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Defense Dollars Indefensible, Especially on MLK Day

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A longtime foe of Carnegie Mellon University's work for the U.S. Department of Defense is planning his annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally against the university -- but with a 2007 twist.

Vincent Eirene, of the North Side, has led protests against CMU's Software Engineering Institute since its founding in the mid-1980s. A 2003 City Paper study found that SEI's work has been integral to the development of U.S. weapons manufactured by every major domestic defense contractor, as well as defense companies from Canada to Israel. The work has reaped CMU hundreds of millions of dollars, though school officials maintain that developing better weapons is different than manufacturing the items themselves.

While giving no credence to such distinctions, Eirene also points out that CMU is moving closer to the latter role. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 2005, for instance, "CMU beat out defense giant Lockheed Martin for a $26.4 million Defense Department contract to produce a line of six Gladiator TUGV [Tactical Unmanned Ground Vehicle] prototypes," noting that "the six-wheeled combat robot" would be "capable of carrying out search-and-discovery missions in potentially hostile areas."

The Eirene-led protest at noon on Jan. 15, at the corner or Forbes and Morewood avenues, will include the playing of King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech from April 4, 1967, exactly one year before the minister's assassination.

"[M]en do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war," King told the Riverside Church in New York City that day. "When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

Asked whether Eirene's criticism of CMU's defense department contracts was fair, CMU spokesperson Teresa Thomas answered, "We don't typically comment on that." A call to SEI spokesperson Kelly Kimberland was not returned by deadline, but Kimberland would not say anything substantive about SEI when questioned in 2003.

"The one thing it does," Eirene says of his rally: "it breaks up the false consensus. Not everybody is for the sugarcoating of this Iraq War. Unlike the Vietnam War, where it took 10 years to amass protests against the war, the majority of people are against the Iraq War" today -- or at least now dissatisfied with its conduct and outcome.

Eirene says he hopes academic institutions like CMU put their energies and money into helping do something positive, such as reviving the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. In an effort to increase post-hurricane aid, Eirene has made several trips to the affected region, as well as to cities with major evacuee populations.

"If Dr. King were alive today," Eirene says, "he'd definitely be back and forth to New Orleans, making sure the African-American community in the Ninth Ward would be treated justly."

Also on Jan. 15: MLK celebration at Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, 9 p.m., with more King speeches and videos, organized by Eirene and Evan Knauer (late of the band ATS) to raise money for Katrina victims.

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