July 4, 2021
From The Anarchist Library
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Introduction

What role can anarchists in the United States play in popular uprisings like the ones
of 2020? While many of us made solid contributions to the riots, the events of last
year also highlighted some of our significant deficiencies. Anarchists’ attempts to
show up to riots in the ways in which we’re accustomed, at least here in Philly, often
felt ineffective and at best out of touch with those around us. I still believe that
anarchists have the potential to contribute in crucial ways to destroying this system
and making another end of the world possible. At this point, though, a willingness
to reflect on and question our views is needed in order to really move in that
direction.

This question of anarchist participation is fundamentally intertwined with issues
around race and whiteness, and the past year’s discourse on the topic has felt typically
inadequate in addressing these questions. Leaving the bad-faith nature of many of
the critiques aside, many white anarchists have found it easier to dismiss criticisms
by automatically conflating them with liberalism or political opportunism. While
this is often accurate, it shouldn’t allow us to not take questions about our
relationship to whiteness seriously. Whiteness isn’t just a skin color that non-white
people happen to be skeptical of. It’s also a particular kind of colonized (and
colonizing) mentality that restricts our imagination and can affect everything from
how we interact in the streets to what we as individuals personally envision as our
insurrectionary future (or lack thereof).

Aside from the anarchists who were radicalized over this past year, most anarchists
today came into radical politics through resistance to Trump’s presidency (which
centered on an “antifa” that was majority white in the public imaginary, and often in
reality), an Occupy movement dominated by white progressives, or what are now
called the anti-globalization struggles of the early 2000’s. Throughout these
movements, anarchists of color have also appeared alongside white anarchists in the
streets, though not necessarily identifying with them, and have tried to carve out
space for the primacy of anti-racist struggles. But this past year has been a visceral
and unavoidable reminder that Black (as well as Indigenous) radical struggles against
the state have always been and continue to be far more powerful than most
anarchists’ occasional vandalisms, or even our more targeted (but isolated) acts of
property destruction.

This article tries to take seriously the claim that white people, including white
anarchists, will not be the protagonists of liberatory struggle in the United States —
not in order to marginalize anarchists’ uncompromised visions of freedom from the
state, capital, and white supremacy, but instead to reveal some underexplored
strategies for how we might actually get there. Today we face an unprecedented crisis
of capital and the state, and despite our best efforts none of us can predict how any
of it will shake out. Despite the Biden administration’s best efforts to restore order
and recuperate rebellion, it feels like the chaos that boiled over last year is fated to
return, especially as ecological and economic collapse creep closer and the everyday
executions of Black people continue with no particular changes that we can observe.
In this context, we look around and take our inspiration from the resistance we see
actually happening, even if it counteracts some of our inherited assumptions and
desires. Right now, all possibilities are on the table.

This essay begins with some brief reflections on anarchist activity in the context of
uprisings in several cities in the U.S. over this past year. In cities like Portland and
Seattle, anarchist activity has shown both the potential and the limits of some tried-
and-true tactics of the insurrectionary anarchist approach that’s been established in
the U.S. over the past couple decades. The rest of the essay explores other traditions
that might expand our sense of how insurrections occur and how we might personally
participate in moving things in that direction. We also include [not in the online
version] a Philly-specific map that we hope will provide a useful resource for readers
in Philly. Maybe it’ll also inspire others elsewhere in how they approach future
moments of potential insurrection and State collapse.

Anarchist Strategy in the Streets

Unlike cities like Philly, where open conflict with the cops erupted for only a few
days and was quickly followed by weeks of peaceful protests, Portland protesters kept
rioting against the police all summer and have been an inspiration for their bravery
and dedication in the streets. For the past year, black blocs have consistently done
“direct actions” in which they marched to a police building or until they were met
with a line of riot cops, where fighting and destruction would ensue.

From afar, it also looks like clandestine actions have been on the rise in Portland
since at least the fall of 2020. The recently published zine “This Rose Has Thorns:
A Year of Anarchist Attacks in So-Called Portland” compiles communiques from
these actions, including one that reports setting an unattended cop car on fire
overnight (it also references the four police vehicles that were similarly targeted in
Philly in August 2020). These acts seem strategically important, not necessarily in
their immediate impact, but at least in developing skills that can help take riots to
the next level or prepare people to take part in some kind of guerilla strategy, if the
State reaches a certain point of instability. The April 12th attack on Portland Police
Bureau cars in their parking lot, while a demonstration was attacking cops head-on
at the sheriff’s headquarters elsewhere, is an example of moving towards this type of
anarchist contribution to a mass uprising.

The communiques accompanying these actions seem to be thinking through some
of the limits of Portland’s ongoing street-fighting strategy. One communique notes
that “the cops have made public statements addressing how they are not responding
to 911 calls due to their focus on brutally attacking and arresting protesters,”
implying that this frees up possibilities for anarchists to attack outside demos. The
writers additionally note that “the police are not (and should not) be our only target”
(“Starbucks and Whole Foods Attacked for Night 100”). Another communique
reports removing and destroying dozens of Amazon Ring and Google Nest doorbell
cameras, encouraging us to expand our understanding of law enforcement to include
these elements of surveillance.

The goals expressed in this communique and others, though, are themselves limited
to spreading action across the city — which in reality is not a goal, but more like a
strategy for getting to one. We tend not to name the goal itself — insurrection? —
maybe because it seems so far out of reach, or because we believe that insurrection is
an ongoing process, rather than a one-and-done event like the “revolutions” of the
past. It remains to be said, though, that going out to fight the cops head-on night
after night is not a limited strategy because it doesn’t stretch the cops thin enough
— although that is certainly true — but because it seems unlikely to destroy what
we ultimately want to see destroyed.

While radicals in Portland seem to be concentrating on escalating street-fighting
tactics and honing their ability to do targeted clandestine attacks, anarchists in
Seattle have proposed broadening these approaches through decentralized action.
“Decentralized Action: A Brief History and Tactical Proposal” (published on Puget
Sound Anarchists in November 2020) describes the regular marches as “daily actions
tying up and attacking the infrastructure which maintains the white-supremacist
American police state” and notes that the “high visibility of these ongoing actions
opens up considerable space for decentralized militant actions to occur away from
the public callouts.” The proposal emphasizes decentralizing action in order to
minimize police efficacy (with examples ranging from incidents during the George
Floyd rebellions, to attacks on fascists, to prior years’ May Day calls for autonomous
actions). It proposes attacking targets elsewhere in the city at the same time that
mass public mobilizations are happening.

I think it’s important in these moments to be clear about how exactly this might
move us towards collective liberation. Is the idea to take a kind of vengeful pleasure
as the cops become spread thin and helpless, lacking resources and publicly losing
their shit? Regardless of whatever else happened, I think a lot of us experienced that
particular type of joy last summer. Is it to experiment with our capacity to attack,
pitting ourselves against the vast resources of the state? Is it a kind of practice for an
insurrection, with many more steps yet to be taken? Could it itself lead to an
insurrection?

Anarchists’ Role in the Riot

In Philly, anarchists were far from being the main character of the 2020 uprisings.
Most anarchists attended the Walter Wallace riots around 52nd St in October in an
observational or supportive role, joining the fierce street fighting initiated by the
majority-black residents of that neighborhood. In that context, those who arrived in
black bloc were met with skepticism and occasionally with violence. At least one
group of anarchists in bloc got jumped near 52nd St, while another pair were accused
of being cops, then agitators, and narrowly avoided being attacked.

It was heartwarming to see multi-racial groups of people coming together to fight
cops in the streets and set things on fire — this happened especially in May, when
riots erupted in the wealthier downtown, commercial zone where none of us had
anything at stake and everything felt up for grabs. The antipathy towards anarchists
in bloc, though, when the riots moved to West Philly — a gentrifying neighborhood
where many of us live, but are not originally from — shows us that these multi-racial
moments of struggle are far from doing away the real hierarchies and differences
between us, even in the joy and chaos of the moment. Many of us who are white
anarchists severely underestimate the extent to which non-white people, whether
rebels or reactionaries, distrust white people, regardless of what they hear us say
about our politics. This distrust is heightened when they see us in their places of
residence.

This brings up questions of how (or whether) to participate in such uprisings, and
how to present ourselves in the process. One approach would be to show up in a role
that’s clearly supportive and shows solidarity — handing out rocks and bats to people
fighting cops, offering assistance to people getting tear gassed while looting. Others
have pointed out the importance of responding to accusations against us in the
moment, when possible, and engaging in conversations about what we’re doing there
and why.

As white radicals we can only get more answers to these questions by having more
honest conversations about how we relate to and carry ourselves in the midst of a
struggle that is fundamentally about and carried out by Black people. As a multi-
racial anarchist space, we can look for additional answers by considering how we as
anarchists can contribute to destabilizing State power in ways that only we as
anarchists will want to do (this aspect is addressed in the following section, “Beyond
the Riot”). In the case of white radicals especially, it would benefit us to pay closer
attention to what non-anarchists are saying, since our subcultural isolation can lead
us to make mistaken assumptions about what we have in common with other rioters.
Anarchists often see riots as some kind of confirmation of our own desires and ways
of seeing things, for example, when in reality there is probably a lot going on there
that is well out of the scope of our experience and understanding. This doesn’t mean
compromising our core principles, it just means that none of us know everything and
we can benefit from being more flexible and creative, something we pride ourselves
on as anarchists anyway.

One example would be to consider the conditions under which something like black
bloc emerged and why we tend to react so defensively whenever that tactic is
questioned. The bloc has been a major point of identity for most of us anarchists in
the U.S. since, to my knowledge, the anti-globalization struggles of the 2000s. In
the era of summit-hopping, anarchists would form a massive bloc within an even
larger, more liberal march. This allowed them to signal militancy while also using
the bigger, more liberal crowd as a shield. This use of bloc continued in bigger cities
more recently, for example in New York during the Occupy era.

It’s also accustomed us to having to constantly defend the use of bloc — to liberals
— since it is now (usually correctly) associated with an intention to escalate or to
support escalation in the context of a public demonstration. Despite these
interminable arguments, bloc has still been the best way to keep ourselves safe while
we engage in property destruction or otherwise break the law. Everyone wearing the
same color provides anonymity on a whole different level.

But what about when the larger crowd around us is not a bunch of (mostly white)
liberals and pacifists, but Black or other non-white people who are for the most part
attacking the police and businesses much more intensely than the individuals in bloc?
When people from those populations are threatening or attacking us for arriving
dressed all in black, maybe that is no longer the safest outfit for us. Maybe more
conversations and propaganda will open up understanding as to why we dress that
way, but in its absence, it is understandable why the intentions of a group of white
people in bloc roving around a riotous Black neighborhood, the residences and
existences of whom have already been under threat by white people for generations,
are not automatically trusted. And when we are mostly barely keeping up in the
streets, and are not really capable of defending ourselves from attack by people we
thought might be comrades, does the militancy of the all-black aesthetic really still
feel appropriate for us?

The geography of the city is complex and also worth considering along race and class
lines, whether in the context of mass rioting or autonomous demos. On the first
night of the riots following Walter Wallace’s death in October, the big march that
gathered in West Philly split between protesters who headed east to the more
gentrified University City area, and others who turned back west to the precinct
where Wallace’s family was gathered. Tension erupted in this split between people
who felt that everyone should follow the lead of the grieving family and people who
wanted to target UCity because it was a whiter and wealthier neighborhood. In the
end, the UCity march did significant damage to police stations in that neighborhood
and marched victoriously back west to 52nd Street, where by that time rioting and
looting had already been initiated on a massive scale by residents of that area.

Beyond the Riot

Anarchists are not necessarily the most militant rioters or looters, then, but we have
visions of a future free of oppression, and of how to get there, that others may not.
With regard to street fighting and action, this means we can think purposefully and
in advance about what we might target in moments of mass uprisings. As the Seattle
anarchists and others have pointed out, we can intentionally decentralize our attacks
so as to make it harder for police to do their job. This can prolong riots and expand
the scope of an uprising’s destructiveness, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the
most desirable outcome of this approach would be to ultimately make that job —
policing — permanently impossible. In order to do so, we must again think not only
about decentralizing our actions, but also what our actions target. What elements of
the State might we be able to take out that, coordinated with a sustained crisis of
policing, could take mass uprisings over the precipice of State collapse?

These questions might feel like a total nosedive into the realm of fantasy at this point
(sorry to the Philly nihilists reading this), but I think it makes sense for those of us
who talk about destroying the State and are out in the streets about it to think about
how we might get there. Moreover, if things eventually do get completely out of the
State’s control, how would we then help hold whatever it is we’ve gained? Especially
if defending a city like Philly involves opening up resources on a massive scale, so
that the State can’t creep back in because it turns out people can’t live without it. It
also involves protecting comrades against right-wing mob reaction and intervening
so that certain other groups can’t swoop in and turn it all into some kind of disgusting
authoritarian socialist paradise. It’s not possible, nor is it desirable, for us to plan
these things in advance, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think and dream and
prepare for them.

In the Bay Area, radicals have taken up a use of clandestine attack that, while not
happening at exactly the same time as mass protests in the streets, capitalizes on
popular sentiment against governance and directly targets those responsible. In July
2020, as resistance swelled around the crises of policing and housing, vandals
targeted the mayor of Oakland’s home; in January 2021, Nancy Pelosi’s house in San
Francisco was vandalized along with that of Mitch McConnell in Kentucky,
expressing widespread rage at the time about the U.S. government’s failure to give
us our money. Also in January, more than 30 anti-racists attacked San Francisco’s
ICE office, expressing an intention “to initiate what will hopefully be the first in a
series of breaks into and out of prisons and detention centers throughout the
country.” It remains to be seen if more of us will dare to emulate (and take much
further) actions like these that directly target State institutions and the individuals
in charge, especially in moments when the destabilizing context of mass protests
might exponentially multiply such attacks’ effects.

The Context of Anti-State Struggle
in the United States

The picture I’ve been painting of black bloc anarchists stepping into a Black
neighborhood that’s already on fire leads us to some bigger questions about the
context in which most anarchists find ourselves in this blood-soaked, colonized,
white supremacist continent. When we ask the deep question — how could an
insurrection actually happen here? — and begin to prepare ourselves to participate
in its answer, we must take into account several things.

The United States is an enemy as such, but also insofar as it is still the primary
manager of a capitalist world system. Less acknowledged and even less understood,
the United States is also a settler colonial project that depends for its existence on an
ongoing legacy of chattel slavery. Certain populations on this continent have been at
war with the settler project, whether to maintain territory or evade forced labor, since
its inception. While there have certainly been many white radicals and anarchists
who took immense risks to fight American oppression, the most forceful and
effective resistance has by necessity always been by Black people and Indigenous
nations directly threatened with extinction by the U.S. Studying these historical
successes and their limitations can offer us some important insights into how
insurrection could spread in the United States.

Though we can call very few revolutions or struggles “successful” when global
capitalism and colonization are still in effect, the experiments of insurgents
demonstrate pretty conclusively the limits of centralization and the advantages of
decentralized fighting when it comes to winning particular battles or regaining stolen
territory. Russell Maroon Shoatz, a formerly BLA-affiliated political prisoner and
theorist, argues that the Maroon tradition in North and South America shows over
and over again the efficacy of decentralized warfare, rather than a centralized party
or vanguard: “Throughout the western hemisphere, we witness these collective
Maroons developing and using a very effective form of decentralized organizing that
not only served to help them defeat their former enslavers, but has helped them
remain autonomous from all unwanted overseers for hundreds of years – until our
time” (110).

As Shoatz points out in his discussion of the history of Suriname, the Africans who
had been brought there and then became Maroons were from many different
backgrounds from one another. This was another reason it was crucial to organize
in a decentralized manner; they managed to stick together through a “collective focus
on defeating their enslavers’ attempts to control them” (110). This was the only thing
like “centralization” that brought them together, given the significant differences
among them. Decisions were made democratically, according to Maroon’s research,
then coordinated and carried out by decentralized groups. Decentralization, as many
insurrectionary anarchists have also tried to point out, does not have to mean a lack
of coordination. These formations prevented imperial powers like the Dutch and
English from being able to target a particular group or leadership and thus take out
the whole movement. Decentralization is the only way to make an insurrectionary
movement unbeatable against a resourced and centralized State power.

The Haitian Revolution from 1791-1804, which is the only revolution in which an
enslaved population rebelled against their imperial captors and won, also used
decentralized elements. Once the revolution was over, its leaders came into power
and sought to tie Haitian peasants to plantation agriculture once more and force
their participation in the global economy. Ordinary Haitians resisted this
throughout the 1800s, acquiring land for themselves rather than working for others.
They withdrew from the market economy by squatting former plantations, moving
to remote mountains, and literally hiding their farms from view. This land-based
strategy was coupled with armed resistance from below — setting fire to slave huts,
sugar mills, and other plantation infrastructure, plus continued practices of West
African voodoo and secret societies, which nurtured traditional spirituality and the
lifeways of a culture. Johnhenry Gonzalez notes that by seeking refuge in the hills
and appropriating land on which to grow their own food, they gradually undermined
the plantation system and ultimately destroyed it. Gonzalez argues that these land-
based approaches made Haiti a “maroon nation” that lived outside the world
economy of its day.

The original Indigenous inhabitants of what is now the United States also managed
to maintain their distance for generations despite state aggression. This history has
many potential lessons and ways of reshaping our worldviews, and we can’t do it
justice here. The most fundamental lesson, though, is again about the primacy of
land — the United States remains a settler-colonial nation that is all about
maintaining its hold on land that it stole.

This is technically true of any nation-state (that its fundamental goal is to take and
hold territory), but in a settler-colonial one like the U.S., it means, first of all, that
the U.S. has specialized methods of taking and controlling territory that it continues
to use on all the populations it controls domestically and attacks abroad. James
Grenier calls this the “American way of war” — a type of irregular warfare “whose
purpose is to destroy the will of the enemy people or their capacity to resist,
employing any means necessary but mainly by attacking civilians and their support
systems, such as food supply…[It] encouraged attacks upon and the destruction of
noncombatants, villages and agricultural resources … in shockingly violent
campaigns to achieve their goals of conquest” (Grenier, quoted in Dunbar-Ortiz 58,
219).

It also means that the U.S. remains in a (mostly hidden) ongoing war with those it
stole the land from, many of whom are still here. We can approach our
insurrectionary aspirations in part by making that war more visible and taking a side
in it, and with the understanding that the land has been devastated by settlers and
needs to be restored to those who have historically shown they are committed to
more responsible relations with it. Moreover, many radicals’ utopian ideals or
notions (such as “the commons”) are at best tone-deaf to the realities of Indigenous
people, and in many cases perpetuate settlers’ hold on the land instead of taking steps
to end it. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in her introduction to An Indigenous Peoples’
History of the United States
, with regard to the willful optimism shared by liberals and
many radicals: “Those who seek history with an upbeat ending, a history of
redemption and reconciliation, may look around and observe that such a conclusion
is not visible, not even in utopian dreams of a better society” (2).

Moreover, while individual racists unfortunately exist all around the world, a specific
kind of white supremacist vigilante violence has played a key role in establishing and
upholding settler colonies like the United States. Dunbar-Ortiz writes: “Western
empire was brought about by ‘small groups of frontiersmen, separated from each
other by great distances,” i.e. settler rangers who autonomously destroyed
Indigenous towns and food supplies. America’s values of democracy and dispersed,
self-sufficient individualism continue to encourage its citizens to independently take
initiative to enforce its racist order — the white vigilante mobs we see today are the
continuation of a foundational traditional that is critical to the operation of the
United States.

Peter Gelderloos (and many others) have argued that this makes the framework of
“anti-fascism” insufficient in a context like the U.S. — settler states encourage a
diffuse model of white supremacy, rather than fascism’s centralized model, “because
the entire point is to get all people who are classified as white to reproduce it
voluntarily” (35). As Yannick Giovanni Marshall writes, “The right to go on a racist
expedition to stop, harass, and kill with effective impunity was not invented by the
modern police but was woven into the settler project of the US colony. It is an
assumed birthright in settler culture.”

Moreover, in contrast to the disciplined adherents of a fascist government, the white
mobs of a settler society often seemingly “conflict” with the official views or practices
of the government (as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has outlined), but ultimately align as
two complementary strategies of enforcing racial order with and without the law.
For example, “the regular army provided lethal backup for settler counterinsurgency
in slaughtering the buffalo, the food supply of Plains peoples, as well as making
continuous raids on settlements to kill or confine the families of the Indigenous
fighters” (Dunbar-Ortiz, 220). Hence the apparent conflict between white mobs and
the U.S. government — most recently with the notorious January 6th Capitol
takeover — which in reality serves the U.S.’s white supremacist project, while
allowing the State itself to look relatively innocent in the process.

A Broader Strategy

What does this all mean for insurrectionaries here and now in the United States?
While we’ve already discussed the need for destructive attacks and other major
interventions into moments of widespread unrest, the following concepts might help
develop a longer-game approach to insurrection:

  • Decentralization: In addition to spreading out our activities during another
    mobilization, those of us who are drawn to this sort of thing can also study
    guerilla strategy and skills, as this would be the way to go up against the State
    (and everyday right-wing vigilantes) in the event of an actual collapse.

  • Multi-racial struggles and white “race traitors”: Our personal visions of rebellion
    and our role in it should be discussed honestly within anarchist spaces,
    political organizations, friend groups, and/or other people in our lives,
    especially across racial lines if possible. The point of this is to build trust and
    relationships
    that can push back against and betray whiteness,
    Eurocentricism, and everything else the State stands for. As we saw last year,
    the State and the media aggressively attempt to worsen interracial distrust
    once multi-racial uprisings break out, so working on building what
    foundations we can in advance would help us all emerge stronger from
    repression and deter recuperation. We will not be able to accomplish much
    without figuring out how to operate together (to a certain extent) despite our
    significant differences.

  • Collective survival: The authors of “A Wager on the Future” wrote back in
    2015, “In whatever form, we must all start posing the question of survival.
    This means that the projects and activities we encourage and amplify through
    organization should concern themselves with the self-organization of life; that
    they should be useful for us as well as for other people; that they should
    support and augment our capacities of struggle, understanding struggle as a
    basic aspect of survival for people who desire liberty” (45). Survival-based
    strategies and fighting-based strategies (similarly to social and anti-social
    insurrectionalism) are most effective when they complement one another in a
    kind of ecosystem of struggle. The authors cite as an example: “As a Mapuche
    comrade said, explaining a project for generating electricity in a community
    in resistance, ‘We don’t want to generate our own electricity just to achieve
    self-sufficiency. By making our own electricity, we can attack and sabotage
    the infrastructures of the State and the companies that occupy our territory,
    infrastructures we currently depend on’” (46).

  • Land: Taking back land from the United States and restoring it whenever
    possible to Indigenous stewardship is an aspect of the “collective survival”
    strategy discussed above, but such a foundational one that it merits its own
    discussion. Capitalism, or civilization more broadly, relies on cutting people
    off from self-sufficiency, a major component of which is the ability to grow
    food and access water. Restoring these abilities is crucial to ending capitalism
    and all other forms of social control; it broadens the possibility of autonomous
    survival. Indigenous people are at the forefront of this effort not just for ethical
    reasons, but for practical ones, since many still carry traditional knowledge of
    how the land works. As Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “Indigenous peoples offer
    possibilities for life after empire” (235).

  • Repression on multiple fronts: While we are familiar with State repression and
    the well-known Leftist betrayals of revolutionary undertakings in the 20th
    century, we are also up against white vigilante groups that aggressively seek to
    carry on the legacy of their settler ancestors. Self-defense is important and we
    should all be down to assess and discuss with our close comrades what our
    capacity is for dealing with these kinds of threats, and what skills we still need
    to learn. Not everyone has to take part in these types of struggles, but those of
    us who say we want to need to be honest with ourselves about what we’re
    willing to do.

References and Recommended
Reading

  • Warrior Up: Techniques for Sabotage (warriorup.noblogs.org)

  • Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

  • Russell Means, “For America to Live, Europe Must Die”

  • Russell Maroon Shoatz, Maroon the Implacable

  • Yannick Giovanni Marshall, “Totalitarianism at 38th and Chicago: A Minnesotan
    Lie”

  • Johnhenry Gonzalez, Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti

  • Peter Gelderloos, “Diagnostic of the Future: Between the Crisis of Democracy and
    the Crisis of Capitalism”

  • Josep Gardeneyes, “A Wager on the Future: Anarchist Organization, the Islamic
    State, the Crisis, and Outer Space”

  • Movement for No Society (Philadelphia, 2018)

  • Thirty-Six Strategms

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