Tuesday, July 12, 2016

No Justice, No Peace: Police Brutality in America

“No justice, no peace! No racist police!”
“Black lives matter!”
“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
“What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? NOW!”

These and other slogans rang out, echoing through the streets as crowds of hundreds marched from Union Square through midtown Manhattan Thursday evening, July 7, staging a sit-in in Times Square, before being forced by the NYPD to move along. The march continued uptown, eventually making its way towards Harlem. This diverse crowd of mostly young professionals, many in their 20s and 30s, were marching in anger, anguish, and mourning in response to the three killings of Black Americans by White police officers in the prior three days.

The Black Lives Matter movement, started back in 2013 after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, has seen a resurgence on social media and in the streets, and the blogosphere is buzzing about the rates of Black citizens killed by officers of the law. The back-to-back shootings of Alton Sterling, Delrawn Small, and Philando Castile have again brought these contentious issues to light. (There are pending investigations into the deaths of Sterling and Castile.)

“Is it 2016? Or the 1960s?” asked one of the marchers, Alicia James. She and other Black marchers talked frankly about the double standards they encountered, about what it is like to raise children in this environment. Others expressed solidarity for similar issues faced in their communities, or out of a sense of empathy for those who are suffering even if they themselves are not. Many expressed outrage that people who were not violent were still gunned down by the police, people who are expected to serve and protect the populace.
Approximately 1,000 people gathered at Union Square, Thursday, July 7, 2016

“He [Alton Sterling] had a gun in his possession...for his protection, but he never pulled it out. And in the second situation, he [Philando Castile] let an officer know….and the officer shot him. Four times.” said Alicia.

Alton Sterling did have a gun on him, but was already on the ground when the police found it, nor is it clear from the video that Sterling had been resisting, as some officers asserted. Radley Balko of the Washington Post notes that the law allows a cop to fire when he deems himself in danger, and that when one officer shouted “[he’s got a] gun,” the other officer might have misinterpreted that as “he has a gun in his hand,” thus prompting him to unload into Mr Sterling in fear for his life. Someone subdued by police is not a threat, but someone on the ground and holding a gun in his hand very much is. Witness Abdul Muflahi, whose cell phone footage of the event has gone viral, attests that the police were acting aggressively, which is likely what escalated the situation beyond recall, and the video proves that Alton’s gun was never in his hand. But the likelihood is that this event will be judged in the officer’s favor. Many who marched this night assume this will be the case, as it has with so many others, and this fuels their anger and anguish.

The rate of arrests and deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police is something that many here touched upon throughout the night. And while many people on the streets and on the internet talk about the subject, getting the data is surprisingly difficult. 516 people have been killed by the police in 2016 alone, and Sterling was the 114th Black man killed among that number - Castile being the 115th. (Black deaths, men and women, account for 136 deaths of the total 516.) The FBI however, only gathers two points of data on people killed by law enforcement: those killed in justifiable action (killed by police officers), and the murder weapon used. But the data on police killings overall is sent voluntarily by only a fraction of the nation’s law enforcement agencies, and there is no data on race, mental illness, or gender.

What the FBI data does tell us is that shootings by police dropped in the 1990s, but have slightly, steadily risen since then. But as the number of violent crimes dropped, the number of justified homicides in response to these crimes rose. Partially this is because the number of police officers increased, but it is unclear that this is the only cause for this jump.

Much is made of the dangers that police face on the job, but in fact, their jobs have become increasingly safer over time. Police don’t even make the top ten most dangerous occupations. This is good news: people shouldn’t be afraid to go to work after all, and a drop in violent crime is good for all citizens. 2013 was one of safest years for cops in decades.  But the data from the FBI is incomplete and poorly gathered, which is almost certainly not an accident, given that law enforcement has an obvious rationale for not divulging it. However, the FBI director James Comey has said that this lack of comprehensive statistics was “embarrassing” and “ridiculous,” and that a new system tracking any incident that causes harm or death will be rolled out in 2017.  From the data we do have, there is a rise in police use of rifles for justifiable homicide incidents, and that killings in response to violent crimes are up, whilst police work itself has grown safer over time.

Other data about these killings come from non-profits, journalists, and non-governmental agencies, particularly killedbypolice.net, The Guardian, in a project called The Counted, and The Washington Post. The Guardian reported that 2015 showed police accounted for 1,134 deaths, of which the rate for Black men was five times higher than for other demographics. (Killedbypolice.net shows a higher number, 1,186.) African-Americans are 13% of the total American population, while Whites are over 60%; yet, Black men (and only the men!) made up over 15% of the deaths by police logged that year. Of the total Black deaths, over a quarter of them were unarmed, compared to the White deaths by police, of whom 17% were unarmed. Approximately 25% of all fatal police shootings are of Black Americans.
A sign from Thursday's march

Issues with policing go beyond deaths. While people of all backgrounds commit crimes, police arrest and kill Black men at higher rates, and many report (60%) having been treated unfairly by police due to their race. Jack Glasser, an associate professor at University of California-Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, told the Huffington Post that “Race is a trigger for police brutality.” This itself is rooted in the institution of policing, where in the South, grew out of the previous institution of slave patrols.

Some split the difference. This article argues that there is bias in police force, but not in police shootings, once you include non-fatal shootings as well as fatal ones. But even so, Black Americans were more likely to be manhandled, pushed into walls or the ground, be handcuffed without being arrested, or have a weapon drawn on them. This is still a racially biased use of force and abuse of police authority. Still, it is hard to argue with Bayesian statistics that state that unarmed Black Americans are 3.5 times more likely to be shot by police than unarmed White Americans.

Much of this stems from the over-fining of Black Americans. Cities facing declining revenues will mobilize the police force to levy more fines on the populace to make up the difference. But studies show that the cities that rely the most on such measures overwhelmingly had a large African-American population. Income had surprisingly little connection to reliance on punitive fines. Municipalities that were overwhelmingly White or Hispanic did not face this issue, even if they were poor, and municipalities that were not poor, but had a large percentage of Black Americans were more likely to have such measures put in place. Because Black Americans are more heavily policed than the general population, they are more likely to suffer higher penalties from officers’ implicit biases, even if Black Americans don’t actually commit more crimes than any other Americans. As the African-American population has a higher poverty rate and lower income than the national average, such fines are even more burdensome for many. Ferguson, Missouri was one such city in which this occurred, thereby raising tensions between the police and the policed, and ultimately leading to the outbreak of violence and protests that spread across the nation.

“I don’t want to have children,” said Nicole, a marcher with Thursday night’s protest. “Why would I, as a Black woman, want to bring Black children into this world? Why would you want to bring children into this world if they cannot be afforded the same opportunities...because they look different. Where you cannot get angry, because you might die.”

Related to this is the double-standard of the “side hustle” and its disastrous interaction with “broken windows” policing.  Broken windows is a theory of policing that asserts that cracking down hard on minor crimes helps prevents major ones. It is named for the theory that if a building has a broken window that remains unrepaired, soon all the windows would be broken. Therefore, being vigilant about one broken window (something fairly minor) would prevent further, major disorder and disrepair from setting in. Some insist that the system works, and was primarily responsible for the drop of crime in the 90s in New York City. But critics say the system targets minorities, and leads to their over-incarceration, over-fining, and overstress. Many called for infractions are older, in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, not likely to be committing violent crimes. Minor offenses can be the pretext to assume greater criminality on the part of an entire population. This raises tensions between the community and the police, as it did in Newark, NJ. The situation there deteriorated to the point that there was federal intervention in the police department last year.

Both Eric Garner and Alton Sterling were killed whilst selling items on the street - “loosies” (untaxed individual cigarettes) and CDs, respectively, taking part in an underground economy very familiar to the Black community, having been unable to make it work in the “traditional” economy. Exclusion from the formal economy has long been an issue faced by the American Black community, a situation exacerbated by the recession and the demise of blue-collar jobs. That means more people than ever are forced to find work in the informal and underground economy in ways that are of dubious legality, especially when paired with anti-loitering laws. Thanks to Broken Windows-style policing, this can lead to arrests and a rap sheet for petty crimes that put formal employment even more out of reach. Not only does this criminalize poverty, it kills men like Sterling and Brown for it. The death of Eric Garner prompted massive criticism of Broken Windows policing, and the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile has once again prompted mass backlash against this policy.
A sign from Thursday's march

“White parents don’t have those conversations with their sons,” said Alicia, referencing “The Talk” that many Black parents have with their kids about how to avoid violence from law enforcement. “When I yell at my son when he wants to wear a hoodie on his head, or wear an afro, he doesn’t realize, I’m fearful. I’m fearful! He cannot be himself and be a kid, and that’s the fucked up part as a Black mother, we are the most stressed out people in this country...because we are always wondering, when is the last time I’ll see my son. Every day, every day I have to tell him, on purpose, I love you. I love you. Just in case.”

But not everyone agrees that race is the primary issue behind these deaths.

Some say the primary issue is lack of police accountability. For example, it is very difficult to prosecute a police officer for wrong-doing. This is hard to prove. It is difficult to get data on the rate of police convictions because there is no system for gathering how often charges are pressed, the rate of indictment, and the rate of successful conviction. The most thorough study is Packman’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, taken over by the Cato Institute a few years back. This, with other studies, such one project by Bowling Green State University, show that the rate of convictions of police officers is astonishingly low, only one officer convicted per 1000 deaths by police. From 2004 to 2011, only 41 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter in connection to on-duty activities. This is a massively lower rate of convictions than for the general populace, and fuels anger at the police and the perception that they are not there to aid the population, but hurt them.

It is, in fact, surprisingly hard to convict a police officer when they use deadly force. An officer’s use of justifiable force relies entirely on their own perceptions of threat, not the actual situation in which it occurred. And even if an officer violates the department’s policy, such as when officer Daniel Pantaleo put Eric Garner in a chokehold, ultimately killing him, they may not be charged for it. Chokeholds are against NYPD’s policy, they are not against the law, which is what allowed Pantaleo to get off the hook for Garner’s demise. An officer can be fired for violating policy, but not prosecuted for it, unless he broke the law also. It also means that when an officer’s instincts are biased when it comes to judging who is dangerous, thereby seeing Black men as more threatening, any deaths resulting from his actions are unlikely to be prosecutable, as the officer only needs to plead that they thought they were in danger. These are all categorized legally and in the FBI database as “justifiable homicides,” no matter how unnecessary or avoidable these deaths in fact were. And when you have such a low probability of facing consequences for your actions, it is not surprising that many officers get careless with their use of deadly force. None of this sits well with many who marched here this night.
Candles lit in memorial of the dead at Central Park, as part of Thursday's march

Nor is this limited to Black Americans. On July 26, 2015, an unarmed White teenager, Zachary Hammond, age 19, was shot and killed by police in South Carolina whilst out on his first date. His crime? He drove a car towards a police officer, who was there to bust his girlfriend, Tori Morton, for 10 grams of marijuana. But the autopsy shows the bullets entered his body from the back, thus throwing doubt on the officer’s story that he was the victim of “attempted murder” via vehicular assault on Hammond’s part. Just this June, only about a week before the deaths of Sterling and Castile, Dylan Noble, also 19 years old, White, and unarmed, was shot and killed by the police in California. Police had received a call about a man armed with a rifle, but when they arrived, found the unarmed Noble speeding on by in his pickup truck. The police insist that the incident was “suicide by cop” but the family isn’t buying it, and are insisting that police release footage from their body cams. Daniel Shaver, a White man and father of two, was shot by police in Arizona, and he pleaded for his life before being summarily executed. He had complied with every order the officers gave him, and it didn’t help. These horrific tragedies play out across the nation every day, these stories only being examples of a larger trend of police abuse of deadly force.

In all of these examples, the family had struggled to raise awareness of their loved ones’ deaths, but failed to gain the high profile attained by Black Lives Matter. Some say that the media bias is in favor of reporting on Black deaths and ignoring White ones, and that this is the real injustice: that White lives are the ones considered to not matter, and that this is obvious in the lack of news coverage for the deaths of Whites, versus the high profile of these Black deaths, especially considering that more White people are killed by police than Black people are. However, while it is numerically true that White deaths outnumber Black ones, the rate of death is still higher for Black Americans. At over 62% of the population, White Americans account for 49% of police deaths, and at 13% of the total population, Black Americans account for 25% of police deaths. There are many reasons floated as to why such a weighted result exists, but what we learn from these numbers is this: adjusting for population, Black Americans are statistically more likely to be harmed by the police, sometimes fatally so. Failing to adjust for rate, combined with selective media reporting or personal bias, could account for the disconnect between the folks who say Black Lives Matter and that insisting otherwise is disingenuous denial of the issue, and those who say All Lives Matter, who insist that the former stokes tensions unnecessarily.

Even members of the National Rifle Association think the current state of affairs is inexcusable. Something of a bogeyman to many liberals and progressives, the NRA is often in favor or relaxing gun control measures and upholding or expanding the ability of Americans to be armed, even heavily so. After the death of Philando Castile, the NRA released a fairly weak statement about the events in Minnesota being “troubling” and their desire to wait “once all the facts are known,” and card carrying-members of the organization began taking the NRA to task. Castile had a concealed-carry license and followed the law, and he complied with the officers’ orders, and he still was shot and killed. That made other licensed gun owners worried and upset, and they have been demanding to know why the organization that touts itself as the lobbying group for the Second Amendment and the rights of gun owners nationwide isn’t coming to Castile’s defense. Minnesota, where Castile was killed, is one of many states that permit open-carry and concealed-carry of weapons. Louisiana, where Sterling was killed, also permits open-carry of weapons, as does Ohio, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot whilst playing with a toy gun in 2014.

Moreover, there is also evidence that a significant number of people killed by the police suffer mental health issues, which is an issue that gets comparatively little coverage. The cuts to funding for various mental health programs mean that people who need help do not get it, and are returned to their families, if they have family to take them in. Sometimes, they end up on the streets. People who call the police to help them handle a loved one’s erratic behavior do not get a mental health professional trained in de-escalation, but an officer trained in law enforcement, using tactics (shouting, escalation of demands, etc) that exacerbate the issue. And as a result, instead of getting help, many get shot and killed. Some police departments are engaging in cooperation with mental health and hospital facilities, and training their officers in crisis intervention to successfully handle behavior from the mentally ill, but this is little more than a band-aid on a bullet hole.
The sit-in at Times Square, as part of Thursday's march. The protesters were shouting "Hands up, don't shoot!"

If the case is primarily one of police abuse of power overall, then the enforcement of body cams on police officers is likely to go a long way into addressing the issue. It is hard to argue with video evidence. But police officers know that too, and there are many anecdotes about how officers turn off their cameras, refuse to hand over footage, or confiscate footage from witnesses nearby. This is troubling. Lawmakers in Colorado are considering a fine for police officers who attempt to stop people from filming their actions, or otherwise destroy or delete the footage after the fact. But in North Carolina, both footage from officer’s body cams and dashboard cams are not considered public record. This new legislation means that the police can deny access to view footage in an ongoing investigation to protect someone’s safety or reputation. This means that access to crucial evidence is reliant on the personal morality of any given individual police chief, which makes holding police accountable even more difficult. Such footage might prove not only an individual’s officers guilt or innocence, more generally, it can also prove if the Black Lives Matter folks are correct, and that the police are indeed biased against Black Americans and other minorities. At the very least, more evidence to indict or convict lawbreakers, both cop and civilian alike, should be a boon to upholding justice.

Not everyone is convinced that body cams and data is a surefire way out of this crisis, however. Dominique, a New York City resident who marched with the protest on Thursday night, thinks that while more data is helpful, it will not convince those who aren’t convinced already. “It doesn’t matter,” she says, “someone who would fudge with you about the details of public execution -- with Darrell Grant and Michael Brown, we had loads of evidence…[It is] because we have a system that protects itself...and protects the officers that enforce, unjustly, the unjust laws of this country. I am sure data would help, but there are those people whose eyes are so closed, and so blanketed in the comfort of their privilege...I don’t think it’s a matter of data. I think it’s a matter of the comfort of deniability.”

“Why does the safety of some come at the expense of the very lives and livelihoods of others?” Dominique asks. It’s a good question.

Some argue that Black-on-Black crime is the real culprit here, rather than police shootings, as 90% of Black murders are done by other Black Americans; but this argument ignores that White-on-White killings account for more than 82% of White murders in America. Even so, the statistics show that Black Americans commit and are arrested for a disproportionate amount of crimes, including 62% of armed robberies, and 57% of murders. In 2010,  the rate of firearm homicide for blacks was 5 to 6 times higher than every other racial group. Following this argument, the high rate of Black deaths by police would be due more to the higher rate of crime among minority communities rather than bias and use of force at the hands of overly-militarized police officers. But reports from Mapping Police Violence and Campaign Zero prove that this argument does not bear out for one reason: there is no correlation between violent crimes and police killings, and Black Americans (both armed and unarmed) are still more than twice as likely to be shot by the police as White Americans. In other words, as mentioned earlier in this article, police kill a great number of unarmed and nonviolent people across all demographics, but statistics are not in your favor if you’re Black. (In fact, every single named death in this article was for a non-violent crime, such as a busted taillight, or selling CDs on the sidewalk.) And Black people involved in such altercations with the police are more likely than White people to be unarmed. Moreover, many White people that do the same crimes are not convicted or jailed, or if they are, they receive less harsh sentences. This could skew the statistics in favor of disproportionate Black representation. Black-on-Black crime ultimately does not pan out as the main culprit here.

Others argue that racism is definitely the cause, but that the issue isn’t just a domestic one but an international one. Daisy Bugarin, a human rights worker, and Antonio Tizapa were present at Thursday’s march with a Mexican flag and a sign with the picture of Antonio’s missing son, Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideno. Mr Tizapa isn’t as comfortable speaking English as his native Spanish, and Ms Bugarin often translated for him. He explained that he was running to raise attention for the crimes committed by the Mexican government in Ayotzinapa, when over 40 student teachers disappeared, and 6 died. He has been looking for his son for two years.

Ms Bugarin sees the struggle of the Mexican people as the same struggle faced by America’s Black community: state repression and police violence. “We are very much aware of police brutality,” she said. “Mr Tizapa’s son was disappeared by the Mexican cops and military.”

“It is important for us to bridge our movements and make that connection...that repression that comes from the state is international. It’s not just the USA.”

“All people of color are vulnerable to this happening.”

Both Ms Bugarin and Mr Tizapa spoke out against the Merida Initiative, a security initiative between Mexico and the United States, which includes military support of the Mexican army and police forces. “Don’t let your tax money fund these corrupt cops!” they urged. They hope to raise awareness among Americans of their country’s role in Mexico’s internal violence, and hope to build enough consensus to put a stop to it.

Ms Bugarin labeled the state violence in both countries as genocide because of how it disproportionately affects specific populations, and hoped that pushing the issue in this way would pave the way for accountability and prosecution of officers who abuse their populations, both in Mexico and the USA.
Tizapa and Bugarin talk about police brutality in Mexico, and his missing son

But while police brutality and police militarization is an issue among many countries all over the globe, conflating these issues gets messy fast, not least because different countries use their police forces to do different tasks, making them not readily or easily comparable. One particularly egregious example of such a misstep was done by the NYU chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine, who cited that some police officers received training in Israel, thus making Israel and the IDF partially responsible for the deaths of Black Americans.The Middle East is full of contentious issues even at the best of times, but this in particular prompted much outcry, not least because American crimes towards African-Americans are older than the State of Israel by hundreds of years, and blaming outside forces for an American problem lets local forces off the hook for their misdeeds.

Still, it is correct to point to the militarization of the police as a factor that exacerbates an already bad situation. Coming out with tanks, tear gas, and dogs was one of the factors that unnecessarily ratcheted up tensions in Ferguson.  After a sniper in Dallas killed five officers at  Black Lives Matter march just a few days ago, the police took him out with a robot. The “bomber robot” is a significant escalation of force used by police, and makes it easier to kill from a distance as well as reduce personal responsibility, as it has done in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan - theaters of war, not police work. This is unlikely to reduce tensions. It is likely to result in more deaths. The fact that police are kitted out like they are going to war already sets a tone of “us vs. them,” rather than that of interacting with one’s own community. This mentality is not likely to be fixed only by changing the equipment available to a police department, which was addressed in an executive order from President Obama last year.

“Change the system entirely, not just the police,” said Dominique at Thursday’s march. Many agree with her. Black Lives Matter released a ten-point manifesto detailing the changes they wish to see in America’s policing, which includes a total cessation of Broken Windows policing, and make standards for police reporting their use of deadly force, which is data that isn’t often available to the public. They also seek to address abuse of power and perceived lack of oversight by implementing community oversight of police departments to judge officer misconduct, rather than leaving thing in the hands of internal investigations and punishment, which are seen as too lenient and even rewarding officer violence (such as when officer got a paid 6 months leave after causing a death.)  Related to this point, BLM also wants to institute independent government-run investigations rather than internal investigation of police misconduct. If the police mess up, someone other than the police should look into it. They also want police union contracts that hold officers accountable for their misdeeds. Police unions protect officers and their rights on the job, and that’s a good thing, but they should also protect the citizens they serve rather than delay convictions and withhold evidence, as they are often currently used.

BLM also want the ethnic and racial makeup of the police departments to reflect that of the communities they serve, ostensibly to reduce tensions in areas that are mostly minority populated being policed by a mostly White police force. They wish for officers to receive more and better training, so that over-eager rookie cops don’t feel the need to escalate to prove themselves, and to end for-profit policing practices that put financial strain on poor, minority communities and exacerbate tensions between the policed and the police. They want an end to the police use of military equipment, so that the cops work with a community instead of against it. Finally, BLM also wish to require all officers to wear body cameras, which is a policy that is already implemented in different police forces across the country, and is probably the least controversial of all their aims.

Most policing experts don’t go as far as BLM. However, the Justice Department and President Obama recommend that the police embrace a broader notion of community policing, which, while it doesn’t directly address Broken Windows policing, is a nod that cops are expected to tone down on that front. New York has already started, as the city council passed a bill that requires the police to establish a written guide on how officers should use their discretion when it comes to enforcing quality-of-life offenses and allows them to issue civil summonses, which avoids routing people through the criminal justice system for minor offenses. Some cities, like Milwaukee and Philadelphia, issues foot patrols, which allow officers more organic engagement with residents. And Mayor Barakat of the embattled city of Newark, NJ has announced that the police will return to “neighborhood policing,” which includes re-training officers and holding them more accountable. “If you don’t look at the people you are policing as human, then you begin to treat them inhumanely.”

These are all points for police reform, but some voices argue for the elimination of the “fuzz” altogether.

Some advocate replacing untouchable government employees by a privately owned force. An example would be the Detroit-based Threat Management Center, which picks up the slack left behind by the local police department. Because any mismanagement would result in an immediate loss of funding, the argument goes that they have greater incentive to use non-violent methods and keep their customers happy.

Others suggest models not dissimilar to neighborhood watch groups. Community policing done not by armed individuals with a uniform and a badge, but members of the community themselves. Unarmed mediation and intervention teams could then handle a great deal of issues before they escalate into actual crimes, and they could work either alone (in a police-free world), or in conjunction with established police departments (which means they can be implemented today.)

If this were to be coupled with de-criminalizing acts like loitering, smoking marijuana, selling loose cigarettes, and other similar activities, crime would drop, and so would the need for constant policing. Presenting this with renewed funding for mental health facilities and methods of restorative justice would also reduce crowding in jails and prisons, where so many infractors of non-violent crimes end up.

Debate about the nation’s social ills, police brutality, and race relations still rage all across America. Sometimes, it looks as if people must be living in separate realities, as the narratives about what “really happened” can differ from each other so wildly. But this polarization contributes to the worsening situation, as each “side” has a growing inability to communicate - or cooperate. We, as a country, need to hit the brakes. We need to remember that dehumanization of an entire group - whether it is by race or profession or any other demographic - is unlikely to help, and very likely to hurt. It is one thing to point to systemic problems and institutionalized ills; it is another to tribalize and essentialize conflict. Nor is at acceptable to give in to hyperbole or peddle lies or half-truths to bolster one’s “side” - something I am sure all of us have seen on social media, especially when it comes to such contentious, heart-wrenching topics, particularly when one’s humanity and equality is under attack, like now. But muddying the waters delays justice, and scuttles any attempts at reform or meaningful change. We must be brave enough, as individuals and as a collective, to pursue truth and justice. It is, after all, the American way.

All photographs were taken by the author.


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