come over. He and Smith huddle for a few minutes. Tim gestures frantically with his hands. Smith just listens, a hand on the boy's shoulder. Eventually Smith calls Howard over to join the discussion. Arms entwined, the three form their own prayer circle. Smith says "amen," gives Tim a hug, then moves on to the next stop.
Later he tells Tim's story. Seems the young man had just earned $650 on a temp job. He'd pocketed $50, and given the rest to his girlfriend, after which she'd locked him out of her house, where he'd been staying. "His heart's broken--he's been on the street for three days. So I told him where to go get cleaned up, get a good meal," Smith says, seeming to stare into his own past again. "He's just lonely, man. You know what that's like? I know what it's like. I think we all do."
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