Why All Feminists Should Care about Kesha

#yesallwomen isn’t a joke: imagine how much worse it would be for you (or your sister)


In case you missed it on Friday, Kesha (a major pop star) had a very public breakdown. She cried in despair, in front of tons of paparazzi and fans. Why? Because she felt powerless trying to disentangle herself from her rapist.

Kesha accused her producer of slipping her GHB and sexually assaulting her in 2014, and said that she feared for her personal safety if she continued working with him. The problem? She’s under contract with Sony for six more albums, so her only choice was to take to the courts. Since, unsurprisingly, there’s no sexual abuse escape clause in music contracts, it’s been a painful, drawn-out process (and it’s not done yet). And while lots of people are complaining that the courts are failing Kesha, I think it’s bigger than that: everything is failing Kesha. Because our culture is designed to fail anyone who speaks up.

I have no idea what it’s like to be a pop star with my own TV show and millions of Instagram followers. I’ve even had issues with some of Kesha’s… less culturally respectful videos in the past. But those tears? I’ve seen ’em before. Her situation is uncomfortably familiar: at this very moment, there are three girls on my Facebook feed publicly calling out their abusers. They’re getting death threats, being told they’re dramatic, fielding suggestions like, “You should have called the cops,” or if they did, “What did you except the cops to do?” or “But did you have proof?” and the super-extra-invalidating “Well that’s just one side of the story.”

Publicly admitting to being abused makes you a target for further harassment. It’s a catch-22. It’s exhausting and rarely, if ever, is justice served. The past year was huge for women stepping forward in public ways. Porn star, Stoya (along with a slew of other women in the industry), called out her ex and scene partner, James Deen. Jackie Fuchs of the ’70s all-female rock band The Runaways told the story of her rape, at age sixteen, by her manager Kim Fowley. Lady Gaga admitted she’s still traumatized by her rape ten years ago at the hands of an older man in the music industry (and released a song about sexual abuse called “Till It Happens to You”). And then there were the women who spoke out about Bill Cosby (which I really don’t have to explain, do I?).

And so maybe, somewhere in my head I thought, “We’re finally making progress.” I started thinking maybe the stigma was lifting. Maybe society would start to support the survivors more, if they were already public figures. But then Friday happened. And I’m reminded yet again how impossible it is to prove rape and how nauseatingly easy it is to get away with. If being a major pop star with lots of money can’t prevent you from being taking advantage of and abused, what are the regular people supposed to do? Considering how often authority figures abuse power, why isn’t there a system for accountability with managers, producers, photographers (looking at you, Terry Richardson), and anyone else who holds an entire entertainment career in their hands? Why do we have so many systems in place to protect money and so few in place to protect people?

I’d venture to guess it’s no coincidence that the system is devoid of something important: women in positions of power. Because of course a system created by men, and run by powerful men, would protect those men at the expense of vulnerable young women. In other words, patriarchy works in tandem with rape culture.

Where do we go from here? How do I support traumatized women in their efforts to step up and call out their abusers, to volunteer for that ugly emotional gauntlet, when there’s basically no hope of actually making a difference? If Kesha, who has multiple supportive hashtags trending and diehard fans and every major media outlet on her side, has to choose between doing her job and her safety, then how do we, as feminists, protect those with smaller platforms: the transwomen, the women of color, the indigenous women, the poor women? How do we protect ourselves?

Yesterday, Taylor Swift donated $250,00 to support Kesha, but she did not publicly attack Sony. Hell, did she feel she could? And if Taylor Swift can’t—who can? How powerful do you have to be before you can call out a sexual abuser and not fear for your contract or your career or your education or your community? That is the multi-million dollar question. In our culture you can be rich and famous, but—if you go after your boss for rape, or sexual harassment, or assault,  you could lose everything you ever worked for. 

And so, in the way the world is utterly bizarre, I am in awe of Kesha. Because this blonde pop star, with her upbeat party anthems and glitter guns, chose to publicly take on the hush-hush world of sexual assault and serve as a visible reminder than no matter how shiny your life looks, no matter how much money, power, or fame you get, women are always vulnerable.

And if we don’t have each other’s backs, nobody does.

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  • laddibugg

    Rape cases going to trial make me feel sort of conflicted–it’s like, yeah, the person could be found ‘not guilty’, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.

    • I’ve been having a tough time with this because it seems like a lot of the time when accused rapists get off there is kind of this flip where it’s seen as a confirmation that the accuser is a liar. I can’t wait until we get to a place where society manages to discuss sexual assault cases with a little more nuance than it seems to currently.

      • Meg Keene

        Right. When it’s really just a standard of reasonable doubt. IE, if our system is working (which you know, it often isn’t) guilty people go free before innocent people go to jail.

  • CMT

    I feel so, so bad for Kesha. Obviously she is the one being wronged in this whole situation. I don’t think anybody (reasonable) feels differently. I have found the reaction to Taylor Swift confusing and kind of upsetting. Over on Jezebel (where they just love to hate on T Swift) there was criticism because she didn’t tweet the day of the decision. Where was she and why wasn’t she standing up for her fellow female artist?? The next day, criticism for making such a large donation. Look at her just making the situation all about herself! She’s damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.

    It just breaks my heart that a woman can face so much criticism for *any* decision she makes about whether or not support a fellow woman. We just can’t win!

    • In good news, looks like most of the shade came from Demi, and she took it back and said:

      “All I want to see is women coming together and actually making a difference. A real change and shift in society. Everyone has their own way of giving support to others , and at the end of the day, helping victims is all that matters. Ultimately, the message I want people to hear is it’s okay to come forward with your abuse and if you do decide to take action, you are not alone.”

      Yeah that wasn’t a cute move, though I get it.

    • Maddie Eisenhart

      I keep going back and forth on this. On the one hand, I feel like there is some responsibility for vocal feminists to be vocal when it matters. But also, basically everything in this article (h/t to former intern Rachel for linking to it first): http://www.theestablishment.co/2016/02/22/why-is-keshas-abuse-being-used-to-shame-taylor-swift/

      “Lost in all this is an important question. Or rather, a series of questions that tap into a deeper issue. Has Bruno Mars offered support to Kesha? What about Coldplay, or Robin Thicke, or Justin Bieber? They’re all pop stars; they’re all in the music industry. Why aren’t they weighing in on the #FreeKesha hashtag?

      Of course, no one expects Robin Thicke or Justin Bieber to be politically engaged. They’re barely expected to be sentient. But why should expectations be so different for them than for Taylor Swift? Why is $250,000 from her not good enough, while doing absolutely nothing is considered more than enough from them?”

      Like, how low are our standards that we don’t even expect a single dude to speak out about any of this. And that breaks my heart.

      (I’m waiting on you Matt McGorry) ETA: Matt McGorry did speak up this morning.

      • Eenie

        Oof. “The burden of speaking up, and of making themselves targets, is left to women like Kesha and Taylor Swift. Instead of feminism being a way to critique inequities and violence, it becomes just another club with which to beat women who fail to show sufficient solidarity.”

      • Meredith

        Jack Antonoff sort of offered support. So that’s nice.

      • Anne Schwartz

        Matt McGorry always. <3

        • MC

          Favorite woke white dude for sure.

      • I’ve been really angry the last couple of weeks about this. Like, women are expected to speak up because sexual assault is a “women’s issue”. Except, it’s not. It is not even close to a “women’s issue”. Women are not a niche group, they are 52% of the population. Men get sexually assaulted. Men commit sexual assault. This is a society issue that affects the community that we all live in so MAYBE as a society we need to start expecting more.

        These dudes (obligatory #notallmen) that are sitting there thinking this isn’t something they need to care about because “women’s issues” or whatever need to start giving a shit. This affects everyone.

        • Maddie Eisenhart
          • BSM

            Best tweet I’ve seen in ages.

          • Jessica

            Rachel is a gift to us all.

          • <3

          • Jessica

            This tweet just showed up on my FB feed.

        • leomab

          Why did you not mention that women sexually assault too?
          It’s stuff like this are the reason people dismiss you and don’t care at all.

          • Women absolutely do sexually assault. I don’t think that forgetting to mention that while getting worked up and talking about how sexual assault is a problem for everyone (in reaction to a male on female sexual assault article) is a reason to dismiss my point.
            Which was, in case you missed it, that the way our society deals with sexual assault is a problem for everyone.

      • CMT

        But she totally is being vocal. Honestly, $250,000 is a lot more vocal than a hashtag and a tweet.

        • Maddie Eisenhart

          I think the criticism came before the donation. Demi Lovato was throwing some very vague shade, roughly 12 hours before TSwift’s donation. (Don’t ask me why I know these things.) But I also think…everyone is damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

          • La’Marisa-Andrea

            I think everyone running to the aid of a white woman when they are silent when WOC need help is problematic and is basically what people are pissed off about where Taylor is concerned. Bc ultimately bringing awareness to Kesha doesn’t do shit for WOC.

      • Shawna

        “Of course, no one expects Robin Thicke or Justin Bieber to be politically engaged. They’re barely expected to be sentient.”


    • Anne Schwartz

      I’m looking for the outcry from male artist. The whole where is Taylor thing really really pisses me off. There’s a good article about it here: http://www.theestablishment.co/2016/02/22/why-is-keshas-abuse-being-used-to-shame-taylor-swift/

      Why are we using Kesha’s tragedy to shame Taylor? This feels wrong to me.

    • AP

      Also…a tweet doesn’t really change anything for Kesha (except maybe help put pressure on Sony?) But it doesn’t change things the way that $250,000 could mean the difference between a good lawyer and a great one, or could help stave off bankruptcy. I don’t get the criticism for it either. $250,000 isn’t nothing. I guess we could argue that money exchanged between women with means isn’t as powerful as money going from a woman with means to women without means, but that’s an entirely different conversation. I’m not the biggest fan of TS as a person, but I think it’s an enormous gesture of solidarity. She gets so much press that she doesn’t have to tweet this.

      • Eenie

        I have no idea what Kesha’s plans are, but if she wanted to stop recording all together (and thus stop making money, which it seems like the issue is, she has to record with SONY, but she doesn’t want to record with SONY), the $250,000 makes a huge difference. It gives her lots more options in her fight.

        • AP

          Exactly! It could be a game-changer. Also, it’s entirely possible T Swift called Kesha and ASKED HER DIRECTLY what help she might need (the most feminist move of all.) We don’t know these women’s lives.

  • Emily

    “And if Taylor Swift can’t—who can?” RIGHT?! And then Demi Lovato calls TSwift out for not doing enough, but she doesn’t do anything either. So now, we’re showing our little sisters and nieces and daughters 3 things: 1) that it doesn’t matter how famous or rich you are, you still are probably going to get fucked over at some point by a man with more money and more power and 2) that your equally rich and famous friends aren’t going to have your back and they’re going to give shit to people who DO have your back and 3) that if Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga or whoever can’t make a dent in this cycle, maybe you can’t either. I didn’t even know I cared about Kesha so much until right now.

  • MABie

    I too am totally in awe of Kesha’s bravery. I often wonder how my own teenage years would have been different if I had seen women celebrities, pop stars, and other public figures standing up and speaking out like this — if perhaps I would have been more empowered and less vulnerable to vicitmization.

    I’ve been moved by the reaction of other female pop stars. So many of them have spoken out in powerful ways in the aftermath of this debacle. (Sony is Taylor Swift’s record label, so she may not be able to put her money where her mouth is because of her own contract with them — she just has to put her money where her mouth can’t be!)

    Even if Kesha didn’t win in the courts, I hope — and I truly believe — that she is helping change a culture and forge a new path for young women. You can’t unring that bell.

  • Jessica

    Why would Sony want one of their artists, who makes them money, to work in a publicly hostile environment? The relationship between Kesha and Dr. Luke has been damaged beyond any ability to restore it, IMO, and it does not seem to be in Sony’s best interest to uphold this contract, but rather to amend it so she still works with their producers, just not this one guy.

    I’ve heard about how terrible the music industry is, especially to women and minority groups, but this just seems insane. The longer the legal battle the less money they make. I can’t imagine having to go through this, and Kesha is incredibly brave to go through it.

    • MC

      I keep thinking about this, too – even if they don’t let her out of her contract because it’s the right thing to do, at the very least they should realize that this is not a good look for them…

    • Meg Keene

      I know. It strikes me as bad business on every level, all moral implications aside.

      • I always want businesses to act ethically but at the very least, you’d think they would be considering how much this kind of press would hurt their bottom line.

        • Meg Keene

          Forget press, she makes GOOD MONEY FOR THEM. Right? Do you want the gravy train or no? I mean, it’s such bottom line business stuff, that it’s clear it’s not about business, it’s about protecting dudes in power.

          • La’Marisa-Andrea

            Curious but don’t these companies usually have “morality clauses” as an escape hatch somewhere in the fine print?

    • Maddie Eisenhart

      I think it just highlights how disposable artists are in the music industry. Particularly women.

      • Jessica

        This answer makes me the angriest, probably because it cuts closest to the truth.

    • LydiaB

      Sony have said she can work with another producer, well at least that’s what I have read in articles about the case.

      • They said that at kind of the 11th hour from my understanding…kind of a “What do you mean we’re being unfair?! She can work with anyone! We’re totally reasonable!!” as though that was what they’d been saying all along. There are also some questions about whether Sony will still fully promote her work if she does that, or if they’ll bury her as punishment.

        • LydiaB

          Makes sense! That is kinda cynical of them because now reading the articles they are all written with the slant of “Why is Kesha making such a fuss before the trial! They’ve said she can work with another producer!” and means even someone who tries to take the time to know the case (coming into it late, like me) is getting the wrong impression of her. Smart, but so cynical.

          • accidental_diva

            I’m not sure (haven’t read the contract) but I know in some producing contracts even if you don’t work with the producer in question that producer gets paid out of your profits anyway (Like a finders fee) and they could still get credit – and I know as a high schooler I wouldn’t have read a contract that well (or really understood it) to know not to sign something like that. (because even if a parent/guardian had to sign it too SHE WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL WHEN ALL OF THIS SH*T STARTED- which makes me even angrier for some reason).

      • ItsyBit

        In addition to what Rachel said, their “you can work with anyone!!1!” line makes me so mad because it’s still Dr. Luke’s label, and therefore 1) his studios, likely where she was traumatized in the first place; 2) his studio basically = his house, I can’t imagine going to my rapist’s “territory” to work every day; 3) his fellow producers, i.e. HIS FRIENDS are the “other producers” she can work with. Also let’s not forget that since its his label, a huge cut of the money is going directly to him. That last part may be “unavoidable” (uuuugh) but maybe wouldn’t feel so fucking terrible if the first three points weren’t the case.

        • MommaCat

          I agree she shouldn’t have to work with this guy’s company, but if the judge keeps her in the contract, I kinda hope she can just have 6 albums entitled “Contracturally Obligated Albums 1-6” delivered to the jerk, and have them filled with, I don’t know, rants against the patriarchy. Or just putting songs in new order; whatever she can do to have it legally count as a new album but still sticking it to the jerk. It would also need to be done in such a way that her fans would know what she was doing and not buy those albums.

          • ART

            Van Morrison did something like that and it is hilarious.

  • Shawna

    I am 3000% behind Kesha here, but I’ve also been interested to see the legal analysis and a caution toward overreacting about what the decision on Friday actually means. Based on what I’ve seen people who know more about the law than I do respond with (I am no lawyer), it was a denial of a preliminary injunction, which is not an easy thing to get anyway. So there’s more to come, at least, even if most of what has been said above is true. Our systems are continuously failing us and that still needs to change. Just feel the clarification is really important here so we have the conversation in the right context. Overdespair and burn out can be as harmful as willful ignorance in the pursuit of change.

    Source: http://groupthink.kinja.com/what-really-happened-with-kesha-today-a-brief-explaine-1760244144

    • Oh TOTALLY. The laws are very very complicated here.

      Hence trying to shift focus away from the legal contract system, and towards the fact that it’s been a multi-year debacle that highlights the general the lack of structural support rape survivors (even famous ones) have in calling out powerful (and non-powerful) figures. Which yeah, is failing us.

      • Shawna

        With you on that. I’m hoping my response didn’t come as man-splainy (can you mansplain as a woman?) because that wasn’t my intention at all. I’ve just had a week last week where I cried daily and realized I needed to back off my diet of 100% feminist news reading a bit so I didn’t self-destruct. It’s hard because I want to stay informed and stay active, but every now and again I realize I can’t stay mad and ready to slay the system all day every day.

        Also seeing a lot of people sum up this decision as Kesha’s life now being over and it just…isn’t. Of course she’s devastated because she shouldn’t be in this boat in the first place. She should have so much more support (I see now that’s your main point). I selfishly want the conversation we have to be completely on the up-and-up factually so it gives our detractors one fewer thing to poke holes in us with. Does that make sense?

        I love your writing, Najva. Thanks for understanding.

        • <3 TOTALLY GET IT (and for that matter, Meg is VERY much on your page.)

          I will say that our new office is motto is "Cuntsplaining since 2008" and you are welcome to borrow it if need be. ;)

          • Maddie Eisenhart

            Cuntsplaining is the new mansplaining.

          • Shawna

            Dying laughing over here. There’s a reason this place is my home on the internet and it goes so far beyond planning a wedding. So..when is APW going to have an in-person happy hour that’s open to the community in the Bay Area? We need a local get-together!

          • ART

            Can we do this please? I’m down.

          • I just made the eyes emoji face IRL hahaha

          • bahahahahaha!

          • Another Meg

            Cuntsplaining may be my new favorite word. ((0)) <3

        • Omigod. Last week was exactly the same for me. After a week of reading about horrors against women, I ended up in a stupid facebook argument with tech dude who didn’t think that there was enough research to prove that women are systematically excluded from STEM fields. I was backed up by many, but ugh.

          • Emily

            I’m at a similar spot with the news and have been trying to remind myself that I’m in this for the long haul. It’s okay if I don’t read *every* feminist article out there.

    • Meg Keene

      I’m married to a litigator, so we ran everything through someone who does this every day before we published. In short, the legal issue isn’t huge here. She was denied a preliminary injunction asking to get out of her contract before she went to hearing about getting out of her contract. So pretty understandably, the Judge said no, we’re going to go to hearing to decide this.

      In short, the way the legal stuff is being written about has often been inaccurate or at least misleading. That’s why we’re talking more about the broader systems here (why won’t Sony just let her OUT of her contract?) then the denial of a preliminary injunction, which isn’t a huge legal deal.

      • Shawna

        Gotcha. Agreed. Why won’t Sony just let her out? Why treat her as a commodity instead of a person? Manage to work with her in a way that lets her make music – probably even FOR THEM as they are a huge company with many resources? It doesn’t seem hard from the outside. And it is just so stupid in a modern business context where their image is being destroyed in the court of public opinion for them not to create a humane solution that could still benefit them as a company.

        • Meg Keene

          Update: Sony might not have that power. She may be contracted TO his producer, and he’s contracted to Sony, etc. etc.

        • Natalie

          “Why treat her as a commodity instead of a person?”

          Because to Sony, she’s not a person, she’s a commodity to packaged and sold and used until she’s not valuable to them anymore. I’m guessing keeping the rapist producer happy earns them more money in the long run than valuing just one female pop star they can replace with another female pop star.

          • Meg Keene

            I think it may be more complicated than that. IE, the contract is a tangled web of various companies, and Sony may not be able to dissolve it. Some offers have been made, which Keisha’s lawyers (probably rightly) have dismissed as illusory.

          • Jessica

            This has my nerd beacon going. I want to know more!

          • Natalie

            Yes, it’s not as easy as Sony waving a wand to solve the problem, and I make no claims to understanding details of contract law, but it seems as though Sony is placing their professional relationship with Dr. Luke above their relationship with Kesha. Sony could be working with Kesha, but instead they’re fighting her.

      • Thanks for clarifying this, Meg.

    • I do think that people who understand the legal aspect of what happens are still pretty squicked out by the judge’s statement that her “instinct is to do the commercially reasonable thing.” Doing the ~commercially reasonable~ thing may be the standard, but I do think it’s worth poking at why that is, and questioning whether or not contract law is currently written/interpreted in a way that favors the interests of powerful men/corporations over individual workers.

      • MC

        And frustration at why the legal system is so ill-equipped to deal with people (particularly women) who are survivors of trauma – like, sure, multiple trials might be standard, but that is REALLY hard and often re-traumatizing for survivors, and expensive, and emotionally exhausting, and especially if it’s getting media attention. I’m no lawyer or legal expert but I do wish the system was more compassionate to survivors since otherwise going to trial to prosecute your abuser can be pretty unappealing.

      • Amy March

        I agree. The Judge’s decision was clearly correct under the laws we have. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a valid broader feminist critique of why we have these laws and how they work.

        For example, there has been quite a lot written about how women are less likely to successfully invoke their Miranda rights because the ways that invoking has been defined require clear forceful communication that many women are socialized to avoid.

      • La’Marisa-Andrea

        Yes!!! We have to interrogate it all.

  • Cdn icecube

    Absolutely fantastic article and for me this tweet sums up a lot of my feelings about this issue. “The fact that Chris Brown still has a thriving music career but Kesha won’t be able to record speaks volumes about our society.” – Brandon Evers
    Ugh it just bothers me so much!

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  • Kendall

    I don’t understand why it was necessary to flag Kesha in this article for culturally insensitive videos, since it’s not the subject at hand. I didn’t see anyone flagging Beyonce for her appearance as a Bollywood idol in Coldplay’s video. If you’re going to call people out on cultural appropriation, at least be fair about it.

  • Anonymous

    Can I ask what I feel like is a really silly question? I 100% understand how difficult it is for victims of sexual assault to speak up about their abuse. But how do we balance supporting and believing victims with the doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty”?

    In this article, Navja cites “But did you have proof?” and “Well that’s just one side of the story” as examples of insensitivity and invalidation towards victims of sexual assault. And I get how painful that can be, and how impossible it often is to furnish proof in cases of rape. But if I were to accuse someone of theft or carjacking or any other crime, then the legal system would certainly demand proof before convicting anyone.

    In many cases, sexual assault and rape take place one-on-one. There are no witnesses, no proof, no evidence. So how can we support victims while also ensuring a fair legal process for the accused?

    • Amy March

      I have two thoughts about this.

      First, are you on the jury? Are you personally responsible for investigating this situation? Is there so particular need for you, on hearing an accusation of sexual assault, to react with skepticism instead of support? I think there generally isn’t. And if you claimed to be a victim of a car-jacking, people would universally believe you, and you would only face cross-examination at a trial, if there was one.

      Second, there are always witnesses to sexual assault, and there is always evidence. The evidence is eyewitness testimony of the victim. In the highly unlikely event the case actually goes to trial, one of the chief competencies of a jury is evaluating the credibility of a witness. It’s not a perfect system, but it provides significant protections for the accused already.

    • Greta

      I know someone (a male) who was accused of rape. He was picked up by the police and everything, and then released due to ??? He claims the girl who accused him was crazy, trying to trap him, that they did have sex, but it was consensual, etc. For me, I will always stand on the side of the victim. This is truly a case of he-said, she-said, but I choose to believe her, a woman I have never met, as opposed to my ex-friend. Because of all the above in this article, and because if a woman goes to the police and accuses someone of rape, then that’s all I need.

  • ItsyBit

    This sums up so many of my feelings (anger, sadness, frustration, exhaustion, rage, defeat…) in a much more articulate way than I’ve been able to do myself. Thanks for this, Najva.

  • Sarah Kellar

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  • hipsterbarbie

    YES! This whole thing, YES!

    Anyone who denies rape culture just needs to look the fuck around and see what is happening.

    The other day, my husband got a sobering (proverbial) slap in the face about rape laws, even as arguably the biggest feminist I know. I can’t remember what exactly led up to it, but he made a joke about going to jail if he raped me (definitely a joke, we both have crude senses of humor), to which I was actually kind of surprised by, as he is generally very hyper-aware of how awful it is to accuse someone of rape, for many of the reasons this article stated. I immediately let out a surprised laugh and said, “I would never accuse you of rape, I would just divorce you” and he looked at me concerned and said, “why wouldn’t you press charges against me?!” and I said, “come on, there is absolutely no way that I could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that my husband raped me. Even when it’s not your husband, it’s nearly impossible to prove. I don’t think there is a single police officer or lawyer in the country who would suggest I press charges and re-traumatize myself like that” He was silent, and looked really sad as he realized that if his wife was raped by someone, at any point, it would be so unlikely that I’d ever find justice.

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