Late one afternoon this summer in Lake Eola Park, Keith McHenry got arrested — again — for trying to serve free food in public. While his compatriots were setting up a vegan meal of vegetable stir-fry, ears of corn, and potatoes donated from a local natural-food store, McHenry was on his hands and knees, using a fat marker to outline text on a large banner: "End the Criminalization of Poverty."
Lake Eola is the crown jewel of downtown Orlando. The park's fountain shimmers at the middle of the resplendent lake. Music plays through speakers mounted out of reach, and swan boats rest in view of offices and shiny new condominiums. Nearby signs warn that it is illegal to "lie or otherwise be in a horizontal position on park benches" or to "sleep or remain in any bushes, shrubs or foliage." Not a friendly place for a man who has staked half his life on drawing attention to the barriers between the rich and the poor.
McHenry, 54, had written to the end of Criminalization when a police officer stepped up behind him with a pair of handcuffs. McHenry was used to the drill at this point: Since he helped found the international Food Not Bombs movement with an antiwar bake sale in Harvard Square in 1980, he's counted 150 arrests. "Almost every single arrest has been related to Food Not Bombs," he says. Among his guiding principles: Feed "everyone without restriction, rich or poor, stoned or sober."
Now, on Wednesday, June 1 — just as scores of homeless people were due to start streaming into the park, as they had done every week since 2005 — McHenry acquiesced as usual, going off to spend 32 hours in the Orange County jail alongside two organizers of the Orlando chapter of Food Not Bombs. They were bailed out the next day, but the following week, they returned to defy the law again and share food with 50, maybe 60 people. The police came back too. During June, 25 volunteers with Food Not Bombs would be arrested at the park (although the charges were later dropped).
The second time McHenry was arrested in Lake Eola Park, on June 22, he spent 17 days in jail. The judge, not sympathetic to his cause, called him a "professional protester."
The reason for the arrests? For years, residents near the park had complained that after the meals, homeless people dispersed into their neighborhoods. In 2008, the City Commission passed an ordinance that outlawed the serving of food to more than 25 people at a time without a permit. The ordinance stipulated that a group could serve only twice in each park. Mayor John Hugh "Buddy" Dyer said the ordinance was intended "to be fair to individual neighborhoods" by diluting the presence of homeless people in the city's open spaces.
The Orlando Food Not Bombs chapter, along with the First Vagabonds Church of God (which has a mostly homeless congregation), challenged the law in court, but a judge in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in April of this year to uphold it.
McHenry says other groups that traditionally feed the homeless — churches, nonprofits, and county-run agencies — provide only a simple palliative to those who are stuck in the routines of poverty. They assume that "there's nothing wrong with the way everything is," says McHenry, "that it's just that these individuals have failed, and now they need this food, and [the charities are] doing a good deed by serving it." But Food Not Bombs takes a less amenable stance. When its volunteers serve food, they're preaching not about Jesus but about the fact that the whole damned system that made these people homeless is broken, broken and pathetic, and that as long as "50 cents of every dollar is going to the military," as McHenry puts it, nobody should be denied the human right of sustenance in quiet complacence. Hence the banner.
In Fort Lauderdale, a scene similar to Orlando's plays out in Stranahan Park, at the exact center of the city, adjacent to the main library at Broward Boulevard and Andrews Avenue. On any given day, homeless drifters can be found catching a nap on the grass, bumming a smoke, or conversing in the shadow of commerce. Here, every Friday at 5:30 (give or take), the Fort Lauderdale chapter of Food Not Bombs shares a meal with these people under a gazebo. Other groups, mostly small ministries, also distribute food here.
But if city officials have their way, Fort Lauderdale could be the next municipality to enact an ordinance like Orlando's, banishing mass feedings from the city's parks and beaches. The City Attorney's Office is currently researching case law to try to prevent these food sharings in public and confine them to a more secluded spot, safely out of sight of homes and businesses.
An ordinance, if passed, could reshape the underground economy of free food that's a slight but well-known comfort to some of the estimated 1,600 people who spend each night on the city's streets. But putting a clean face on things isn't going to be easy. Blame it on the kids.
They sat in the grass of Stranahan Park after dinner, or a "sharing," with the sun shining low through the trees and a few conversations echoing from the gazebo. The reusable dishes had been washed in buckets and were stacked up to dry.
David Hitchcock, a lanky, crop-haired 21-year-old who had recently been homeless and had just shaved his legs for fun (he was drunk and bored), sat cross-legged at the edge of a circle of people. In the group were about a half-dozen of his fellow Food Not Bombs members and three of the homeless men who'd joined them for dinner. Hitchcock's dog, Whisper, leaned against him in his lap. Another dog, a friendly pit bull named Bruise, squirmed on his back at the end of a leash, held loosely by Will Berger, who was hunched low with his wild-haired head above his feet.
Next to Berger was Haylee Becker, 19, a small girl with brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wore a Bob Marley T-shirt with worn-in, rolled-up jeans, canvas shoes, and a blue bandanna tied above her forehead. She apparently enjoyed leg-shaving less than Hitchcock did. A shakily drawn tattoo on her ankle, which has been noticed by more than one reporter on the homelessness beat, reads "Teach/Learn/Respect/Peace."
She was explaining the hand signals.
Food Not Bombs chapters are run by "consensus meetings" like this. Everyone present should speak one at a time, without interrupting.
"One person will be the moderator, and they'll look for the signals," Becker explained. "If you have something to say, raise your hand." She raised her hand. "If you have something quick to add, do this." She made her hands into two little guns, and fired them off in alternating succession, close to her chest.
"If you think the conversation is going off topic..." She stuck her index fingers and thumbs together in a diamond shape. "If you want someone to speak up..." Palms up, lifting motion. "And if you agree with what someone's saying, do this." Palms face the body, fingers spread, wiggle the fingers. "Kind of like jazz hands."
"Sparkle fingers," someone else called it.
"So who wants to be moderator?"
Hitchcock volunteered. The group went clockwise around the circle, each person suggesting topics for discussion: an upcoming remembrance of Hiroshima Day, an anarcha-feminist workshop, a regional Food Not Bombs event in Fort Myers. Then Hitchcock chose people to speak.
"But first, congratulations to Haylee for getting her braces off," he said.
Becker smiled, her teeth straight and white, and did the sparkle fingers.
One of the homeless men, Joe, tall and flushed, had been flirting back and forth with Becker during the meal, dancing to music on his headphones, telling her over and over again, "I love you." Grinning, she had said she loved him too. "I really love you." I really love you, she said. Now he kept raising his hand to volunteer new items of conversation, often getting the "off-topic" signal from members of the group. He offered paint for the Hiroshima Day protest signs: "My dad gets his paint from Sherwin-Williams. I know some people. I drink beers behind there."
"You've drunk beers behind everywhere," one of the other men said.
Despite the effects of warm food and balmy afternoons, Stranahan Park can be uncomfortable for the people who try to spend the day, much less the night, there. In early 2011, Fort Lauderdale police erected a mobile "Skywatch" unit, a crane-like machine with a booth and cameras on top, in the half-block park. Soon, people were napping, reading, or talking right below the wheels of the surveillance tower. It sat there for months but was removed early this summer. Fort Lauderdale police will not comment on whether somebody was ever inside the tower or how much video was recorded, citing an exemption in the Florida public-records law for information about "surveillance techniques."
Food Not Bombs hasn't been hassled by police during sharings, at least not in the recent past. Neither have Myriam and Mary Elizabeth Holly, two Christian women from Hollywood who gather and cook food under the name "His Caring Hands." They arrived shortly after this week's Food Not Bombs meal to pass out jerk chicken and potatoes in square styrofoam containers.
Robin Martin is an organizer of HOPE South Florida, a coalition of local churches that's trying to work with the city to establish a fixed location to feed the homeless. He says that HOPE's affiliate churches work with soup kitchens rather than organize open-air feedings. But he's sympathetic with the people, Christian or not, who come to the park. "It's not the sharing of food that is most important," he says. "It's the building of community."
Martin shares a waste-not ethos with Food Not Bombs: "There is enough food. We don't have a food problem with the homeless. We have a distribution problem." He notes that establishing a connection between volunteers and the homeless is the only meaningful way to instill any change beyond the filling of stomachs. He paraphrases Jesus' command to his followers: "After I leave, share communion. Share coffee."
Besides Food Not Bombs and an assortment of individuals and small ministries, few organizations in Fort Lauderdale provide food in public. The majority of homeless people looking for food eat at soup kitchens and shelters. Feeding South Florida, a supplier of 800 regional food banks, reports a 39 percent increase in need for food assistance over the past two years.
One hungry homeless man who gave his name as Felix and came to a Food Not Bombs sharing recalled living on the street in Los Angeles. "Food was everywhere there," he said. Here, in contrast, finding food and shelter is a chore.
The Salvation Army of Broward County provides daily dinners at its shelter and recently opened it to people who aren't living there. Attendance has doubled to about 60 per night, according to Director of Development Sally Gress. The Salvation Army also has two mobile food trucks that are generally used after emergencies. With more volunteers, these trucks could be used for food distribution. But they're waiting to see what law the city might pass: "We don't want to start something we can't continue," says Gress.
Behind the scenes, the city is working to end the mass feedings in public spaces. The effort to conceal goes back to an old lawsuit and a history of stopgap solutions. And it goes back to one man, a devout and cantankerous widower named Arnold Abbott.
Every Wednesday night, Abbott — now in his 80s, or "two years younger than God," as he says — brings a load of food he buys with federal grants and donations to Fort Lauderdale beach and serves dinner alfresco to "60 to 100 of [his] closest friends." He's been doing it for years, much to the city government's chagrin.
Following a legal case in Miami in which a judge decided that police couldn't arrest the homeless for vagrancy unless there was a designated "safe zone" where they could stay, Fort Lauderdale erected "Tent City," a crowded, makeshift homeless camp across from City Hall, in 1993. Abbott tried feeding the homeless there through the organization he named after his deceased wife, the Maureen A. Abbott Love Thy Neighbor Fund, but the city ordered him to stop. He also fed people on the beach but in 1998, he was ordered to stop there too.
He filed suit, and in the long legal battle that followed, a judge ruled that until an alternate site was found, Abbott could stay at the beach. By extension, that meant all the other groups that wanted to pass out food could continue doing so in public.
A decade later, the city is still looking for that alternative location.
(Tent City disbanded in 1999, when the city opened a Homeless Assistance Center, absorbing part of its population. Abbott now rents kitchen space and organizes cooking classes for the homeless there.)
In September 2009, the city convened a "Homeless Task Force" that includes city officials, homeless advocates, business interests, and (sometimes) Food Not Bombs. It has proposed a number of possible locations where food distribution could be allowed once the parks are off-limits. But every potential solution has so far been thwarted by a neighbor or business that doesn't want bums in its backyard.
"The task force has explored the idea of identifying an appropriate location where groups... could continue to [provide meals] in a coordinated, dignified manner," writes city spokesman Chaz Adams in an email. "The work being done by many faith-based, non-profit and community groups to assist the homeless in our community is commendable," he added.
Despite Adams' optimistic wording, City Attorney Harry Stewart concedes that his office is preparing legislation that could affect the food sharings. He says he has been tasked with finding "a solution to the homeless feeding problem." That "problem" includes the concentration of panhandling and people sleeping in parks, he says.
Back at Stranahan Park after dinner, one of the homeless men, tall with a shaved head and a wide smile, leaned back on his hands and looked in the direction of City Hall. It was blocked by the large Wells Fargo tower across the street. When it was his turn to speak, he told the group that he had been to a few task force meetings. Nothing worthwhile happened there, he said; the city's efforts to reach a consensus were "pathetic and ridiculous."
Sparkle fingers all around.
When he's not traveling or in jail, Jonathan Keith McHenry lives alone in a blue, 28-foot school bus on a $350-a-month plot of land outside Taos, New Mexico. He maintains the international Food Not Bombs website from the Wired? Coffee-Cyber-Cafe, a vegetarian-friendly spot with a dirt parking lot. He answers each call to his cell phone with a lilting, gentle "Hi, this is Keith with Food Not Bombs."
He keeps playing a role, first memorialized in a black-and-white photograph of his first arrest, in Golden Gate Park on August 15, 1988. Big beard, hair falling in boyish waves, a friendly but serious demeanor. He's written three books, and he lectures at colleges now, taking in a small fee for each appearance. "I try to get no less than $500, but in the past few years, sometimes I've had to take $250," he says. These fees go toward the upkeep of Food Not Bombs: telephone, vehicles, web hosting. He says he pays his rent and personal costs by doing occasional odd jobs and freelance graphic design.
It's been 30 years since he started Food Not Bombs. The group now has more than 1,000 chapters in 60 countries, McHenry estimates. There are chapters in Australia, Lithuania, Africa. In Reykjavik, where it's too cold to pick up pamphlets through winter gloves, McHenry has seen members wear antiwar messages on signboards.
McHenry's father was a ranger in the National Park Service, and his grandfather was a naturalist at the Grand Canyon. His grandfather would bring him to Hopi land to witness the annual "snake dance," where the men of the pueblo dance with snakes to worship their ancestors and pray for rain. "In the end... they'd go into the kiva again and get all the food that they made, all the bread and produce, and they'd come with these baskets and hand food up to every single person... My father and grandfather and my mom explained that this had all happened this same exact way at the same time of the year for 4,000 years," McHenry recalls.
He returned to the Grand Canyon in high school and watched the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, which plugged up the Colorado River near the ravine and formed the massive Lake Powell. "I went around in the area that became Lake Powell before it was flooded," he says. "It was really beautiful. There were 2,000 Anasazi homes that were flooded. A really beautiful sacred land that was destroyed for electricity."
An accretion of scenes like this added to McHenry's growing unrest. The Vietnam War raged on television. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, and McHenry and his family watched the race riots in Philadelphia. When he was in the fourth grade, his father gave him a copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau. He was overcoming dyslexia, so he looked for something shorter and picked up Thoreau's On the Duty of Civil Disobedience instead.
By the time he reached college, McHenry was a full-fledged activist, participating in a protest against tuition hikes in his freshman year. He wanted to be an artist. On what he remembers as a "crisp, cool, fall evening" in 1976, he and his friends at Boston University left a lecture by radical leftist professor Howard Zinn, who chronicled history as told by the oppressed. They had been talking in class about the construction of the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant, and Zinn was organizing protests against it. Four years later, McHenry and some other activists came together for a sit-in at the plant. A friend of his was arrested. To pay for the legal defense, the activists held a bake sale in Harvard Square.
McHenry, along with seven other friends, formed the core of what would become Food Not Bombs. Later, they rented a house at 195 Harvard St. to better plan their actions. McHenry says that he was one of the only members who wasn't dating somebody else in the group —and when couples broke up and quit the group, he remained.
Toward the back of Zinn's bestselling book, A People's History of the United States, he writes that "against the overwhelming power of corporate wealth and governmental authority, the spirit of resistance was kept alive in the early nineties, often by small-scale acts of courage and defiance. On the West Coast, a young activist named Keith McHenry and hundreds of others were arrested again and again for distributing free food to poor people without a license. They were part of a program called Food Not Bombs."
McHenry's phone rang at the café in mid-April this year. It was Phil Johnson, a coordinator of the Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs chapter. Johnson, a soft-spoken 20-year-old who left his parents' comfortable home in Weston to live in a messy collective house with a few other local members, told McHenry that the appeals court had just upheld Orlando's anti-feeding ordinance.
A few weeks later, McHenry visited Lake Eola Park with the sign and the Magic Marker. Food Not Bombs chapters around the state decided to hold monthly protests in solidarity with the Orlando chapter. On the day McHenry was arrested in Orlando, June 1, Johnson and friends were holding their first protest near Fort Lauderdale's City Hall.
Here, nobody went to jail, but uneasy battle lines had already been drawn between Food Not Bombs and the Fort Lauderdale police. In February, cops had shown up at the group's house, which group members call the "SWAMP Collective." (What that stands for is "up to interpretation," says Becker, "but at first, when we were publishing a zine, most people went along with 'Student Worker Anarchist Movement Press.' ")
Police entered the squalid, blue building in the residential neighborhood of South Middle River and patted down an assortment of traveling kids who had been hanging out on the roof. According to a police report, "In weeks prior... [we] had attempted to make several controlled narcotics purchases from this location due to complaints received." But nobody at the property sold them drugs or gave any sign of being anything other than messy, rebellious, and maybe drunk.
Still, police apparently harbor suspicions. After the "raid," as the residents call it, McHenry came through town on a brief visit. He slept in his van on the property, alongside Becker's broken-down, bumper-stickered old BMW. During the night, he says, he could see the flashlights of police officers trying to peer into his windows.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Johnson, wearing an oversized tank top, wire-framed glasses, longish blond hair, and a lion-cub goatee, was barefoot in the kitchen, picking raw onions out of a pot of greens that was supposed to be a stir-fry but now would be a salad.
The food for the day's sharing was spread on the kitchen table. A big pot of potatoes, filled to the brim with water waiting to boil, leaned precariously on one of the working electric burners. Friends milled around the kitchen, trimming kale and broccolini or lining up garlic bread in trays for the oven. Dogs, wearing flea collars, coursed between the kitchen and the living room, where a couple of people sat on love seats in the dark, listening to punk music from a set of computer speakers. A flimsy, hollow bedroom door still bore the holes from where one of the police officers had supposedly kicked it and gotten his boot stuck. The walls, all of them, were covered in multicolored writing and graffiti. A feeble air conditioner sputtered through a hole in some plywood, and below it, a salvaged espresso maker belched steam and Bustelo. The sink dripped through a disconnected P-trap into a bucket, which provided reusable, slightly dirty "graywater" for the garden — and for flushing the toilet, if it worked, which it didn't on this particular day.
As cooking progressed, Johnson and the others discussed a dilemma. They had gotten a donation from a local school: four big trays of meat. Chicken parm, meatballs, roasted turkey. Should they serve it? It ran contrary to McHenry's ground rules, which dictate staying vegetarian, for ethical reasons as well as food safety. (He suggests redonating meat products to other outlets.) They decided to serve the meat dishes, which turned out to be the most popular of the evening.
Fort Lauderdale's volunteers try not to purchase anything except staples like oil and sugar, which they buy using money they pool from odd jobs. Much of the food comes from late-night Dumpster-diving trips, especially when they can get someone with a car to drive to Winn-Dixie or Fresh Market stores out west, which have the best bounties. Publix stores are off-limits, because they use trash compactors.
McHenry doesn't approve of Dumpster-diving, instead relying on donations from local farms or businesses, because he says it's unreliable and reflects negatively on Food Not Bombs. But some local farms are wary of giving business to a group of rabble-rousing youth, and Dumpster-diving is... well, more fun. Plus, there are principles to be upheld: Food in the trash compactor or Dumpster is food that's being forcefully kept from someone who needs it.
The front door opened, and Becker wheeled her bicycle into the room, silhouetted by the bright sun. She carried a plastic bag that contained cooking oil and cigarettes.
Becker has progressed from typical girlhood in the malls of western Broward (boring, no friends) to homelessness last year ("I was done with the whole living-with-family thing") into a sustained, conscious rebellion that cements her position as a de facto leader of the Food Not Bombs group (exciting, friends). Her antiauthoritarian stance may or may not have anything to do with the fact that her father is a Homestead police officer ("No comment," she says with a grin). She first heard about the Friday sharings in high school, before she graduated a year early. "Hey, let's go feed homeless people in the park," said one of her closest friends.
Food Not Bombs was already up and running in Fort Lauderdale by then. The local chapter had been founded in 2006 by Brian Sprinkle and Marc Silverstein, two friends who met at an anti-globalization protest in 2005. From there, they joined the Bolivarian Youth Communist Group run by an authoritarian man who called himself "the Chairman." Finding more of a taste for the consensus-based anarchy of Food Not Bombs, they went Dumpster-diving for some bread and put it in Silverstein's car. "We drove around giving it to homeless people," says Sprinkle. "They were happy... but then again, they were probably drunk."
Sprinkle, now 27, and Silverstein, now 24, soon established the weekly sharings in Stranahan Park, where they would come to mentor new kids who showed up full of piss and vinegar but without a clue of where to find flour or beans. Meanwhile, the businesses around Stranahan Park were growing wary. "We tried to go to the bathroom in the Subway across the street, but they put the rack of chips in front of the bathroom door," says Gonzalo Vizcardo, a Food Not Bombs volunteer from that time.
Last year, the core members decided to rent a house. "For a while, we had wanted to have a collective house," says Sprinkle. "We brought it up at meetings. Some of us had jobs, and the ones who didn't would work at the house and garden or clean. We thought that would let us spend more time on our activism."
They found the SWAMP Collective house for $650 a month. Everything went fine for that first month: Hitchcock had some money from cleaning and laying tile, and Johnson had a stipend from his liberal-arts scholarship at Broward College. They pooled their money for the security deposit, and Sprinkle's girlfriend, who had a job, paid the first month's rent.
But living up to ideals hasn't been easy. Sprinkle's girlfriend had to pay for the second month's rent too. Becker had started drinking heavily and lost her job at a mom-and-pop toy store in Weston. Sprinkle and his girlfriend retreated to their room, annoyed by the younger members' constant partying. At the end of December, the couple moved out. Sprinkle and Silverstein scaled back their involvement and passed the leadership duties on to Becker and Johnson.
Then the police "raid" happened in February. Tensions in the house threatened to distract the Food Not Bombs members from the good they had been doing. Meanwhile, homeless people still needed food from somebody.
The lease at the SWAMP Collective is up in October. The residents will need to pack up the pots and pans and the lending library and move on.
Becker and Johnson, who are dating now, intend to travel and earn some money working on organic farms. But Becker doesn't intend to abandon Fort Lauderdale for good. "I'm going to do that for a little while, then come back and really try to start up an alternative scene."
Fort Lauderdale is hardly a kind spot for activism. Radicals either grow up and get jobs or move away. "There's a reason people leave," Becker says. "But I want to change that."
"They lived in a rundown house in a rough neighborhood. They had very little money and no political power at all. They had nothing to support their bold belief, other than youthful optimism and a marginal grip on 'reality.' "
That's a description of McHenry's original Boston-based Food Not Bombs group in the early '80s. It was written by Jo Swanson, another Food Not Bombs founder who now lives in Durango, Colorado, in her preface to McHenry's latest book. Her words could just as easily describe the SWAMP house today.
McHenry says that when he visited the house, he was shocked by the similarities with his younger days. "Phil and Haylee really remind me of myself and my girlfriend at that age," he says. "A lot of kids ask me how I ended up doing this for 30 years. It's not easy, living in poverty all the time... but it's funny: There's always a Phil and Haylee that I connect with, every few years, in branches all over the world."
It's unclear whether these young activists, like McHenry, will stay involved with Food Not Bombs as they grow older. Reality threatens.
In early August, the SWAMP Collective hosted a day of political and creative workshops that culminated in a punk show and TV-smashing party. While a thunderstorm raged outside, Becker and Johnson held a meeting in the living room on the future of Food Not Bombs. They asked who would be willing to take over the group when they leave to travel.
After a moment, Sprinkle and Silverstein, the chapter's founders, volunteered. Becker was satisfied with the handover — "I love Brian," she says — and the group disbanded to the backyard, where they listened to music and put on a puppet show, featuring Dan the Pandarchist (whose repertoire is available on YouTube) instructing people how to forsake mass media in favor of do-it-yourself entertainment. Later, they smashed television sets they had found on Craigslist, then spray-painted them and filled them with dirt. Then there was fire-spinning and folk-singing and conversation late into the night. The homeless people who had been at the weekly sharing were invited too.
City Attorney Stewart says Fort Lauderdale is still researching ways to require people to share food only in a specific spot. "We plan to have some kind of report back to the City Commission in three to six months," he said in August. "We want to mirror [the Orlando ordinance] as much as we can, so at least we have an argument when we get sued."
Arnold Abbott, the instigator of all these legal troubles, doesn't believe the city will ever be able to find a perfect distribution spot. "I don't think there will ever be somebody who says, 'Yeah, my backyard's available.' " He continues, "It took five court battles for us to win the right to stay on the beach, and it'll take further legal action to get us off."
In June, Cate McCaffrey, the city's director of business enterprises and a member of the task force, offered to meet with Food Not Bombs members to hear their feedback. Becker invited her to a sharing at the park.
McCaffrey arrived at the gazebo and talked with Becker, who was distributing food. Becker says, "I told her I had to go get something from the car and held the spoon out to her and was like, 'Can you hold this for a second?' "
McCaffrey found herself serving food to the people whom her bosses might soon banish from the park. Later, she sat in the consensus meeting and raised her hand when she wanted to speak.
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