On Deplatforming Wrestlers

On Shlak, Game Changer Wrestling, and wrestling-as-speech

Update as of 7/14/20: This morning, Shlak posted a video addressing this history and GCW announced that members of hate groups are unwelcome at their events. 

Content warning for a discussion of abuse, misogyny, rape culture, neo nazi groups, and stories related to the #SpeakingOut movement.

There are bad people in the world of professional wrestling. That’s both an obvious thing to say and an understatement, but it’s important to say at the beginning of this discussion because the concept of good people and bad people is either one that is roundly rejected, or is subjective and based on a person’s experiences, beliefs, and comfort.

In saying that there are bad people in wrestling, I am letting you know what moral ground I stand on, and based on any number of articles I’ve written for Fanfyte, you can probably tell where I draw my lines. In saying that I believe there are bad people in wrestling, I am not claiming that I am capable of judging the hearts of the men, women, and non-binary people within it. It’s possible, after all, for people to reform and change, for certain parts of personal narratives to be obfuscated while others are blown out of proportion, or for a person to be the victim of outright falsehood.

More professional wrestling:

There are better terms for what I’m going to discuss than “bad person,” but since the definitions we’re dealing with are inherently hazy, I’m using it to make a claim so broad that it’s hardly controversial: there are bad people in the world of professional wrestling, but there shouldn’t be. Who is or isn’t bad, and who gets to judge them, is ultimately why wrestling remains a dangerous, uncomfortable place for its many fans who fall outside of the white, cis, male experience towards which the medium is pitched, which is something a lot of wrestling fans have learned as a consequence of the #SpeakingOut movement.

It is my belief, based on years of seeing accusations by fans and performers of various abuses within the industry, that without the hashtag, without the sheer tonnage of well-corroborated allegations, that nothing would have happened. That it would all be perceived as just another crazy fan. Just another jealous worker. But wrestlers who’ve done bad things are facing consequences en masse now—there’s been releases, there’ve been pledges to not book or work with certain performers, and there’s been mass ostracization of men whose ostracization felt impossible until now.

Now that we’re here, we need to talk consequences, because wrestling is very, very new to consequences. Until now, it’s been easy for wrestlers to say, support, and do sketchy shit with little to no consequence because there’s always something else to watch, some other story to be angry about. The world has boiled away most wrestling shows, has whittled down American wrestling to the issues of the substance of its narrative, its handling of coronavirus, and the #SpeakingOut movement. All of this is huge, but when you take the 20+ show schedule and reduce it to less than 10 hours of wrestling and the occasional indie show, there’s suddenly a lot more time to sit with controversies that’d otherwise get lost in the flood.

Last week, Shlak, a Game Changer Wrestling mainstay known for deathmatch wrestling and past connections with neo-Nazi hate group the Atlantic City Skins, showed up at GCW’s Backyard Wrestling 2 by hitting a wrestler with his car. This was meant to evoke the infamous Big Japan spot where Matsunaga tried to run over John Zandig, but looked too much like the rising tide of car ramming attacks at Black Lives Matter, anti-ICE, and other protests, including one that killed activist Summer Taylor later that night in Seattle, Washington. The ongoing debate as to whether or not he should be appearing on any wrestling shows, let alone one as popular and influential as GCW, began anew.

Despite how long wrestling has been a popular form of entertainment, it’s been difficult to define what, exactly, it is—choose your battle: sport, art, non-political entertainment; pretty much any label you can put on wrestling has its subscribers and detractors, which makes it difficult to determine what should happen when a wrestler crosses a line that directly affect’s a promotion’s ability to draw money and exist with the gravitas necessary to do so.

If you accept that wrestling can — at the very least — be defined as public performance, then it is an act of speech. If that’s what we’re talking about, then one can consider an individual wrestler a speaker and the ring their platform. And if that’s what we’re talking about, then the act of making a value judgement as to whether or not a wrestler is a good or bad person becomes the act of deciding whether or not a person is a bad actor, at which point we’re talking about deplatforming.

Deplatforming is a heavy word in The Discourse, because when we talk about whether or not a person should be allowed to perform an act of public speech, we’re suddenly engaging with the Constitution, a document whose first amendment disallows the government of the United States of America to, among other things, enact laws prohibiting the freedom of speech.

When protests around the college lectures, Twitter accounts, and book deals of people like Milo Yiannopoulos crop up, freedom of speech tends to be the argument against efforts to deplatform them, both on the right and left sides of the political spectrum, as well as the idea that people are allowed to make money to support themselves. Those arguments sound so broad that writing them out feels like making a strawman argument. But despite college Republican groups, book publishers, and Twitter not being state-funded endeavors, the idea of free speech has become so convoluted that this whole week has been consumed by an open letter in support of free speech published in Harper’s and signed by a who’s who of people whose careers are built on disingenuous debates (especially as to the validity of trans lives and/or movements like Black Lives Matter and BDS), and others who have a pretty well-documented history of trying — and frequently succeeding — to get critics fired from their jobs for their criticism.

In wrestling, this is obfuscated by the addition of kayfabe. When you book a wrestler to perform on your show, you’re not booking the person so much as you’re booking their act. Wrestling being a hodgepodge of acts ranging from “guy down the street” to “good wrestler” to “teeth loving demon who ends a lot of words by adding ‘hausen’ to them,” even the most well-intentioned wrestling promoter can book a monstrous person without knowing it, either because their actions are buried under layer after layer of gimmick, or because even deep Google sleuthing turns up nothing.

But we aren’t talking about the unknown here. We’re talking about wrestlers whose actions, past and present, are known. Fans have made their value judgments, it’s just that the consequences remain up in the air. Why? Well, on the indies at least, it’s because the only option available is deplatforming, and the weight of such an idea is too heavy for an industry that’s struggled to process basic racism, misogyny, and homophobia, let alone serial abuse and shady pasts. So let’s talk about shady pasts.

Let’s talk about Shlak.

Shlak, born Martin Joseph Schacteer, is a deathmatch wrestler with four years experience in professional wrestling, working his way up from Combat Zone Wrestling’s Dojo Wars shows to featured player status in Game Changer Wrestling. GCW being what it is, Shlak’s reputation grew with the company’s. His edgy visage and ability to withstand the punishment inherent to deathmatches is as much a part of the fabric of that company as Joey Janela and Nick Gage. As the promotion began to travel out of its New Jersey home, so did he. Within a year, he was traveling to Mexico, where he won the Desastre Total Ultraviolento World Extreme Title. When GCW began traveling to Japan in 2019, he went with them and has since picked up bookings in FREEDOMS and Big Japan Pro-Wrestling, two promotions that act as a kind of high watermark for his style of wrestling.

All of this suggests a rather charmed experience in wrestling, but in 2017 Shlak was was booked for one of WWN’s Style Battle shows (WWN was the parent company of EVOLVE Wrestling until WWE purchased it this year), and details about his background, largely exchanged in whisper networks within wrestling, began surfacing. Many of these are detailed in a 2017 Paste Wrestling article by Ed Blair. The basic objections to Shlak, as explained there, are as follows: he was a member of Call the Paramedics, a band largely known for its misogynistic lyrics and rape joke merchandising, and, however loose it was, he had a dalliance with the Atlantic City Skins. Like a lot of stories in wrestling, Shlak’s began unfolding when an anonymous Twitter account (@wordsbig80s) posted about him as a rejoinder to his burgeoning hype.

Because Shlak was “just” getting booked in deathmatch promotions like GCW and CZW, Shlak’s response to @wordsbig80s, “if you can’t see I’m laughing there and that’s a joke your [sic] pretty dense lol that’s the whole reason this garbage started hahah,” was taken at face value and he was allowed to keep eating light tubes and building his rep.

But let’s look at this photograph a little more closely. If you take Shlak’s word that this is a joke because he and the guy at the center of the frame are smiling and laughing, you’re accepting that the fat guy in the leather jacket to their right, looking off into the distance, is the butt of the joke. But my eye keeps moving from him to the person in the middle, and the loud Iron Cross on his sieg heil-ing arm. If he’s in on the joke, his tattoo is a deep commitment to the bit. According to multiple antifascist blog posts about ACS activity around that time, the man in the middle is Ryan “Cody” Hoebel, who has other Nazi tattoos more obvious than the Iron Cross.

A photo of Ryan “Cody” Hoebel, recently circulating on twitter incorrectly as being a photo of Shlak. Sourced from phillyantifa.org

Let’s go back to wrestling for a moment. The picture of Shlak, Hoebel, and an unidentified man the two were making fun of was tweeted in February, WWN’s Style Battle books him in June, the photo circulates again, and he’s quickly unbooked. This is where the controversy over Shlak really begins in wrestling. You have a situation where fans tweet for and against his expulsion from wrestling, wrestlers tweet that it’s possible that Shlak’s changed, and bookers tweet that they didn’t know about Shlak’s past, despite it being so early in his wrestling career that most Google search results for him at the time would have involved Call the Paramedics or the ACS.

If getting Shlak unbooked from a show a couple of steps removed from WWE’s feeder league felt like a victory in 2017 (and, for the sake of transparency, I was one of many who tried to get him unbooked, and it did feel like victory), the past three years of constant re-arbitration of his past and continued rise have felt like punishment. His home promotion, GCW, is larger now than any of the promotions that didn’t book him as a consequence of that 2017 action. He has a presence in Japan. And, because of swiftness with which wrestling news occurs and the haphazard way in which it’s covered, Shlak’s rehabilitation, like the rehabilitation of many professional wrestlers, happened so quietly that his appearance at GCW’s Backyard Wrestling 2 looked like, to many, a “surprise booking” of a blackballed wrestler as opposed to what it was: the continuation of an ongoing relationship that only stopped due to a global pandemic.

In early 2018, the noise around the issue, this one photograph in particular, was so loud that GCW addressed their critics, which is unusual territory for them. Here, in full, is that statement:

The time has come for us to address the controversial issue of SHLAK…

Those who follow social media closely may be aware that there is a group of people, some named and some using anonymous accounts that are spreading the idea that SHLAK is a “neo nazi” or “nazi sympathizer”. Many of these opinions are based on a photo which surfaced on the internet last year, which shows SHLAK performing the Nazi salute while standing next to a white supremacist.

That photograph, taken nearly 15 years ago shows a young SHLAK in his early 20’s exhibiting poor judgment, and equally poor taste. Upon first view, this photograph could be considered troubling, alarming and offensive to many. Some would say SHLAK owes us an explanation.

Luckily… he gave one in an interview in June of 2017.

Some of SHLAK’s notable quotes from the interview are transcribed below for emphasis and should be considered as such:

“Fuck Nazi shit…”

“I do not support any group or gang and I don’t subscribe to any ideology that narrows who I can associate with.”

“I take full responsibility and own up to my foolish decision. My action was inconsiderate to the tragedy that occurred.”

“I apologize to anyone that has been offended by my action and I admit that I have made some dumb choices in my life.”

“…no malice was ever intended, just poor humor.”

Further context and screenshots from this interview have been attached to this post as well.

The interview can be read in its entirety here: http://wrestlingnews.co/other/shlak-issues-statement-i-dont-support-any-group-or-gang-nor-am-i-a-homophobe-or-racist/

This apology and explanation have been deemed unacceptable by certain members of wrestling’s social media hierarchy. As such, SHLAK has been branded as a “Nazi” and those who wish to employ him, associate with him, work with him, or call him a friend are labeled as “Nazi Sympathizers”. Those same people have made it their mission to hold us all in contempt, and have sought to hinder both Shlak’s ability to further his career, and in particular GCW’s attempts to do business both inside and outside of our home base in New Jersey.

These detractors are entitled to their opinion. However, we respectfully disagree. The purpose of this post is to state our position when it comes to SHLAK and anyone else in our employ who have made poor decisions in their past. Here it is:

We believe in SHLAK as a person. We believe in SHLAK as a performer. We support him 100% under the belief that his word is real and true. OUR opinion is based on our own personal relationships with SHLAK. From those in management, to the performers, to the support staff and most importantly our fans, we consider SHLAK a friend and believe in his character as a human being.

ALL of us, both inside GCW and out have made mistakes. We have all made poor decisions. We have all said and done things we regret. This situation is no different.

We believe that those who have recognized mistakes in their past should not be condemned for life. We believe in second chances, and in some cases, even a third.

Anyone who has either worked for GCW or attended our events can attest to the diversity of our locker room and our fanbase. GCW is comprised of multiple races, ethnicities, and religions. WE speak multiple languages. WE come from different cities, states, countries and continents. WE are men, women, and everything in between, and WE are comprised of those with a full range of sexual preferences. While GCW is a company full of outsiders, nobody is an outsider at GCW.

GCW as a company has been built on the backs of the forgotten. Many of us have been told we aren’t good enough. We’ve been undervalued, disrespected, and left behind. This lends to the strong bond that is shared between our locker room and our fans, and it has contributed to any and all success we have been lucky enough to achieve both in the past, and any that awaits us in the future.

Sometimes, it’s best to let go. Sometimes it’s best to cut ties. Sometimes pressure from the outside leaves with you no choice but to make a tough decision and part ways with someone you like and respect, even when you know it’s not the right thing to do,

This won’t be one of those circumstances.

Thanks for reading.

Without digging too much into GCW’s language, that familiar “all of us have skeletons in our closet, we’re a diverse group of individuals” double speak that vaguely addresses the issue at hand by smothering it in its cradle, you know exactly where they stand. Which is on Shlak’s side, regardless of the consequences. In 2018, those consequences were fans trying (and mostly failing) to alert venues and promotions that GCW worked with that someone with connections to a neo-Nazi skinhead group would be coming along with them.

But what gets me in 2020 is the cherry-picking of the statement Shlak gave to wrestlingnews.co, particularly the “Fuck Nazi Shit” line, as the full sentence is “Fuck Nazi Shit and fuck antifa as well.” GCW isn’t run by journalists, but cutting the “fuck antifa as well” in early 2018, as antifascist action was becoming a buzzword in mainstream media, skews Shlak’s statement in a way that’s far more positive than it actually is, regardless of your feelings about antifa.

In that statement, Shlak mentions that he’s been asked to account for his prior associations with ACS before, which is true. In 2015, two years before his debut in CZW (likely while he was a student at the CZW dojo), his background came to the fore when he appeared as a rapist in a parody video for a rape whistle by the band Sparklefight (which featured ex-Call the Paramedics member Michael Beer, also a member of the band Rape Master Awesome) which led to calls for boycotting the band and a venue they were associated with, Connie’s Ric Rac. According to a change.org petition, Shlak’s band at the time, Eat the Turnbuckle, was already banned, but a member of Sparklefight was the Ric Rac’s booker and booked shows promoted by Shlak’s Useless Drunk Promotions. 1,155 signatures were gathered, and shows with ties to Shlak (but not Sparklefight) were cancelled.

To further contextualize Shlak’s 2015 statement on the matter of his association with the ACS, he reached out to Ida Vox, an antifa website that had previously covered Call the Paramedics’ booking as an opening act for a Dying Fetus show at a Clifton, New Jersey venue called Dingbatz the same weekend as a neo-Nazi rally in Trenton, about an hour away. The site mentioned Call the Paramedics as a neo-Nazi leaning band in further coverage of Dingbatz’s continued behavior of booking neo-Nazi leaning bands. (Someone associated with the club told Ida Vox that “never once was there any kind of situation involving neo-Nazis.”) In his statement to Ida Vox/One People’s Project, Shlak said “I know all walks of life and grew up around those dudes. That doesn’t make me share their politics or views. I’m not a Nazi. Just an asshole.”

The meaning of “association.”

That Shlak came up in the same scene as the ACS is news wrestling fans learn and re-learn every time he does something controversial, like the aforementioned spot with his car. And it’s the cause of some cognitive dissonance when that new knowledge joins the existing knowledge of him tweeting tips for handling getting tear gassed at political actions the police turn into riots.

In the Ida Vox piece, Shlak claims that neo-Nazis were just there in the scene, both musically and in his life as a tattoo artist, and, you know what? That’s entirely plausible. In the hardcore scene and in professional wrestling, musicians and wrestlers alike have noted that their initial discomfort about Shlak melted away with time and contact. I won’t, I can’t, preclude the notion that he’s a decent guy who got caught up in a bad scene and figured it out as he grew up. But what is undeniable, what Shlak cannot outright deny, is that the Atlantic City Skins were comfortable enough with him to promote his band as being booked on their shows, and that Shlak, either as a member of Call the Paramedics or in his association with Sparklefight, never refuted claims of knowing members of the ACS or playing those shows until 2015.

A 2008 Stormfront post advertising a benefit for Chris Arlen, a leader of the Atlantic City Skins. Call the Paramedics is a featured act.

The only people whose word we have to go on when it comes to questions like “did Call the Paramedics play a benefit for the leader of a neo-Nazi hate group?” and “were Call the Paramedics introduced on a show by a member of the ACS who is currently in prison for murdering his girlfriend?” are members of the band, of which Shlak, the man most directly affected by those questions, is the most vocal.

That’s what makes it so difficult to arbitrate a guy like him, whose statements on the subject are impossible to verify, because antifa isn’t paying to get into a Neo-Nazi benefit, and the Neo-Nazis he admits to hanging out with aren’t going to speak to his presence or absence from the group. Regardless, Call the Paramedics’ existence and the presence of the ACS in the same space fulfilled its purpose: putting a hate group in a position where they could more easily recruit new members. So while I’d hesitate to call Shlak a Nazi — every article I’ve read on the subject of him hesitates to go beyond the word “associate” — one reason the issue has never gone away is because being the guy standing next to the Nazi with a beer in hand and a smile on one’s face does the work of normalizing Nazis. And whether Shlak likes it or not, he has been in a fair number of pictures with Nazis.

Shlak with ACS members Warren Meickle and Jimmy Keating. Meickle was the frontman of white power bands Aggravated Assault and Chaos 88. Photo sourced from https://nomattimen.wordpress.com/
Shlak (second from right) with other associates and members of ACS, including Chris Arlen. Photo sourced from https://nomattimen.wordpress.com/
Shlak posing with ACS member Vincent De Felice. Photo sourced from https://phlanticap.noblogs.org/

These pictures are old, but in order for Shlak to truly begin the process of moving beyond them, it is of paramount importance that he acknowledges at least this: if he didn’t explicitly welcome Neo-Nazis to his shows, he didn’t discourage them from attending, he was friendly with them, and in effect created a safe space for them to hang out, drink beer, and seem like chill, normal people, directly contravening the goal of keeping Nazis out of the hardcore scene by effectively acting as their foot in the door.

That is what wrestling fans who’ve tweeted about Shlak for three years have asked for. Instead of this concession, we get “Fuck Nazi Shit and fuck antifa as well,” damning his friends, sure, but also throwing in another group of activists whose crime here is hitting him in the wallet by forcing him out of the scene. His last release was a 2016 Eat the Turnbuckle EP. Since then, so far as I can tell, wrestling has been his primary creative endeavor.

An out of print Shlak shirt that approximates KISS font, which appropriated the famous S of the waffen-SS, which is something most people with Shlak’s past would do well to avoid.

In the 2015 Ida Vox conversation with Shlak, they note that one of the issues with Shlak/Call the Paramedics is the way in which rape culture informs their music. That has not come up much in the conversation about Shlak’s presence in professional wrestling, but it’s as important to this discussion as anything else. With song titles like “Tell Your Girlfriends Tits To Stop Staring At My Eyes,” “The faggot store called and they want their mustache back,” “I just stubbed your camel toe,” “The hardest thing about rollerblading is telling your parents that your [sic] gay,” “Nothin says lovin like a concussion,” and “It’s not rape it’s surprise sex,” you get the idea of where the band stands on the subjects of consensual sex and homosexuality.

Shlak’s label, Useless Drunk, also put out the aforementioned Rape Master Awesome’s EP No Means Yes, featuring “Don’t make me turn this date rape into a homicide” and “The pleasure is all mine (They rapin everybody out there).” “It’s not rape it’s surprise sex” is the most infamous of Call the Paramedics’ songs, as band released a hoodie based on it featuring an image of a man in a hoodie, black gloves, and a ski mask shooting the thumbs up on the back.

While I don’t have an exact date on the hoodie’s release, Useless Drunk uploaded and maintained the label’s catalog between 2010 and 2015, so age and immaturity is less of an excuse here than in the above photos of him hanging out with ACS members, and the “I’m just an asshole” routine holds no water. Shlak’s rape-rock bonafides are what they are, they contribute as much to his outsider mystique as his tattoos and penchant for bleeding, and while edgelord humor (the most charitable read of the Call the Paramedics catalog) is not proof of wrongdoing, again, we’re talking about songs that are clearly misogynist, music that feeds into a culture that makes it difficult if not impossible to address the very real threat of abuse and rape that follow women in the scenes Shlak is part of.

Misogyny has not been part of Shlak’s character as a professional wrestler, but it’s just hanging there in his background like everything else, the pipeline from enjoying his work in the ring to listening to “It’s not rape it’s surprise sex” on YouTube or Bandcamp as clear as day. This is the kind of thing wrestlers get publicly called to the floor on, regardless of hashtag movements, but it’s eluded Shlak because he used to hang out with Neo-Nazi skins, which is one hell of a way to avoid an issue that’s suddenly extremely relevant in a field where, due to a general lack of options for indie wrestling shows, he’s suddenly one of its most visible, talked-about performers.

What do we do about him?

Antifascists were successful in pushing Shlak to the margins of hardcore music by hounding venues. Wrestling fans have tried the same tactic, but with negligible success. After his appearance at Backyard Wrestling 2, fans began tweeting Game Changer Wrestling directly for some acknowledgement of their concerns about his past association with ACS, but that’s been done before, by myself and by others, to no avail. In replying to a 2018 question of mine, promoter Brett Lauderdale basically repeated the talking points of the statement GCW made the night before:

The company’s line on Shlak since 2018 has remained consistent and is likely to remain so. Lauderdale has tweeted elsewhere that he likes Shlak and what he brings to the company, which means that he perceives some value in having him on his shows, and given that GCW is unarguably the biggest concern in indie wrestling in 2020, GCW’s core fanbase agree with him by virtue of not demanding his removal. Twist the beloved wrestling adage “I don’t see color, I see green” a little, and what you get is “I don’t see hate, I see money.”

And that’s the key, both here and in making sure that #SpeakingOut has lasting consequences for wrestling as a medium. In order for people to be held accountable for their actions, a significant amount of money has to be at stake. And that doesn’t necessarily mean ousting Shlak from wrestling. Most of the people tweeting about Shlak, myself included, have set the bar at a more complete accounting of Shlak’s associations and misogyny, an apology and some proof beyond a wrestling promoter’s word that he has legitimately worked on these issues, and a pledge to do so further.

This is pretty much the ground floor of rehabilitating one’s past as a Nazi-adjacent person, and even then, the work doesn’t stop. Member, associate, or fan, that kind of close contact with the white power movement is a mark that won’t fade—those pictures are out there, that conversation will come up again, and not only do you not get to complain about it, you have to accept that there’s always going to be people in the scene you’re in who either hate you for your past or feel betrayed when they find out about it.

If that doesn’t seem fair, it’s ultimately kinder than calling for and enforcing a full-blown boycott of a performer until they’re ostracized to the point that their contributions to a scene are largely kept in articles like these, which is a consequence Shlak is no stranger to. Whether that’s ultimately what happens to GCW is impossible to say, but none of the other promotions who’ve courted the level of controversy they’ve thrived on thus far have survived as huge, ongoing concerns for various reasons, and the rise and fall of promotions like XPW, IWA-MS, and CZW all happened in a decidedly less woke, less online time.

The question is whether this is the fight fans want to pick with the company, and whether this is the hill it wants to die on. While it’s an issue unlikely to resolve in 2020, it being an issue in 2020 proves that it isn’t going away. A response has to be made. This time it needs to be more substantive than “fuck the people who bought my merch and fuck the people who prevented me from selling it,” and the blame for the issue cannot lay with critics.

Nobody forced Shlak to hang out with the Atlantic City Skins. Nobody forced Shlak to form a band largely known for trivializing rape. And wrestlers are not obligated a platform and an envelope stuffed with money. Like every other act of speech, wrestling can be done in private. People have been doing it in backyards, with no cameras rolling, for decades. Shlak can deal with his past and accept the consequences, or he can do with wrestling what he does with music and noodle with it where only his friends can see.

There are other deathmatch wrestlers to book. GCW can try booking a women’s match. The only person being forced into a corner here is Shlak, the only person whose character is in question here is his. But if fans want to support GCW, they have to accept that they’re supporting the promotion’s hands-off approach to two subjects that are critical to activist movements dating back decades. A better professional wrestling is possible, but to make it, we cannot be hands off. Here’s an obvious place to start. Here’s all the evidence. Do with it what you will.

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Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

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