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In the days following Nelson Mandela’s passing, the world has been remembering his remarkable accomplishments and unique power as a political leader. His role in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa has had a lasting impact, extending well beyond his country’s borders. We explore events, from protests in Washington to hunger strikes in South Africa’s Robben Island, that made the end of apartheid one of the most powerful triumphs for human rights in the 20th century.
- Kenneth Walker founder, Lion house Strategic Communications in South Africa; formerly Africa Bureau Chief, NPR, and reporter, ABC News
- Sylvia I. B. Hill professor, Administration of Justice, University of the District of Columbia; co-director, Institute for Public Safety and Justice, University of the District of Columbia; board member, TransAfrica Forum
- Fran Buntman assistant professor of sociology, George Washington University; author, "Robben Island And Prisoner Resistance To Apartheid"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, after years of clashes between D.C. school administrators and the Washington Teachers Union, we talk with the union's newly elected president Elizabeth Davis about what's next. But first, it wasn't only South Africa's loss. Nelson Mandela's passing has stirred a sense of mourning around the world. And perhaps that's because Mandela was never alone in his fight for justice.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom Washington, D.C. activists who faced daily arrests at the South African embassy, to American institutions divesting in companies doing business in South Africa, to the hunger strike led by Mandela and his fellow prisoners at Robben Island, the end of apartheid was the culmination of strategic international efforts spanning decades, making it one of the greater triumphs for human rights of the last century.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd joining me to talk about it is Sylvia Hill. She's a professor of criminal justice at the University of the District of Columbia. She was one of the leaders of the Southern Africa Support Project. She's currently a board member of TransAfrica Forum. Sylvia Hill, good to see you again.
MS. SYLVIA I.B. HILLGood to see you.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Fran Buntman. She's a professor of sociology at George Washington University and author of the book titled "Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid." Fran Buntman, good to see you again.
MS. FRAN BUNTMANThank you very much.
NNAMDIYou too can join us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to join the conversation. How do you think the free South Africa movement affected the Washington area, 800-433-8850? You can also send us a Tweet @kojoshow. Fran Buntman, in the days since his passing, leaders from around the world have remembered Nelson Mandela as a remarkable individual. Yet Mandela himself would counter that the collective goal was more important than any individual. Let's listen to a clip of him speaking about that at a rally for his 90th birthday.
MR. NELSON MANDELALet no individual, section, faction or group ever regard itself as greater than the organization and the common good of all our people.
NNAMDIThat was Mandela himself speaking but this question to both of you, despite what he says, how can a single individual seem to personify such a crucial role paid by so many in altering history?
NNAMDIYou can start and then Sylvia.
BUNTMANOkay. I think your question is a very good one and that quote really captures that tension -- that essential tension between the individual and the collective. And actually, in some ways, if you really listen closely to what Mandela said, there was almost three groups in a way, because there was the common good, everybody, the organization -- he was referring to the African National Congress -- and the individual -- in this case, himself. And we need all of those things in practice to achieve any social change.
BUNTMANAnd I think part of Mandela's greatness was knowing when to exert himself as an individual to work behind the scenes, to work in subtle and quiet ways. When to use his entire organization and to ready that and to get changes within it or changes from it, and when to speak to the collective society, whether that society was South African society or international society. And he was also prepared to listen. It wasn't just telling people. It was listening to people, again whether it was his organization, the society, others leaders and so on.
NNAMDISylvia Hill, I have known you for all of the more than 40 plus years that I've been in Washington, D.C.
NNAMDIAnd we've been talking about these issues for all of those years. You also joined Mandela in a tour around the U.S. when he was finally released from prison. But you know about his colleagues, the Walter and Albertina Sisulus, you know about all of those people. But did you get a sense of what made Mandela such a unique political leader during that time?
HILLWell, I think the description, in terms of his use of the personality as an individual, as distinct from the collective and as distinct from the organization. And I must say -- I want to mention Oliver Tambo (unintelligible) recall him.
NNAMDIOh yes, please.
HILLBecause he was very strategic in understanding the external...
NNAMDIPlease tell our listeners who Oliver Tambo was.
HILLOliver Tambo was the deputy president of the African National Congress. He was a key leader who was in exile and who was tasked with mobilizing the external community, at least playing a leadership role. And Tambo saw, I think, the necessity for there to be a personality that people could identify with and that would symbolize the courage and the dignity of the people of South Africa, and the -- his stark necessity for change in that country as a part of the struggle.
HILLAnd so Mandela's imprisonment became a symbol for us to rally around though in the vast majority no one had been to South Africa (unintelligible) at that point.
NNAMDIThe struggle against apartheid was clearly not isolated to South Africa. It spread all the way to communities here in the Washington region. How did the -- again, this question for both of you, starting with you Sylvia -- how did the liberation movement that Nelson Mandela was a part of, become such an international struggle?
HILLWell, for many of us the core group, we have organized the -- beginning around 1969 we started thinking about the sixth Pan-African Congress. And this was a congress of people of African descent from all over the world to address the issues of colonialism and economic development and societal transformation. And so very quickly I will just tell you, we met in Dar es Salaam in 1974.
NNAMDIJune of '74, wasn't it?
HILLYes, June of '74. And at that meeting during that time, the liberation movements really argued that the central question for the development of Africa had to be the dismantling of apartheid and colonialism at that time -- Portuguese colonialism. And so I always like to put that in context because a group of us returned to the United States.
HILLAt the time I lived in Minnesota and taught at Macalester, but we returned to the United States, moved to Washington, D.C. and made a commitment that we would organize against U.S. foreign policy in support of the South African apartheid regime. So it took from '74 to '84 in some sense for that campaign of civil disobedience at the embassy.
NNAMDIYou know, in the early organizing for the sixth Pan-African Congress, I had gone to Jamaica to do some organizing. Had planned on being at the conference and then got this first pesky job in radio that kind of sidetracked me for the next 40 years or so. (laugh) Fran, the same question to you.
BUNTMANMay I just say that it is thrilling for me to hear this background story. Before when we were waiting outside I said to Sylvia...
NNAMDIThat's why I wanted Sylvia here today. (laugh)
BUNTMAN...I said that, I'm still playing catch-up in trying to understand more about the international movement. Because I was in South Africa and I was very aware as an antiapartheid activist in South Africa, how important the international component was. But I don't have that same sort of blood-sweat-and-tears understanding of it that I do of what happened in South Africa because I was there. But having said that, I do know enough I think to add a little bit.
BUNTMANAnd to say -- and again, I will invoke Oliver Tambo. I think you were quite right to do that and also tell listeners that Mandela and Tambo actually ran a law practice, which was a very revolutionary thing for two young black lawyers to do in early apartheid South Africa. So their relationship went back a long time. Anyway, the ANC was very astute about reaching out to the world. It wasn't only the ANC but I think the ANC was much more successful than the Pan-African as congress and most of the smaller organizations.
BUNTMANAnd the ANC knew that it needed to cultivate support all over the world. I think initially they mostly looked to the Soviet Union and the socialist countries. And that was partly because the U.S. and the western world were very ambivalent in their support, as Sylvia just hinted at. The Cold War politics loom at the back of this whole story.
BUNTMANSo I think one does have to give the ANC credit in all sorts of ways in reaching out, but it was one of -- there's a little bit of a snowball effect of the more the world knew, the more the world was captivated by the story. And the more there were people in exile, the more there were people to humanize that story. And the more people organized and that media images flashed around the world, especially after the '76 uprising and then in the '80s sort of my political coming of age, the more it really made people aware of this issue.
BUNTMANWhen I first came to the U.S. in 1989 as a student, people knew about South Africa in a way that I think is different to anything since '94. I hope Mandela's death, one of the byproducts is it puts international issues and Mandela and South Africa and Africa back on the American map and the world map in a way that I think it has slipped off recently.
NNAMDIWe'll talk about that a little more down the road. But, Sylvia, you were one of the leaders of the group here in Washington, the Southern Africa Support Project that played a significant role in the protests of the South African embassy in the 1980s. Tell us how that came about.
HILLThe protests or...
HILLFirst SASP, oh, okay.
NNAMDI...and then the protests.
HILLWell, SASP actually was formed by a grass root activist. And we made a commitment that we were going to organize different constituencies in the metropolitan area. And, you know, I just recall how we would meet every week around somebody's kitchen table. We never had...
NNAMDIUsually your house which was on the same block as my house.
HILLRight. And we never had offices as such, except during our campaigns. So -- but the task was how do you raise consciousness about a set of people and an issue that is so far away. And our strategy was to link those issues. And so, for example, we would link labor issues. We created campaigns around refugee issues, environmental issues. And so the linking of the struggle so that people would see a common bind between the two struggles, was very key.
HILLAnd we moved that struggle around the different areas of this city between about '78 until '84. And once we -- actually the strategy emerged that we would do a campaign of civil disobedience at the South African embassy and that three noted national African Americans would enter the embassy and say we are not leaving until Nelson Mandela is free and all labor prisoners and so forth. We...
NNAMDIAnd that was Randall Robinson...
HILLRandall Robinson, Mary Francis Berry and Walter Fauntroy...
NNAMDI...Francis Berry, Walter Fauntroy.
HILLAnd Walter Fauntroy, who as at that time congressman and Eleanor Holmes Norton...
NNAMDIEleanor Holmes Norton.
HILL…was there, too, but she came out to make the announcement. And so, Kojo, I can recall that we knew that we had to have a demonstration, but since we wanted this to be a secret we couldn't put out the leaflet. And so I identified 50 people and told them -- not even by phone because we were so afraid (laughter) of how this would be, you know, revealed -- and told them to show up at the South African embassy. They couldn't ask me why, but they had to trust that I would never endanger their lives. So 35 people showed up and that was the demonstration that went on for a year.
NNAMDIThe rest -- for more than a year that demonstration went on everyday outside the South African embassy.
HILLAnd the key thing that people should also know is that it was really a national campaign, not so much that we had to launch the national campaign, but because different cities had been involved in divestment or their universities had been involved in divestment or they had been involved in other kinds of boycotts, those campaigns of civil disobedience sprung up and sprouted up around the nation, as well.
NNAMDIAnd grabbed national and international attention. Meanwhile, Fran, inside South Africa, can you talk a little bit about what was going on during that period in the mid and late 1980s?
BUNTMANWell, the '80s was a really crazy time. It had some of the highest highs and some of the lowest lows. Because probably the most important thing that happened within South Africa in the 1980s was that a large grouping of activists, called the United Democratic Front, that brought together a whole lot of different organizations, was launched and was extremely effective.
BUNTMANOne of the founders said that it succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. And I think that's really true. And over a short period of time the UDF became very successful in both pulling together existing civil society resistance. And pulling together groups and making alliances with groups that had not previously been involved, either cause they didn't exist or because they didn't, you know, they were sympathetic, but they didn't--weren't really activists.
BUNTMANAnd it just created dynamism of activism that was extraordinary. But with that increased activism and resistance came much more serious repression by the government. And so there were waves of mass detentions without trial, torture, you know, a lot of -- every time there was a rally there'd be tear gassings. Very often there were beatings, sometimes there were shootings of people. What we didn't fully comprehend at the time was actually that the repression was even worse than we realized because it turned out there was a lot of secret killing that was going on. And that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed later.
BUNTMANBut certainly at the time, it was this constant cycle of repression, resistance, repression, resistance, highs and lows. And it was in every sector, at universities, in the union movement, through the churches, you name it, women's organizations. It was a very alive time.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll be joined by Kenneth Walker. He currently runs Lion House Strategic Communications. He is in South Africa, but you join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. How do you think the Free South Africa movement affected the Washington area? You can also send us email to email@example.com. Were you involved in the Free South Africa movement or the protests at the South African embassy at that time? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about Nelson Mandela and the movement that gave rise to his prominence with Sylvia Hill. She's a professor of criminal justice at the University of the District of Columbia. She was one of the leaders of the Southern Africa Support Project. She's currently a board member of Trans Africa Forum. Also joining us in studio is Fran Buntman. She's a professor of sociology at George Washington University and author of the book, "Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid."
NNAMDIJoining us now by phone, from Johannesburg, is Kenneth Walker. He currently runs Lion House Strategic Communications in South Africa. Kenny was formally Africa bureau chief for NPR and a long time reporter for ABC News. Kenneth Walker, thank you for joining us.
MR. KENNETH WALKERThanks, Kojo. And good day to yourself and your listeners and your guests.
NNAMDIKenny, in the last few days the world's attention has been on South Africa and that will continue this week, as world leaders, such us as our own President Obama head there to pay respects. Can you describe what it's like to be in South Africa right now, what the mood is there?
WALKERYes. And frankly, I have to say I was caught a little bit by surprise by the response the morning after Madiba, as he is known to South Africans, was announced dead. I had to go to the grocery store and you could tell that people were being -- blacks, whites, Indian, everyone -- were being a little gentle with one another. You know, instead of just breaking into line or snatching the eggs out of your hand (laughter) they would say, excuse me or this kind of thing.
WALKERAnd then as I was headed toward the line some gentleman, in his forties or so, was standing at the door -- black guy -- and he broke into song, "Nelson Mandela" which was one of the struggle songs. And so after a couple of words, the other black people in the store joined in with him. And then they started dancing and then they were singing and then the white people started dancing -- so it was amazing.
WALKERSo by the time I get home and turn on the news, all over the country people are dancing and singing in celebration of Madiba's life. That's pretty much continued. You know, I suppose in time tears will come, but it's pretty much continued as the predominant form of expression about Madiba's death.
NNAMDIAnd I guess because this death was, in a way, long anticipated because of his illness, people had the time to deal with the sadness that they inevitably feel, but also to deal with the fact that he led such a long, sacrificial and ultimately productive life that can be celebrated. You know, Kenny, in a speech after he was released from prison in 1990, Mandela warned that the fight against inequality was not over yet. Here's what he had to say.
MANDELATo relax our efforts now would be a mistake, which generations to come will not be able to forgive. The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to recover our efforts.
NNAMDIKenneth Walker, to what extent today is there a sense that, as we used to say, the struggle continues?
WALKERWell, the struggle definitely continues. In fact, the need for it has intensified. Well, in fact, there is a democratic government, majority elections and that kind of thing. The reality is the economy is still dominated by apartheid principles. Blacks still don’t own the land. They still don't own the money. They still don't own the resources. And they still have the lines and patterns of neighborhoods and health care and education are still overwhelmingly dominated by apartheid patterns. And there's been growing reaction to that among black South Africans.
WALKERAnd so far, this year alone, I mean, there have been, you know, more than 200 what they like to call service delivery protests. And that can involve anything from burning ties in the middle of the street to burning neighborhoods. But there's growing, substantial dissatisfaction from the level of benefit and service and economic democracy available to black people here.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned growing dissatisfaction because there's a whole new generation of young people in South Africa who were born after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. How do you think they view the struggle that ended apartheid? There are some older people who have accused young people in South Africa of feeling a sense of entitlement, if you will.
WALKERYou know, I suppose some of them do, Kojo. But I think more than that I think they are still looking for opportunities. South Africa has more expatriate Americans than any other African country living here. More African Americans than any other country living here. And for the most part they all came because -- or at least around the time -- of Nelson Mandela's election as president. Young people that I meet, the ones who are in university or still in high school are some of the marvelous people you want to meet on the planet. And my heart is lifted every time I'm among them.
WALKERAnd I ponder the future of this country. And so whenever I tend to get a little down -- and that happens increasingly often -- I'll just deliberately go visit with them and be among them to renew my optimism about what's going on. On the hand, if you're not in college, and you're not in school, and you're living where most black South Africans live in townships and in settlements with no money and sometimes no running water and no healthcare. Those kids are angry. And I think the government understands it.
WALKERI think they're going to understand it more in the coming elections when their former African National Congress Youth League President Julius Malema, who's broken away -- he was expelled actually, and formed a new party that is drawing thousands of young people in his campaign appearances. And the ANC's own polls show that he's creating a problem for them, along with a couple of the other so-called breakaway parties.
NNAMDII'm glad you raised that issue because, Fran Buntman, that allows me to ask you, as South African President Jacob Zuma said, "South Africa knew Mandela's death would come someday, but that didn't make it less shocking or painful when that day finally came." What about South Africa and the political environment there could change with Mandela's passing, as Kenny was just describing?
BUNTMANWell, I think on one level, nothing will change because Mandela has not been in active political life for many years now. You know, it's well over a decade since he was president and then his illness and his advanced age allow, you now, required that he…
NNAMDII don't know about in South Africa, but certainly abroad, even though he has been inactive, he is still seen as the symbol of the ANC. And I’m now wondering, with his passing, if that, too, will pass.
BUNTMANWell, I think in a way it will create the question of what ANC is going to be the ANC that leads South Africa forward. I think most people -- pretty much everybody who's not in the inner circles of the party, has a pretty dismal view of the ANC nowadays, as having very much fallen prey to corruption and benefiting insiders and so on.
BUNTMANWhen you talk about service delivery protests, those are not service delivery protests against white rule or white minority rule. That is against government incompetence, government corruption, government failure. And that's the ANC government, overwhelmingly. And there's a lack of capacity, there's a lack of follow through, there's a lack of people being held accountable when things aren't done right.
BUNTMANAnd that's where a lot of Malema gets his support from. Now, I think the ANC has very often tried to use the mantle of Mandela to hold the moral high ground. I think people like Archbishop Tutu try to challenge that. Now it's going to be much harder to do because you can't literally wheel Mandela out, as Zuma has done. I also hope that South Africa's good friends out of South Africa, countries around the world and peoples around the world who care about South Africa, do what any good friend would tell you when you've got bad breath, which is say, you've got bad breath. You need to deal with this problem, rather than pretend everything's fine because it's not.
NNAMDIWell, Sylvia Hill, I'm going to ask--
WALKERThose people are isolated.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please, Kenny.
WALKERThose people, the dissenters, the people we're talking about, the bad breath, whether they're internal or external are isolated. And dissent is crushed pretty ruthlessly in the ANC. The President, Jacob Zuma, I dare say, is enormously unpopular among the general population here. It's just that he has such a lock on the administrative structures of the ANC that before now didn't seem to be doing much about it.
WALKERBut when you see the coverage of Mandela's death, all over the world these international news organizations are coming in. Yes, when they talk about Madiba and the wonderful rainbow and the beautiful liberation, but they all -- to a person, to an institution -- they come back to one point, what's next? Who's going to step forward now? Who's in charge now? And then they have to paint a pretty unpleasant picture.
NNAMDIWell, Sylvia Hill, I'm going to have to ask you to put on your political scientist hat for a second here because what started out as a liberation movement is now the governing party in a very large and still very divided country in a lot of ways. Are our expectations for the ANC too high?
HILLNo. But here's the thing, any successful social movement has to have a kind of a framework that it can use to challenge. And they have Constitution, Civil Rights movement here. And then you have the image of a person, and certainly the legacy of Mandela, his speeches, very clear cut about the way forward.
HILLNot so much tactically, but a strategic framework. I'm hoping that the young people will use that to help guide them as they try to problem solve a way forward. Because none of this is really easy, particularly when you're dealing with, you know, a global economy. And trying to enter the world market when the forces are so dominated by these (unintelligible) now.
HILLIt's just very difficult. So you have to really think through, well, what kind of economy is possible for South Africa to redistribute employment. You know, where can its -- I mean, I for one always thought that they should have really focused a bunch more on strengthening the nonprofit sector that had emerged during the time of the anti-apartheid struggle. And they chose not to do that. So those groups that were well organized to carry forward are now kind of left dismantled.
WALKERI think there were more fundamental errors. I happen to be able to cover the so-called farm seizure movement in Zimbabwe, when it was going on. And I had the opportunity to interview President Mugabe. And I said, Mr. President, why is it that, in most decolonized African countries, the government is run by the black people, but the economy is still held in white and international hands? And without pausing he said, we believed if we were elected everything else would follow. We were wrong. The reality is, is that long after that model had been discredited, the ANC chose the same model.
WALKERBelieving that once they got elected, everything else would follow. And it hasn't. They were wrong.
NNAMDIIn an interview on CNN in 2010, Nelson Mandela commented that he was a terrorist yesterday, but today he was admired by the very people who said he was a terrorist. How accurately do you think we're remembering Mandela, his legacy and the anti-apartheid movement, Fran?
BUNTMANWell, I’m very glad you mentioned that point because I think it's very important in many ways. Firstly, he only recently was taken off the United States terrorism watch list. He, in fact, came to the U.S. while still on that list, which is so full of ironies, you know. I don't know where to begin. But I think the first thing to be said is that he was a very complex man.
BUNTMANPartly because he lived a long life and a life that was shaped by many different experiences, most of which were incredibly hard and horrible, but he managed to make the best of almost all of them, which is remarkable. But he was a very open person and so although there were certain things he was quite rigid on, on most things we have very, very open-minded. And he learned from the people around him and he learned from the situations, and he learned from changing world politics and changing domestic politics.
BUNTMANAnd so any characterizations -- I think about the only consistent characterization one can have of Mandela is his fierce loyalty. And I think for the rest he changed, but he changed in a healthy, positive way because he changed as he learned more and as circumstances changed. And it's very important to remember that, whether it was his move from peaceful protests to the need for violence, back to using peaceable means. And in many cases those are ands rather than ors.
NNAMDIIn your case, Sylvia Hill, what do you think that Mandela's death now says about the movement and the man that can be of future use?
HILLWell, I think that there's a kind of quote and it's not quite like he said it, but I just think that one of the ones that I just really carry with me is that hating your enemy, seeking revenge is like taking poison yourself and expecting for your enemy to die. And, you know, it's the kind of framework that he possessed. And I saw it first hand when he was here on his first visit, that he kept his eyes on the prize and he had to interact with the number people when (unintelligible) had placed him on the terrorist list. But that wasn't his agenda while he was here.
NNAMDIKenneth Walker, clearly Nelson Mandela was a man who could think strategically and tactically about what had to be done. I’m wondering where you see the legacy of that in South Africa today.
WALKERMadiba was a once-in-a-millennium individual, as President Obama said on the occasion of his death. We now leave him to the ages. And the ages will be digesting him for centuries to come. And I think, actually, his legacy remains, for a lot of people, still a possibility for South Africa. Politically I think South Africa is going through what they call a bit of a rough patch. (laughter) I'm still optimistic. I really am, especially with its young people, so brilliant and so bright and so open, that this is still going to become a very great country. South Africa has the opportunity, perhaps, to be the country that puts an end, once and for all, to notions of white supremacy.
WALKERI thought maybe the U.S. might be the election of Obama, but that's certainly not the case. These people have the opportunity to do that. And I think once they sort out these economic issues and commit the resources of the country to uplifting all of its people, I think it'll take off like a rocket.
HILLAnd then I think it's important for us to remember the United States history. It's not like we've resolved all of these problems. Right?
NNAMDIExactly, right We're still going through many of these problems.
HILLAnd we're still going through it and the hope I have, along with Kenneth, is the young people. See, the struggle took place such that you have enough young people who transitioned into this century and will go well into this century. So it's possible that the struggle continues.
NNAMDIIt's certainly what a mentor of both Sylvia Hill and myself always dreamed of about South Africa, the late C.L.R. James. Sylvia Hill, she's a professor of criminal justice at the University of the District of Columbia. She was one of the leaders of the Southern Africa Support Project. She's currently a board member of Trans Africa Forum. Sylvia, thank you for joining us. Good to see you, again.
HILLThank you. And you.
NNAMDIFran Buntman is a professor of sociology at George Washington University, author of the book, "Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid." Fran, thank you for joining us. Good to see you again.
BUNTMANIt's a real honor. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIAnd Kenneth Walker, currently runs Lion House Strategic Communications in South Africa. He was former Africa bureau chief for NPR, and a long time reporter for ABC News, but we go even farther back than that. Kenny, thank you so much for joining us.
WALKERThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, after years of clashes between D.C. school administrators and the Washington Teachers' Union, we talk with the union's newly
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