Sit-In: No Objection | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Sit-In: No Objection 

About 200 protesters participated in the non-permitted march from the William Pitt Student Union toward CMU, though in contrast to the non-permitted protest in Downtown Pittsburgh a year ago, they obeyed traffic signals. As each batch stood waiting for the light to change at Forbes Avenue, Tim Vining of the Thomas Merton Center informed them that as long as they stayed on the sidewalk they wouldn't be arrested. "Just to let you know," he warned one group, the police "are extremely sensitive right now."


The police need not have worried. A dozen horse-mounted county police rode herd on the march as it wended its way through Schenley Park to CMU, but the protesters were well behaved -- unless you count chanting "Get those animals off those horses."


Carnegie Mellon University was targeted because of its long history of conducting cutting-edge research with military applications. The school's Software Engineering Institute dates back to Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" missile-defense system, and more recently the school's Robotics Institute has been involved in developing unmanned ground-combat vehicles for the army. But protesters chose to occupy the rotunda of the college's student union. Protesters wearing bandanas over their faces and punk protest gear soon found themselves reclining comfortably, if somewhat surrealistically, on black pleather chairs.


The group began by issuing a series of demands (somewhat obscured by the building's poor acoustics): that the school provide "full and accessible disclosure" on military projects and their funding sources; that it declare an "immediate moratorium" on those projects; that it end the campus ROTC program; and that it begin discussing how to switch research away from military functions and toward projects "with more humanitarian ends."


But the expected confrontation with school administration never took place. Neither CMU head Jared Cohon nor any other administration representative appeared to speak with demonstrators (protesters acknowledged not knowing whether campus leaders were even in town), and CMU security tolerated their presence as long as they didn't damage the pricey-looking furniture.


According to Judy Ghogomu, information desk and facilities manager, "At one point, [CMU officials] were going to lock the doors and not let people in," but the more tolerant plan was officially announced Friday evening, according to an e-mail from the campus police chief. "The university maintains a historic position in support of peaceable protest that does not disrupt university business or violate university policies," the message read. "[However], we will be restricting access by non-affiliates to several buildings of the campus on Saturday" -- not including, apparently, the student lounge.


Ghogomu said the protesters could stay as long as they "aren't causing trouble ... it's not our policy to kick people out."


Within an hour, city police and ACLU monitors on hand to watch for violence had begun drifting away, the bandanas had almost entirely disappeared, and gas masks hung limply from the belts of protest medics.


Though SEI might have made a more natural location choice, march spokesman David Meieran explained that SEI "is a familiar location and it's outside" -- two things which made it undesirable on the rainy afternoon of the protest. Moreover, "CMU's military connections are bigger than SEI," he noted. Unlike some other CMU buildings, which were locked for the weekend, the student union "is accessible. We thought it'd be a festive place and we might get word out to the students."


Festive it was -- protesters soon took to running in circles around the rotunda and dancing to music on turntables provided by college station WRCT -- but whether CMU students got the message is debatable. Most who passed through the rotunda surveyed the protest briefly before heading off to the library or the computer labs, though first-year student Heather Coile and her friends spent a solid hour watching the protest from a table on the second floor. "This is the funniest thing ever," Coile said.


Indeed, the protesters themselves seemed aware that without administration figures to oppose, or police to be oppressed by, their message lacked focus. 


In between spinning tunes, speakers implored the group to "not forget why we're here." But it soon became apparent that, if you want to grab the administration's attention, you don't hold a protest on a weekend, and eventually the protesters agreed to claim victory and depart the field. Organizers noted that opportunities to confront school administrators would be abundant in the future, hinting that one such opportunity "might" include an April 1 dinner Cohon was expected to attend.



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