“Abolition Orientation”: Direct Action and Community Art

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Image Credit: Cops Off Campus

Yulia Gilich

The focus of this article is the locative sound installation “Abolition Orientation” produced by community organizers from the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), in October 2020. By providing a brief history of the Cops Off Campus Coalition and the 2020 National Day of Action, I place “Abolition Orientation” within the broader political and organizational context to demonstrate that the installation deliberately combined elements of direct action and community art. The Venn diagram of direct action and community art is not a circle, but instead has a large area of overlap that encompasses political commitment to a cause, community involvement, and the value of collectivity. “Abolition Orientation” activated these shared elements and enhanced both artistic and activist frameworks.

 

On a shoestring budget and tight schedule, UCSC organizers devised a sound installation accessible through a smartphone application and incorporated it into the direct action—a car and bike caravan across the UCSC campus and downtown Santa Cruz. The installation functioned like an audio tour: participants’ GPS coordinates triggered sound pieces associated with and encoded in specific locations along the route of the caravan. By mapping out the settler/colonial vectors of power that have shaped and continue shaping the university through Indigenous displacement, production of crisis, and brutal policing, direct action and sound installation alike transformed ​the digital as well as the urban space into a site of contestation.

 

While I participated in the planning and production of “Abolition Orientation,” I did not get involved to advance my research. On the contrary, my intention behind publishing my insights is to further contribute to community art and community organizing, especially among academics and artists. I hope for the specificities of “Abolition Orientation” to illuminate larger points about abolitionist organizing, direct action, and community art.

Cops Off Campus

 

Cops Off Campus is a coalition of students, faculty, and workers organizing to abolish policing in all educational settings. Campus policing is pervasive in the U.S., with many institutions of higher education having either their own police force or contracts with local police departments, or both. University police, like all police, contribute to anti-Black violence and endanger the lives of racialized people on and off campus. While many groups have been organizing to defund, disarm, and abolish police for as long as campus police had existed, the Cops Off Campus Coalition formed in Summer 2020.

That moment in the U.S. was marked by a deadly global pandemic, relentless state and far-right violence, and a Black Lives Matter (BLM) uprising for racial justice. Spurred by the police executions of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others, the protest movement brought police abolition, the issue that abolitionist organizers have been working on for decades, to the fore of the public discourse. The uprising and its rapid gains, including the University of Minnesota’s cutting ties with the Minnesota Police Department (Gajanan 2020), mobilized organizers in schools, from K-12 to universities and colleges. Established groups rallied anew, and dozens of new campaigns emerged all over the country. These initially independent campaigns ultimately comprised the Cops Off Campus Coalition.

 

The coalition-building process began at the University of California (UC), where the wave of recent labor actions, which had been met with a brutal police response,[1] made ripe the conditions for coalitional organizing. The Autonomous Geographies Collective writes that, for scholar activism to be successful, scholar-activists need to recognize “that universities, like other workplaces, have labour processes that are exploitative, hierarchical and precarious, and produce knowledge outputs that are increasingly designed to be useful to contemporary capitalism, corporations and elites” (2010, 262). At the UC, students, faculty, and workers were long collectively reckoning with the precarity produced by their institutions. In January 2020, just as UC service workers and patient-care technical workers finally reached an agreement with management after six strikes and over two years of bargaining, the contingent faculty’s labor contract expired, and graduate student-workers were ramping up a labor stoppage to demand a raise. In the early months of 2020, all ten UC campuses were organizing locally and coordinating campaigns across the state to address the substandard working and living conditions of those affiliated with the university.

 

In March 2020, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the California-wide shelter-in-place order, the organizing conditions dramatically changed and organizing priorities transformed. By the end of May 2020, the statewide network of organizers that first formed around labor justice at UC shifted their energy towards getting cops off campus. Led by BIPOC students, faculty, and workers, Cops Off Campus quickly grew from a discrete campaign into a multifaceted movement.

 

Even campus closure did not stop the violence of campus police—a grotesque reality that fueled the work of the coalition initially consisting of UC and California State University (CSU) chapters. In spring and summer 2020, UC Police Department (UCPD) officers from multiple campuses were deployed in Oakland to suppress the BLM uprising (Abdullah, Davis, and Kelley 2021). In June 2020, UC Los Angeles (UCLA) collaborated with Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to turn the university’s Jackie Robinson Stadium into a “field jail” to detain BLM protesters (Agrawal 2020). On top of operating a jail on the CSU Northridge campus, CSU police have killed two people of color in the past decade (CBS Los Angeles 2012). Despite an abysmal track record when it comes to policing, these California universities are not outliers.

 

To publicly launch the Cops Off Campus campaign, the coalition chose October 1, 2020, as the first National Day of Action. Apart from UC and CSU chapters that had jointly planned and coordinated their direct actions, organizers at the University of Pennsylvania, Oregon State University, University of Illinois, and Yale planned independent actions on their respective campuses. Within weeks, Cops Off Campus held their first national strategy call, which included groups from all over the country. The coalition continues to grow, with chapters proliferating in the U.S. and Canada, and abolitionist organizing fomenting internationally.

 

The coalition’s prominent feature is its political and intellectual commitment—Cops Off Campus’s organizing grew out of a set of shared ideas and ideals about abolition. Drawing from the Black Radical Tradition and building on abolitionist theory and practice, the coalition understands police as an inherently violent institution that disproportionately harms racialized people. Abolitionist organizers see anti-Black violence not as counter to the function of police but as their foundational logic. When it comes to universities, Cops Off Campus stresses that campus police is not “more humane” than any other police force. The coalition’s conviction that police cannot be reformed is far from fatalistic, but rather it is hopeful as it opens up possibilities of more just, emergent, creative, and collaborative futures. In the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions” (Clark 2021). The fight to abolish the police is essentially a fight to imagine and build a world without “prisons, police, surveillance, or even punishment” (Agid et al. 2012), as the grassroots abolitionist organization Critical Resistance put it.

National Day of Action

 

The first National Day of Action was scheduled for October 1, 2020, a symbolic beginning of a new academic year. Each participating campus committed to planning an action on that day to jointly commence the Cops Off Campus campaign. For weeks, activists across institutions met virtually to plan and coordinate actions, train organizers, share resources, problem-solve, and socialize. To demonstrate coalitional unity, all actions shared a set of demands[2] and aesthetics, visible in the flyers, banners, and signs displaying the coalition logo.

While momentous, organizing towards the National Day of Action was filled with obstacles and complications. Remote organizing and online planning, compliant with the COVID-19 safety guidelines, raised concerns about digital surveillance. Many participating campuses have a history of university administrators surveilling activists and monitoring their online activity, with the help of police and the National Guard (Kaori Gurley 2020). Additionally, video conferencing platforms used for group calls, such as Zoom, have privacy and security issues making personal data vulnerable (Babb 2020). Compared to in-person organizing, building trust within and among campus groups was more challenging online. Organizing as a coalition meant moving together on a shared timeline, despite some Cops Off Campus chapters being less prepared for the Day of Action. Jodi Dean writes on direct action, “as comrades, our actions are voluntary, but they are not always of our own choosing” (2019, 4). Grappling with this tension, each group planned a direct action that was appropriate for their organizing context, agreed-upon level of risk, and projected number of participants.

 

David Graeber defines direct action as a collective undertaking that is “both political in intent and carried out in the knowledge that it might be met with hostile intervention on the part of the police” (2009, 359). In the course of planning the National Day of Action, in addition to the risk of police intervention, organizers had to account for the​​ COVID-19 safety precautions and, particularly on the West Coast of the U.S., the quality of air polluted by the raging wildfires. Under these rather extraordinary circumstances, the coalition was concerned with providing options for remote participation in actions for supporters unable to join in person.

 

Cops Off Campus offered numerous mediated ways for individuals to remotely support the movement. In preparation for the Day of Action, organizers posted on the coalition’s social media the resources they had developed. The resources included a “Know Your Rights” brochure, tips on staying safe while protesting in person, instructions on documenting direct actions without compromising participants’ safety, the Cops Off Campus Zoom backgrounds and profile pictures to demonstrate one’s support virtually, and slides about abolition that faculty and teaching assistants could present in their classes, remote or in-person, on October 1. Drawing on the work of other movements, Cops Off Campus successfully used alternative media to distribute information and mobilize support. Communications professor Michael Chan observes that for grassroots movements, social media is crucial in achieving multiple goals, from “informing participants on protest locations and times, to explicating strategies and rules of conduct, thus serving an educational as well as a mobilizing role for protests” (2017, 666).

 

Cops Off Campus’s use of digital media went far beyond the utilitarian function of mobilization and dissemination of information—it unsettled the supposed opposition between physical distancing and collective action. Organizers planned in-person and remote actions whose capacity for militancy and political intervention were enhanced by the use of digital media. UC San Diego invited virtual participants to design protest signs that were projected on a large scale on campus. UC Riverside held a virtual teach-in on “Antiblackness, the University, and Policing” attended by hundreds of people from all over the country. UC Santa Cruz produced a locative sound installation titled “Abolition Orientation,” which effectively combined direct action and community art. “Abolition Orientation” is the primary focus of the latter part of this article, yet my observations and analysis are meant to illuminate larger points about abolitionist organizing, direct action, and community art.

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Image Credit: Cops Off Campus

Direct Action

 

On October 1, 2020, nearly one hundred people gathered at the base of the UCSC campus to commence the Cops Off Campus campaign and participate in “Abolition Orientation.” Organizers incorporated “Abolition Orientation,” a sound installation accessible through a smartphone application, into the direct action—a car and bike caravan across UCSC campus and downtown Santa Cruz. The installation functioned like an audio tour: participants’ GPS coordinates triggered sound pieces associated with and encoded in specific locations along the route of the caravan.

The action’s gathering place, a parking lot by the Barn Theater, located at the main entrance to the UCSC campus, was not incidental. For many, the Cops Off Campus action was the first time they gathered in-person since the campus shutdown in March 2020. Yet meeting at the base of campus allowed the participants to tap into the long history of campus activism. It is a site where,  just months prior, in February and March 2020, riot police gathered daily to surveil the graduate workers’ picket line.[3] It is also where UCSC campus shuttle bus routes end and where in May 2020, a group of students assembled to commemorate a shuttle driver who died of COVID-19 (Ibarra 2020). This site, one of the only two entrances to UCSC campus, has historically been a strategic gathering spot for protesters. During strikes and other actions, demonstrators blocked the road adjacent to the Barn Theater parking lot, essentially shutting down campus by disabling its main traffic artery.

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Image Credit: Cops Off Campus

Before commencing the caravan, organizers invited the participants to design signs, posters, and banners to display on their vehicles. To create visual unity, participants used cut-out stencils: one with the name of the coalition and the other with its logo—a broken pair of handcuffs inside of the UC seal. While participants were making signs, organizers distributed instructions detailing how to access the sound tour. The phone application and caravan itinerary were kept secret so as not to tip off campus administration and the police about the specifics of the action. While most participants interacted with the application individually on their phones, the car at the head of the caravan blasted the sound tour through the speakers to grab attention of passers-by and share the audio commentary with participants who, for technical reasons, could not access the application.

 

The itinerary included sites of institutional violence and institutional power. The slow-moving caravan of vehicles proceeded across campus, past the UCSC trailer park, through faculty housing with a stop at the house of the Executive Vice Chancellor, past the UCPD station, towards the next stop at the Chancellor’s house, and finally through downtown Santa Cruz towards the final stop at a park located next to the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD). The sound tour alternated between chants recorded at previous campus actions; a brief history of the Cops Off Campus Coalition; testimonials of students who had been harassed, surveilled, and brutalized by UCPD; accounts of homeless students living in their cars who had been woken up and intimidated by campus police in the middle of the night; analysis of the power the university administrators hold when it comes to policing on campus; evocative quotes by abolitionist writers; and other poetic and imaginative pieces.

Community Art

 

The sound installation element of “Abolition Orientation” is an example of community media art. In her piece about Squeaky Wheel, an experimental community media space in Buffalo, NY, Ruth Goldman writes that at the core of community art “is an emphasis on dynamic, collaborative, community, experimental, and issue-based economies of production, exhibition, and distribution through the telling of individual/community stories and personal narratives” (2020, 216). On a shoestring budget and tight schedule, the Santa Cruz organizers devised an original piece that spoke to the urgent issues their community had been facing: policing, housing crisis and homelessness, and high cost of living. Organizers embraced what Kate Crehan called a “useful vagueness as to precisely what social relations constitute ‘community’” (2020, 196) to expand the definition of the term and dissolve the imaginary boundary between campus and its surroundings significantly impacted by the university.

 

Organizers approached production of the sound installation the same way they approached any action planning—collectively. Knowing that community media art, whatever its potential, is not a utopian solution to “remaking of the social order” (Damman 2020), the Cops Off Campus organizers were deliberate in their approach to art-making. They did not want to reproduce what Gino Canella calls “participatory communication models for social justice [that] may further the personalization of politics” (2017, 27). While the sound installation utilizes a smartphone, technology that traditionally privileges the individual, the locative media approach transformed it into a “technology that captures community narratives” (Farman 2012, 115).

The piece was not authored by any one person but rather by a large group. Santa Cruz organizers followed the model of a Hong Kong artivist collective, v-artivist, which practices “consensual decision-making, nonhierarchical structure, and skill sharing” (Ting 2020, 235). The production process began with developing an itinerary and writing a script for the audio tour, with various people contributing in different capacities, from research and writing to recording audio and testing the difficulty of the route for participants on bicycles. Apart from the scripted narration, organizers reached out to several students who experienced police violence on campus, three of whom recorded testimonials for the piece. Organizers with sound production experience volunteered to master all the recordings, those with coding experience helped with the application development, and others worked on graphic design. Sruti Bala’s words are applicable here: non-hierarchical and collective artistic working processes that organizers engendered are “often born out of the impulse to critically counter institutional frameworks that positioned the artist as creative genius and unique author” (2019, 14).

 

Organizers appropriated the format of “orientation” from the university itself. Campus tours, an inevitable part of orientation for prospective and new students, are designed by the institution to display the most attractive sites as well as the most useful amenities. Curated to mobilize the beauty of the physical landscape, these tours deliberately hide institutional violence involved in the production of the university. “Abolition Orientation,” on the contrary, maps out the settler colonial vectors of power that have shaped and continue shaping the university through Indigenous displacement, production of crisis, and brutal policing. The action was, in part, a counter-mapping project that understood space and its meaning as sites of ideological and political struggle.

 

The format of orientation implies being unfamiliar with the space and how it operates. “Abolition Orientation” was designed with anyone who is new to campus, to abolition, or both, in mind: participation in the action required no prior knowledge or experience. This approach to participation is what Crehan calls a commitment to a “nonexclusive audience” (2020, 193), which is a common feature of community art. Organizers used the sound tour as a pedagogical tool to orientate participants in the physical and political landscape of UCSC. Arranged to make a rhetorical argument for abolition, the sequence of sound pieces in “Abolition Orientation” is organized progressively, from concrete examples of police violence to complex concepts of race, power, and property. Rather than offering a dogmatic recipe to abolition, this piece of political education ends on an opening that requires a collective imagining and practice. David Graeber suggests that “multiplicity is part of the whole point”: while recognizing that not all accounts and interpretations are equally valid, abolitionist organizing is not interested in “a definitive version of events, a single master narrative” (2009, 437).  

 

An example of locative media, “Abolition Orientation” is site-specific. While being a part of the National Day of Action, demonstrating the broad geographical reach of the abolitionist demand, and contributing to the mass movement that the Cops Off Campus Coalition is building, the Santa Cruz action is informed by the history of local struggle. Tania El Khouri writes that site-specific art is shaped by the site in which it takes place. Khouri understands site-specific performances as “tools that allow embodied knowledge of a space and the creation of a collective spatial memory that is able to challenge a transformation or closure of the space” (2016, 138). Site-specific art offers the audience an opportunity to engage with the politics of the site and renegotiate them. By remediating campus geography, the sound tour draws explicit connections to previous campaigns and social movements at UCSC. Chants and audio recordings from collective actions that took place in the same location in the past position the ongoing struggle in a long lineage of campus organizing. “Abolition Orientation” externalizes the local history of resistance to institutional violence by embedding its audio representation in the campus and city landscape.

“Abolition Orientation” is conceived to explore and take up space that the UC is seizing through policing, development, and privatization. The flow of the caravan through UCSC grounds accompanied by chants such as “Whose University? Our University!” is an act of both symbolic and literal reclamation of the campus—public space usurped by the neoliberal institution. Building occupations, road takeovers, mass marches, and other collective actions of taking up space not only demonstrate the power and capacity of the collective, but also disrupt “business as usual”—flows of traffic, resources, and capital. These actions also demonstrate that spaces that are ostensibly public and open are, as W.J.T. Mitchell writes, “in fact, pre-occupied by the state and the police” (2012, 10). Every building occupation and road takeover face an ever-present possibility of violent eviction. Occupation, Mitchell concludes, “thus aims, not just at taking possession of an empty space in an argument, but of provoking a response and framing it in advance” (2012, 10). Yates McKee writes that “holding space per se is not an end in and of itself, but it provides a base of operations from which to expand and deepen the struggle beyond its immediate site” (2017, 88). Collective actions that reject wage and private property as logics of social reproduction generate possibilities to reformulate how collective life is reproduced.

Tiffanie Hardbarger and Cindy Maguire write that media projects that reclaim suppressed histories, like “Abolition Orientation,” ensure the ongoing knowledge transfer within the community, which is necessary to spur further actions. They contend that “thought [is] leading to action” (2018, 46), or in other words, that political education can harness the energy for subsequent action. And, I add, the opposite is true: action can lead to thought. Organizers noticed that the caravan generated a shared discourse among the participants. By moving through and interacting with the space, the participants engaged with the critique of it. This embodied experience allowed the participants to access the ideas phenomenologically, which, according to Evans, facilitates a better understanding of space and its multiple meanings (2015, 9).

End of Policing

 

“Abolition Orientation” reveals how the three coalitional demands (all cops off campus by Fall 2021; abolish policing; return native lands to California Indigenous communities) are politically intertwined. While “the police” is a discrete institution, policing is more expansive: it is an ongoing process of surveillance and control, ready to erupt in spectacular violence when power, capital, and status quo are threatened. The demand to abolish policing requires us to completely transform the relationships between people, capital, and land.

When it comes to campuses in the U.S., Tom Almeroth-Williams writes that wealth accumulated by public universities is dependent on Native displacement—the two processes are not incidental. To grapple with that notion, the sound tour begins with the acknowledgment that UCSC is built on the unceded Indigenous Amah Mutsun land and that, being part and parcel of the settler state, the university continues to benefit from Indigenous dispossession. Far from being unique to Santa Cruz, 150,000 acres of land were “seized by unratified treaty on 10 June 1851 and granted to the State of California for the benefit of the University of California” (Almeroth-Williams 2020).

 

Through an abolitionist lens, organizers understand policing, racialization, and dispossession, be it Indigenous displacement or contemporary eviction, as co-constitutive processes. Manissa M. Maharawal and Erin McElroy from the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project argue that the abolitionist fight must include the abolition of private property. They write:

Our demand for the abolition of private property is a demand for public housing, collectively owned housing,
eviction moratoriums, and land trusts. It is a demand that breaks down the exploitative relationship between
landlord and tenant. It is a demand for our cities to be sanctuary cities. It is a demand that connects the rise
of proto-fascist and white supremacist ideologies to the fundamental relationship between people and land. (2017)

Organizers deliberately included downtown Santa Cruz, an area outside of the university grounds, into the sound tour to underscore “the false distinction between academia and wider society in conceptualisations of valid sites of struggle and knowledge production” (The Autonomous Geographies Collective 2010, 245). Far from an ivory tower cut off from the rest of the world, the UC is directly implicated in the production of crisis and precarity beyond campus. UC is one of the largest landlords in the state of California. Not only in Santa Cruz but also at other UC schools, the exorbitant costs of on-campus housing continuously drive up rents off campus, resulting in housing insecurity for students and low-waged workers and high rates of displacement for low-income residents of university towns. Research group No Place Like Home reports that “Santa Cruz’s housing crisis has many facets—extreme rent burdens, precarious living situations, widespread displacement, and homelessness—with enormous impacts on the community and region” (Greenberg et al. 2021).

 

Against the backdrop of immiseration, UC tries to absolve itself. The university transforms the lands it is situated on into a resource for further development and frames the campus, with its hills, redwood trees, ocean views, and wild animals, as a commodity to justify the high cost of attendance for its customers—students. The university is eager to have campus resources, like housing, childcare, and other services, privatized and operated at “market rates,” yet it takes no responsibility when students and workers cannot afford them on UC wages. Gabe Evans, Nick Mitchell, and Taylor Wondergem write, “The university provides, and whatever it deems ‘enough’ simply is enough. It is the fault of the individual, of the graduate student worker, that these resources are not enough” (2020).

 

While market-driven economies promote individuality, academia is no exception. “Abolition Orientation” insists that only collective action and collective empowerment can counter “reactionary tendencies of neoliberalism” (Robé 2020, 63). The audio tour offers a detailed critique of the neoliberal logic perpetuated by the UC. “Abolition Orientation” transforms the anger participants are feeling about the injustices around them into collectivity, which Jennifer Spiegel and Benjamin Choukroun define as a way of navigating various challenges and possibilities together, as a community. They write that collective practices need to engage with “legacies of colonialism, imperialism, and postcolonial struggle” (2019, 6) to effectively confront neoliberal individualization. Abolitionist organizing, rooted in the analysis of the ongoing effects of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism, is remarkably suited to explore and generate collectivity.

 

The action did not end when the sound tour ended. Participants spent time together at the last stop, a park a block away from SCPD. Organizers brought pizzas for everyone to share and set up a screen-printing table to make shirts and other apparel with the Cops Off Campus logo. A few locals, some of them homeless, who did not participate in “Abolition Orientation” initially approached the group to ask questions, or grab a slice of pizza or a new shirt, but they all stayed to engage in the ongoing conversation about policing, housing, and safety. Participants who did not know much about abolition prior to the action were able to answer questions and share resources. Community was not built by listening to the same piece of audio; community emerged through collective action, food, conversation, skill-sharing, and art-making.

Art of Abolition

After the action, Santa Cruz organizers discussed whether the sound installation should remain accessible sans the caravan and ultimately decided against it. While “Abolition Orientation” is technically a stand-alone piece of media art, it was designed to accompany direct action, not replace it. The sound piece was uninstalled from the site in late October 2020. The action was not properly documented or archived in part because of poor planning and in part to minimize risks of retaliation by the university administration. Yet Santa Cruz organizers held multiple workshops to skill-share and demonstrate to artists and organizers how to create a locative sound installation.

Since the first National Day of Action in October 2020, Cops Off Campus continued to organize locally and nationally and embraced community art as an organizing tactic. In 2021, the coalition decided that a Day of Action would not suffice; instead, Cops Off Campus declared Abolition May a month of action. Among many virtual and in-person actions across North America, UCLA’s “Abolition Map” provided an updated model for a project combining direct action and community art. For those who participated in Abolition May in person, UCLA organizers hosted Abolition Walk and Talk—a campus tour led by an organizer narrating the history of carceral violence on their campus. The content of the tour was reproduced in the digital multimedia project “Abolition Map” (UCLA Cops Off Campus 2021).

 

Cops Off Campus called for Abolition Spring in 2022—a series of events and actions focusing on abolition as a creative, nurturing, and caring praxis. This call perfectly encapsulates the power of community art enhancing and being enhanced by direct action. While art is not a replacement for organizing and action, and art alone cannot sustain collectivity and abolish policing, Rita Raley reminds us that “art helps inhabit the world in a better way” (2009, 27). Community art is a necessary part of the work of abolition: liberatory world-making is impossible without liberated collective imagination.

Notes

[1] In February 2020, riot police violently arrested 18 people on the UC Santa Cruz picket line. In March 2020, during a protest at UC Irvine, police tackled, arrested, and detained Shikera Chamndany, a Black alumna not affiliated with the action.
 

 [2]  In the Cops Off Campus “Political Education Zine,” the demands are as follows: “All cops off campus by Fall 2021. Abolish policing. Return native lands to California Indigenous communities.”
 

[3] Graduate workers at UCSC first went on strike in December 2019 and, starting on February 10, 2020, held a picket line at the entrance to the university for five consecutive weeks.

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