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Protesters wage war on CMU military contracting

Last Friday, approximately 50 anti-war protesters gathered in front of Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) in Lawrenceville at 5 a.m. to protest the development of federal goverment-commissioned military technology.

The protest was organized primarily by the Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG). The organization describes itself as a “radical group based in Pittsburgh working to affect systemic progressive change in society,” according to its website. Protesters stationed themselves outside the building’s two entrances, chanting “Unplug the war machine!” and “Shut down the killer robots!”

Fourteen protesters chained themselves together using lockboxes, or what Carnegie Mellon police sergeant William Richie termed the “sleeping dragon technique” — long pipes of steel and mesh covered in duct tape through which people’s hands are locked together — and sat in a line in front of the building’s main entrance on 43rd Street, while six others chained themselves to the 40th Street entrance. One protester suspended herself from a tripod 15 feet in the air in front of a main vehicle entrance.

Both city and University Police were stationed around the periphery of the building in cars and on bikes.

“We were there to ensure everyone’s safety and to look out for our property and facility,” said Richie. “Our concern was the Carnegie Mellon property, not the city streets. We didn’t have to take any action throughout the protest.”

Pittsburgh city police arrested the 14 protesters who were obstructing the 43rd Street entrance, but allowed the six at the 40th Street entrance to remain.

As of March 3, those arrested were arraigned, released, and are awaiting trial on March 8, according to the POG’s website.

“[The purpose of the protest was] to throw a direct wrench in the war machine by physically halting work on military technologies at the NREC for the day,” said David Meieran, a member of the POG and one of the leading organizers of the protest.

Meieran, a former Ph.D. candidate in Carnegie Mellon’s philosophy department, left the university shortly before the Iraq war to dedicate himself to activism against U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

The NREC, an operating unit within Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, works to “develop advanced mobile robotics systems for business and government,” according to its website.

Many of the personnel working on projects at the NREC are Carnegie Mellon faculty and graduate students.

Since opening in 1996, the NREC has undertaken projects in unmanned vehicle design, autonomous vehicle technologies, operator assist technologies, innovative mechanisms, sensing and image processing applications, and machine learning applications. Many of the center’s robotic systems are geared towards applications such as automated crop harvesting, industrial material transport, or semi-automated paint removal.

The NREC is also working with the federal government to develop technologies geared toward offensive and defensive military actions, such as unmanned combat vehicles and mobile surveillance technologies named “Crusher” or “Gladiator.” Many of these projects are designed for use by the Marine Corps in rugged or dangerous areas.

Jay Sadeghi, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in art and linguistics and was present at the protest, questioned whether the NREC’s role in designing military technology made the center indirectly responsible for perpetuating the war in Iraq.

“As a CMU undergrad, I knew less about the military technology that we’re involved in producing,” Sadeghi said. “I think it’s our duty as current members or alums of CMU to at least consider what role we are playing in the production of war by supporting the NREC.”

However, a Carnegie Mellon student in computer science and robotics disagreed.

“If CMU shut down their production, the Pentagon would just go elsewhere. And if all of the universities in America refused to participate, the government would just do it themselves. There’s no way around the production of these technologies. At least this way it provides an amazing opportunity for research and jobs,” said the student, who wished to remain anonymous.

Meieran argued that the same logic could be applied to past war crimes like Nazism.

“You could say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter if I’m a guard at this concentration camp — if I don’t do it, someone else will.’ But that doesn’t make it any less evil,” he said.

The POG stated that it had peacefully accomplished their goal, which was to “interject an anti-war message at a war-related facility that has thus far received no public scrutiny” and to block the NREC facility for the full working day, according to the group’s website.

Mary Ruth Auoo, a retired nurse who works often with the Thomas Merton Center, a Pittsburgh-based activist group also involved in the protest, agreed.

“Ten thousand people should be out here,” Auoo said at the scene. “We’re good people. Americans and the world deserve peace.”