‘Against Carceral Tech’ organizes march, promotes facial recognition ban

Roughly 60 people gathered in front of “Walking to the Sky” last Monday to protest carceral technology. The march was organized by Against Carceral Tech (ACT), a joint effort between the Coalition Against Predictive Policing (CAPP) and CMU Against ICE. They advocated for a city-wide ban on facial recognition.

Bonnie Fan, who received their masters degree from Heinz College in 2020, was one of the march’s organizers. They said that in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the University made a commitment to support communities of color. Predictive policing and facial recognition technology — which are racially biased and disproportionately target Black and brown people — do not reflect this commitment, Fan told The Tartan.

Over the summer, Carnegie Mellon proposed using facial recognition technology in criminal investigations. CAPP launched a petition against the prospective policy that garnered 418 signatures. Following community backlash, the University announced that it was no longer considering the proposal.

A question that Fan said a lot of students are asking themselves is: “Do I work on a morally ambiguous project that could be used to harm people in the future?” Fan began their doctorate of philosophy in 2020 with Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute but took this year off to consider the context and impact of their research. They hope that students will work as a community “to amplify each other’s power.”

Leaders from numerous groups spoke at the rally. Brandi Fisher, the president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability, discussed harmful policing policies. “All police can do is arrest,” but often people need resources “so they can become whole individuals,” she said in her speech.

Fisher discussed conditions at the Allegheny County Jail, the site for “a huge number of deaths in our backyard,” she said. The Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reported that 13 men who were incarcerated at the ACJ have died since March 2020. Fisher advocated for people to attend ACJ Oversight Board meetings, which are open to the public and held on the first Thursday of the month. She also called for Orlando Harper, the jail’s warden, to be fired.

As the march made its way down Forbes Avenue, buses lined up along the Carnegie Museum of Art. One rider disembarked and shouted that he was trying to get to work but the protest was blocking the buses. Organizers eventually directed protestors to the right side of the road to allow buses to pass. Many protesters were not students and few, if any, were undergraduates.

Laura Perkins, the Emergency Response Organizer at Casa San Jose, discussed the impacts of carceral tech for immigrants. “Mass surveillance is not regulated,” she said at the rally. “Our community gets hurt by this system.”

Representatives from CMU Better, the Abolitionist Law Center, and the local Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions chapter also spoke at the march. Graduate students at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh discussed pay disparities and unionization efforts.

Pat Hugh, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, told protesters that academia does not exist within a vacuum. He said he continued his education “to improve the world” but realized that his AI research was funded by the Department of Defense, which helped him get the highest stipend possible. When he decided not to accept the DOD funding, he said, his pay took a hit.

“We pretend our work is at the very least neutral,” Hugh said of researchers. But he told the crowd that harmful research has consequences.

Fan said they want students to practice “educating up.” They told The Tartan this means asking what happens to research: Where does it go? Who does it affect?

“Everyone who’s doing their work strongly believes that they’re doing it for a good reason and good cause and I believe that it’s coming from a good place,” Fan said. “But then there are these blind spots about the impact on marginalized communities. You have to let go of some ego to admit that you made a mistake. And that can be deadly in academia, to admit that you’ve made a mistake.”

Fan recognized the support faculty who “want to uphold human rights and racial justice and bring forth the concerns of the community in their work.” They said that they want that commitment to be universally reflected in research funding and impact.