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Letter to the Editor: Coalition of graduate students and student organizations asks CMU to do more

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Dear President Jahanian, Provost Garrett, and Vice President for Student Affairs Casalegno,

We hope you and your families are well during these troubling times in Pittsburgh and the US. We are writing to ask that you please use your power as regional leaders to protect your students and the Pittsburgh community from senseless acts of state violence. This is a request that you take immediate policy action that goes beyond words and promises. In addition to this letter, we are aware of many other independent statements and a petition being circulated that support these actions, as well as other actions that Carnegie Mellon can take at this critical time.

As you are aware, on 25 May 2020, the Minneapolis Police Department brutally killed George Floyd. He had moved to Minneapolis to make a better life, but was laid off due to COVID-19 pandemic state mandates.

Justifiably, protests have emerged nation-wide to emphatically state that #BlackLivesMatter while demanding immediate justice for George Floyd and an overhaul of the racist American criminal justice system. This is the same criminal justice system that has resulted in the deaths of David McAtee, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, our own Antwon Rose II from Pittsburgh, and countless other lives, without real consequences for the police force.

Unfortunately, protests against police brutality have been met with more police brutality. In multiple days of peaceful protest, Pittsburgh police escalated the situation with tactics of control and intimidation. On Saturday, police responded disproportionately to the destruction of an abandoned police vehicle, attacking mostly peaceful protestors with mounted units, tear gas, rubber bullets, and a militarized SWAT team in tactical gear. On Monday, police shot unarmed peaceful protestors with rubber bullets and sprayed them with tear gas. Firsthand reporting and video evidence confirm police fired on protestors without provocation. Undoubtedly, in doing so, the police threatened the lives of Carnegie Mellon's past, present, and future students, among others.

Policing and violence are unwarranted, ineffective, and unjust responses to community grief and trauma. Moreover, such responses endanger the lives of all Pittsburghers, especially the Black and Brown communities, and other communities of color. Instead of showing solidarity and taking any responsibility for the state-sanctioned infliction of violence and trauma, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has defended the approach of the police, blaming “outside agitators” for dividing a hurting community.

Mayor Peduto’s defense suggests that if thousands of people act peacefully but one person does not, the entire police department has a free pass to use violent tactics against the people. Moreover, the rhetoric of “outside agitators” has long been used to undercut and delegitimize the work of Black organizers and community leaders, such as during Ferguson and the Civil Rights Movements.

As conditions in this country showcase authoritarianism and state-sanctioned violence, we depend on local leaders to respond with compassion and concrete actions. We know Carnegie Mellon's administration is dedicated to protecting freedom of speech as well as advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. We have heard each of your words taking personal and institutional responsibility, including in President Jahanian’s latest remarks: “At times like this we must reflect on what we can do to make society, including our own community, more just.” If ever there were a time to turn these words into actions, it is now.

To echo Angela Davis: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist—we must be anti-racist.” To protect its past, present, and future students, to honor Carnegie Mellon's commitment to the greater Pittsburgh community, we are requesting that you begin with the following actions:

President Jahanian should contact City of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto to demand non-violent, trauma-informed, and de-escalatory state responses for all protests from now on. There are 50 years of research showing that of the many possible responses to protest, police violence is escalatory and dangerous for everyone.

Carnegie Mellon should officially cut ties with the police departments of the City of Pittsburgh, County, and all other regional municipalities. These departments must have their budgets reduced and be incentivized to adopt evidence-based use-of-force policies that have been shown in 30 years of research to end police violence. There is precedent for this as shown by the bold leadership of University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel, who announced last week that UMN has cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department.

Carnegie Mellon should end its Predictive Policing project partnership with the City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, a covert and dangerous partnership that has been long opposed by impacted Pittsburghers.

Importantly, these actions are not just immediate emergency responses to the longstanding crises of police brutality and an unjust carceral system, but also acts of reparation for past and current wrongs that Carnegie Mellon has committed against the communities in which it is embedded. In addition to the Predictive Policing project above, this includes Carnegie Mellon’s recent erasure of black neighborhoods for up to ten years through official university marketing materials and the legacy of gentrification of Oakland and East Liberty. Long-term actions should also be taken within the Carnegie Mellon community to ensure that our daily actions — research, building and infrastructure projects, and otherwise — do not perpetuate, but instead actively dismantle the racist structures that have led to these tragedies. Following through on these actions, both short-term and long-term, will hold true to the call of #CMUAgainstRacism.

We know from working with you that you are personally committed to these issues. We ask that you please take these recommendations to heart and do right by the communities that our institution has vowed to serve. So many lives — and the future of our community — depend on it.

Signed,
Brian Rhindress (he/him), MS Public Policy, Management-Data Analytics, Heinz College ‘20
Đinh Ngọc Phượng (Phoebe), (she/her, they/them), Ph.D. Student in Psychology, Dietrich College
David Gray Widder (he/him), PhD Student, Software Engineering, School of Computer Science
Bonnie Fan (she/her, they/them), MS Public Policy, Management-Data Analytics, Heinz College ‘20
Michael Madaio (he/him), PhD Candidate, Human-Computer Interaction, School of Computer Science
Priya Donti (she/her, they/them), Ph.D. Student, Computer Science & Public Policy, School of Computer Science and College of Engineering
Emily Black (she/her), PhD Candidate, Computer Science Dept, School of Computer Science
Darya Kharabi (they/them), BA Social & Political History, Dietrich College ‘20
Zach Patterson (he/him), PhD Student, Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering
Lisha White (she/her), PhD Candidate, Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering
Jasmine Bitanga (she/her), MS Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering
Shaquetta A. Johnson (she/her), MS ECE & Eng and Tech Innovation Mgmt, College of Engineering
Malik A. Blackman (he/him), PhD Student in Mechanical Engineering Dept, College of Engineering
Bryanna S. Brown (she/her), MS Electrical and Computer Engineer, College of Engineering
Claude I. King III (he/him), PhD Student, Biomedical Engineering Dept, College of Engineering
Uchechukwu (Uche) O. Agwu (he/him), PhD student in Mechanical Engineering Dept, College of Engineering
Peter Rezk (he/him), BA Ethics, History, Public Policy, History and Philosophy Dept, Dietrich College ‘20
Funmbi Jaiyeola (she/her) BS Electrical and Computer Engineering, College of Engineering ‘21

Organizations

CMU Call to Action
Black Graduate Student Organization
National Society of Black Engineers
SPIRIT (Black Student Association)
Heinz College Council for Diversity, Richness, and Inclusion
CMU Labor Coalition
CMU Against ICE
Tech4Society
Roosevelt@CMU
CMU for Bernie
Sustainable Earth
CMU FORGE