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Obama Says Race Infects U.S. Criminal Justice System

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By Damon C. Williams

Special to the NNPA from the Philadelphia Tribune

PHILADELPHIA – Hours after announcing his administration had secured a multinational pact with Iran to limit their nuclear program, President Barack Obama told the NAACP national convention Tuesday that race has always played an outsized role in incarceration.

“There is a long history of inequity in the justice system in America,” Obama said in Philadelphia. “It’s important for us to realize that violence in our communities is serious and that historically has effected the African-American community, which many times has been under-policed, rather than over-policed.

“Folks were very interested in containing the African-American community, which led to segregated areas, but within those areas, there wasn’t enough police presence. But here’s the thing, over the last few decades, we have also locked up more and more non-violent drug offenders than ever before for longer than ever before, and that is the real reason our prison population is so high.”

Obama said there has been a prison explosion in the U.S. over the past 35 years.

“The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that. Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s. We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined. And it hasn’t always been the case – this huge explosion in incarceration rates. In 1980, there were 500,000 people behind bars in America – half a million people in 1980… Today there are 2.2 million. It has quadrupled since 1980. Our prison population has doubled in the last two decades alone.”

He added that some people should be in jail, including murderers, predators, rapists, gang leaders, drug kingpins. But some low-level, first-time, non-violent drug offenders should not be among those incarcerated, the president said.

“Over the last few decades, we’ve also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before. And that is the real reason our prison population is so high,” he explained. “In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime. If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence. That’s disproportionate to the price that should be paid.”

And people of color are paying a higher price than anyone else, the president stated.

“African Americans and Latinos make up 30 percent of our population; they make up 60 percent of our inmates. About one in every 35 African American men, one in every 88 Latino men is serving time right now. Among White men, that number is one in 214.

The bottom line is that in too many places, Black boys and Black men, Latino boys and Latino men experience being treated differently under the law.”

Obama said he is in favor of reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing, and said he was hopeful of a bipartisan plan in Washington to address sentencing guidelines.

“Today, back in Washington, Republican senators from Utah and Texas are joining Democratic senators from New Jersey and Rhode Island to talk about how Congress can pass meaningful criminal-justice reform this year,” Obama said. “That is very good news. This is a cause that is bringing people in both houses of Congress together and created some unlikely bedfellows.”

The president named unlikely alliances such as the Rand Corporation and Newt Gingrich, Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU, and the NAACP and the ultra-conservative Koch Brothers as examples of organizations and individuals that may have philosophical and ideological differences coming together over criminal justice reform.

Saying that Americans can’t close their eyes anymore, Obama called for bipartisan action to revamp a criminal justice system riddled with inequities that result in unduly harsh prison sentences, particularly for minorities, and cost the federal government $80 billion a year for unwarranted mass incarceration.

“In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime,” Obama said. “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it.”

He spoke one day after he commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders, 14 of whom had been sentenced to life.

Despite the new interest among Republicans in criminal justice legislation, not all GOP legislators saw the president’s commutations as a positive step.

“Commuting the sentences of a few drug offenders is a move designed to spur headlines, not meaningful reform,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a member of the House Judiciary Committee who has proposed bipartisan legislation.

In his address to the NAACP, President Obama acknowledged that racial inequality remains a fact of life in the U.S.

“We made progress, but our work is not done,” he said. “By just about every measure, the life chances for Black and Hispanic youth still lag far behind those of their White peers. Our kids, America’s children, so often are isolated, without hope, less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to earn a college degree, less likely to be employed, less likely to have health insurance, less likely to own a home.”

And part of that is by design, he said.

“Part of this is a legacy of hundreds of years of slavery and segregation, and structural inequalities that compounded over generations. It did not happen by accident,” he explained. “Partly it’s a result of continuing, if sometimes more subtle, bigotry – whether in who gets called back for a job interview, or who gets suspended from school, or what neighborhood you are able to rent an apartment in – which, by the way, is why our recent initiative to strengthen the awareness and effectiveness of fair housing laws is so important. So we can’t be satisfied or not satisfied until the opportunity gap is closed for everybody in America. Everybody.”

Obama Becoming More Outspoken on Race

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By George E. Curry

NNPA Editor-in-Chief

Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C.WASHINGTON (NNPA) – When President Obama returns to Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C. Friday to eulogize Rev. Clementa Pinckney, it will cap a period in which he has become increasingly outspoken on race, even uttering the N-word to make a point about the slow pace of progress in race relations.

Commenting on the Charleston tragedy on June 18, President Obama said, “The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history. This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked. And we know that hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.”

He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. following the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

“The good news is I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome. That, certainly, was Dr. King’s hope just over 50 years ago, after four little girls were killed in a bombing in a black church in Birmingham, Alabama,” Obama recalled.

“He said they lived meaningful lives, and they died nobly. ‘They say to each of us,’ Dr. King said, ‘black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely with [about] who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American Dream.

“‘And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.’”

In many respects, it is surprising that Obama will travel to the church where nine people were murdered during Bible Study. He was harshly criticized for not traveling to Ferguson, Staten Island, North Charleston, S.C. or any of the other venues where an unarmed African American had been slain by a White police officer.

It should be noted that he sent Attorney General Eric H. Holder to Ferguson. Holder’s successor, Loretta Lynch, fresh on the job, visited Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. While that gesture was appreciated, protesters longed for Obama to visit.

Obama is returning to church where White supremacist Dylann Roof admits killing nine innocent people.

Friday’s trip to Charleston is less controversial than had the president chosen to go to Ferguson. He runs no risk of being attacked for being anti-police by the notoriously vocal Fraternal Order of Police. And though some conservatives refuse to acknowledge the racial component of the murders, there is broad public sympathy for the victims of the senseless massacre.

Obama was in the eye of the storm because of his affiliation with his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. After distancing himself in 2008 from Wright, the Chicago pastor who led him to Christ, Obama largely shied away from discussing race during his first term.

In fact, Daniel Q. Gillion, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, produced research showing that in Obama’s first two years in office, he made fewer speeches and authored fewer executive policies on race than any Democratic president since 1961.

But there was a string of deaths of unarmed Blacks – including Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Freddie Gray in Baltimore; Natasha McKenna in Fairfax County, Va.; Tamir Rice, Cleveland; Rekia Boyd in Chicago; Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C.; Eric Gardner in New York and Eric Harris in Tulsa, Okl. – that seems to have aroused a willingness to address race more forcefully.

No-drama-Obama stunned practically everybody recently when he used the N-word.

In a podcast interview with comedian Marc Maron released this week, Obama said, “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say n—-r in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”

Speaking in less graphic terms on June 19, President Obama reminded America of the Black experience in his Juneteenth remarks.

“We don’t have to look far to see that racism and bigotry, hate and intolerance, are still all too alive in our world,” he said. “Just as the slaves of Galveston knew that emancipation is only the first step toward true freedom, just as those who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago knew their march was far from finished, our work remains undone.

“For as long as people still hate each other for nothing more than the color of their skin – and so long as it remains far too easy for dangerous people to get their hands on a gun – we cannot honestly say that our country is living up to its highest ideals.”

Earlier in his tenure, Professor Michael Eric Dyson, declared, “This president runs from race like a Black man runs from a cop.” Lately, however, President Obama seems to be running toward the issue of race.

3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets

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By Dwight Brown

NNPA Film Critic

Ron Davis and Lucia McBath, parents of Jordan Davis at rally.

Jordan Davis was born Feb 16, 1995.  Contrary to his belief, he was not named after the basketball legend Michael Jordan.  His mom, Lucia McBath, insists she named him after the crossing over of the Jordan River, symbolizing a new beginning.

For his mom and dad, Ron Davis, Jordan was their new beginning. Their lives were changed forever November 23, 2012, the day after Thanksgiving, when shots were fired at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida.

Ten bullets hit a car full of teenage boys. When the violence is over, 17-year-old Jordan Davis, an African-American, has been killed by Michael David Dunn, a middle-aged White software developer in town for a wedding. The boys had been playing loud rap music; Dunn requested that they turn it down. They did for an instant, and then they turned it back up. What happened next depends on whom you talk to.

The 1950 film Rashomon, directed by the legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, depicts the accounts of the witnesses, suspects, and victims of a rape and murder. All have different viewpoints, recollections and interpretations of the same encounter. “Rashomon effect” is a term that means contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people. It’s a dynamic that pervades just about every trial, where suspects and victims recount the same experience, differently. That’s what’s on view in this so-called “loud music” trial; the surviving boys have a different recollection than Dunn.

Producer Minette Wilson initiated this project, and collaborated with documentary director/cinematographer Marc Silver (Global Protest, Who is Dayani Cristal?) and executive producer Orlando Bagwell (Eyes on the Prize). They received open access to the parents of the victim, his friends and the trial. The viewer sits around the dinner table with now divorced Lucia McBath and Ron Davis, is invited to prayer circles, hears anecdotes about Jordan from his pals (he was a mediocre basketball player, but quick on his feet) and gets to know the brassy suburban kid who was killed.

What the documentary doesn’t do is get inside the head of Michael Dunn. We don’t find out how Dunn became the adult who dared to ask a carful of teens to turn their loud music down.  Nor why on a Friday night while stopping to pick up wine and chips at a convenience store, he was carrying a gun in his glove compartment. Nor what he ever expected to do with a loaded firearm. Without these details, this documentary sheds light on only one side of the tragedy.

The film calls into question stand-your-ground laws that have been drafted in many states making self-defense with a gun when a “threat” is perceived, legal.  Echoes of the Trayvon Martin case are in this documentary. In fact Trayvon Martin’s dad calls Jordan’s dad and says, “I want to welcome you to a club that none of us want to be in.”

Though the film focuses on this crime in particular, it also brings into view a pattern of young Black men being devalued and murdered, which spurs many to think that this country has a chronic social/racial problem that has to be solved.

The gut-wrenching subject of the film carries the movie.  Security footage from the convenience store re-plays the dramatic pop, pop, pop sounds of the gunfire. The court proceedings are riveting. Arguments for stand-your-ground and against it cause debate. Semi-private conversations between Dunn and his girlfriend are as intriguing as the conversations between Jordan’s parents.  Both couples are common people who have been thrust into a media spotlight by an incident that none could have fathomed when they woke up that Friday after Thanksgiving.

What the documentary the filmmakers have assembled is educational, eye opening, often emotional, sad and galvanizing. As the 98 minutes of footage roll by, it becomes apparent that Jordan’s tragedy is a chapter within a much longer book.  It is also clear that stand-your-ground laws are on trial as much as Michael Dunn was. Notes Judge Russell L. Healey, who presided over the case; “There is nothing wrong with retreating or de-escalating a situation.”

Black Graduates Face a Tough Job Market

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By Freddie Allen

NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent

College graduates facing tough job market (NNPA Photo by Freddie Allen).

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – College graduates will enter a job market this year that is better than it has been in recent years, but they will still face a tough climb. That climb will be especially difficult for Black college graduates who will grapple with a jobless rate that is still in the double digits, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a Washington, D.C.-based research and education group focused on low- and middle-income workers.

Alyssa Davis, a research fellow focused on the labor market, poverty and education; Will Kimball, a research assistant with EPI; and Elise Gould, director of health policy research co-authored the report for the Institute’s “Raising America’s Pay” research and public education initiative.

“Things are starting to look up for young grads, but we’re not quite where we want to be yet,” said Davis.

Even though, the unemployment rate for Black college graduates improved to 11.4 percent, it is still nearly three points higher than it was in 2007 (8.1 percent) before the Great Recession. The jobless rate for White college graduates has peaked at 9 percent in 2011, and the current unemployment rate at 5.8 percent is less than a percentage point from the 2007 rate of 5.1 percent.

“This suggests other factors may be in play, such as discrimination or unequal access to the informal professional networks that often lead to job opportunities,” stated the report.

Increasing college costs coupled with mountains of student loan debt may also make it harder for students to stay in school to earn advanced degrees.

“The cost of higher education has risen faster than typical family incomes, making it harder for families to pay for college,” stated the EPI report. “From the 1983–1984 enrollment year to the 2013–2014 enrollment year, the inflation adjusted cost of a four-year education, including tuition, fees, and room and board, increased 125.7 percent for private school and 129.0 percent for public school.”

Meanwhile, the median family income rose less than 17 percent over the same period.

Over the past decade (2004-2014), the number of borrowers has increased more than 90 percent and the average debt per borrower increased by 74 percent, according to the EPI report.

Those who can’t afford college are forced to compete in a weak labor market with older more experienced workers.

More than 23 percent of Black high school graduates fall into the gap between having a job and going to college, compared to 14.2 percent of their White peers.

“When you have a period of sustained economic weakness like this and you have these lower wages, and you have all of these people idle, it can affect their jobs opportunities and earnings for up to a decade into the future,” said Davis.

High school graduates also struggle to find work.

The unemployment rate for Black high school graduates rose to 42 percent in 2011 and is now roughly 30 percent and the jobless rate for White high school graduates is about 17 percent.

Researchers suggested that because the majority of workers aged 17-24 years-old have less than a college degree, including more than 90 percent of Black workers, policymakers need to focus on providing them with access to good jobs and stable employment that “allows them to build a career or pay for further schooling.”

President Barack Obama’s “America’s College Promise” proposal to provide students with free tuition to attend community colleges for two years may also give high school graduates a boost.

Kimball also agreed that high school graduates that didn’t have jobs lined up could benefit from President Barack Obama’s plan to provide students with two years of free tuition at a community college.

Nearly half of college graduates younger than 27 yearsold are still working jobs that don’t require a college degree and those jobs “are of lower quality now than they used to be,” the report said.

Gould said that, on the individual level, it may or may not be a good investment for people to go to college, because of increasing college costs and flat wages.

“Making college more affordable, changes that equation,” said Gould.

Ultimately, the EPI report found that the down economy affects young workers in many of the same ways that it affects older workers and because the causes of their job struggles are the, same so are many of the solutions.

“The bottom line is that policies that will generate demand for U.S. goods and services and therefore demand for workers who provide them, policies that will bring down unemployment, policies that will give workers more power,” the report stated, “And policies that will raise workers’ wages are the keys to giving young people a fighting chance as they enter the labor market during the aftermath of the Great Recession.”

Researchers said that targeted jobs programs and investments in infrastructure would drive the economy toward full employment.

Kimball said that there are plenty of labor standards that policymakers can work on that can boost the bargaining power that workers have, including raising the minimum wage, updating the overtime salary threshold and ensuring greater access to paid sick and parental leave for workers.

Davis said that the problems that young graduates face in the job market are not unique compared to the overall economy and that the fates of young graduates are tied to the overall economy. That’s why any solutions aimed at supporting graduates and helping them find jobs in today’s market will also help other workers in the labor force.

“When we raise the minimum wage it usually translates to wage growth for everybody,” said Davis.

Kimball added that a minimum wage increase would also help those that are working their way through college.

Gould said that the idea that millennials are choosing to sit on the sidelines, complaining about not getting the job that they want, is misguided, because recent graduates are entering the labor market with an economy that is still recovering from a historic recession.

“[Millenials] are likely to fair poorly in the labor market and that is going to have long-term effects for them,” said Gould. “Things have improved from the depths of the Great Recession, but for young workers, it’s still going to be slow going.”

Unrest Sows Seeds for Future Leaders, Opens Eyes of Youth

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Richard B. Muhammad


BALTIMORE (NNPA) – Unrest in a city known yesterday for crab cakes, row houses, marble steps, downtown tourist spots and sports stadiums—alongside struggles with decay, violence and heroin—has captured global attention.

Powerful images of Black children hurling rocks at police officers in riot gear, crouched behind shields, captured an urban intifada inside America. It was a rebellion against oppressive police practices, stifling poverty, subpar education and frustration over bleak futures.

But the children some called thugs and lawbreakers, comments retracted by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, are tired. They are tired of being pushed around and tired of having nothing.

“I just felt like it shouldn’t end after a week of fighting, it should like go on. We shouldn’t just look at this like a month later and everything be just completely gone,” said 15-year-old Jerome Lyles. “We should use this and use Baltimore as an example for the nation and try to actually make some change.”

The city resident was clad in a t-shirt with a photo of Trayvon Martin, the Black 17-year-old who died from bullets fired by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., in 2012.

Jerome’s stepfather brought him to “Bmore Youth Rise,” a day devoted to young people and support for local organizations. The day started with a reverse town hall meeting at Baltimore City Community College, where panelists asked youth in the audience questions and for solutions. The day included a May 9 march past their new mural dedicated to Freddie Gray, the unarmed Black man whose death following an encounter with police sparked outrage and national protests, and other victims of police killings. His back was broken and spine nearly separated from his head in what police called an arrest without force. Six police officers have been charged in connection with his death.

Jerome would like to see continued protests and efforts to change living conditions and government in the city.

Whether in street organizations, official groups or simply joining rallies, marches and protests, young people are having experiences that are awakening them to injustice, racial oppression and social conditions. Many are asking questions, seeking and offering solutions and trying to have an impact.

Yo’Nas Da LoneWolf of National StopTheKilling.com organized B’More Youth Rise to connect the struggle in the city with youth voices and youth leadership.

In less than a week, she pulled together groups across 30 local communities for B’More Youth Rise to complete a mural in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood and offer young people a platform.

“It was an opportunity for the youth to talk, and talk about what really happened, their feelings on how police are dealing with them—and how they see change in their community,” she said. “You can’t do anything in the community without dealing with the people. You have to listen to the people first.” In Harlem Park, the day closed with a rally that included national and local leaders and hip hop artists.

When rapper DBoi Da Dome, a popular local artist, called into The Glover Report, which aired over www.wpbradio.com, talk focused on youth and street level efforts for justice, peace and progress. The rapper wants to help promote change and open the eyes of young people. He wants youth to make better choices, enjoy better circumstances, better opportunities and services and he wants more access to young minds.

Young people are suffering and Freddie Grays’ happen daily in Baltimore, said the hip hop artist. He created a song dedicated to the uprising and police wrongdoing and killings in Baltimore. His powerful anti-police murder song “F–k 12,” may be raw in language but it captures, the pain, anger, fearlessness and daily pressures of life in an urban anthem. “F–k 12, f–k 12! We ain’t about fear!” the song goes. “They killing us without justice!” “Twelve” refers to Baltimore police officers and the song’s narrative expresses outrage over the killing of Mr. Gray and other Blacks across the country. Hands up means don’t shoot, but cops are killing Black people anyway, the song notes. The video includes protests, city officers in riot gear, unrest and scenes from the city’s remaining public housing projects and marches through the streets. Some may not like the curse words, but the police killings and police abuses are real, said DBoi Da Dome. His song is one of several local artists produced in the wake of the Gray death.

“We have to make change happen as a unit and it doesn’t matter who gets the credit,” he said. And DBoi Da Dome added, those with resources and power should not keep those who can reach young people away because of past problems.

My life shows young people alternatives to street life, fast money and fast death, said the rapper. But powerful people are playing games, he said. “We are losing family members in the midst of their game,” the rapper added.

There is great pain affecting youth, especially young Black Baltimore, said Faraji Muhammad of Peace By Piece Baltimore, a group of young activists committed to social justice and work in low income communities.

Peace By Piece is just a few months old, but Faraji is an up and coming leader in the city. The organization plans to work with a high school in the community where Freddie Gray lived and died to develop leaders and community advocates. Peace By Piece also connects with gang members, those out of school and on the streets to help them with education, jobs and services, said Faraji.

The larger problems and patterns of police brutality are systemic and work with young people will range from neighborhood clean ups and clothes giveaways to community education and advocacy, like pressing state lawmakers to pass legislation that holds police officers accountable, he said.

Ronnae Cooper, a 16-year-old student at St. Francis Academy, felt the initial battles between police officers and students were “ridiculous.” It started from Mondawmin Mall, where she stood after school.

The day the clashes erupted police shut down transportation at the major hub, closing a subway station and pulling young people off of buses without explanation, she said. That “just made things worse. They were trying to leave.”

“This whole stereotype about us, African American kids in the city, of us being thugs, I just think it’s unfair. Because it’s not everybody, it was a small group of kids who decided to act idiotic,” Ronnae said.

“It was just the whole cop thing that got me hyped,” she continued. Ronnae feels the officers were wrong for not strapping Mr. Gray into the police vehicle for his safety and questioned why he was arrested.

Like other young people interviewed, some who were denied entry into the mall, she said the relationship between youth and police is non-existent. “The cops don’t really acknowledge the young people anymore. They are more like, ‘you just do this, you do that’ and stuff like that. They’re not really showing us the way. It’s like authority, authority, authority. It’s not really a friendliness atmosphere around them. That’s why (young people) feel like they can’t really be around them. They have to run every time they come around,” said the high school sophomore.

“It’s not like the cops really, like my sister said, acknowledge the young people. It’s like the kids are more afraid of them than they are of each other—if one is more dangerous than the other,” said Rodney Cooper, 16, standing next to his twin sister. “It’s like if you see a cop run, that’s why Freddie Gray made eye contact with that cop and he tried to get away. He got nervous.”

“It just says he didn’t want to be near that cop. He didn’t want to be suspect for anything. He didn’t do anything wrong,” the high school student added.

Rodney doesn’t really fear police but, he said, many young people do. He would like to see changes in the way police deal with people.

The word on social media April 27 was that students were going to protest, said Rodney, countering police reports that a violent purge was planned. His mother picked him up and he turned on the news at home to see “young people doing damage.”

He doesn’t approve of the destruction, but it had an impact. “They (youth) showed their feelings and I think the cops will listen. I think they will be like, ‘Be careful.’ ”

If Rodney has an encounter with police he hopes officers won’t prejudge him and draw their weapons. He has never been in trouble—but he still has that fear.

Destiny Broadham, 17, shared some thoughts while walking in Mondawmin Mall. “It was a terrible thing that happened, raiding the places you go every day,” she said. The mall was looted during the uprising. She believes there are good and bad officers. But, she said, there is a problem. “Policemen take their jobs for granted because they have so much power and they think they can get away with stuff,” she said. “Like killing people, you’re not supposed to kill people.”

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