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Activists Calling for Removal of Vice Chair Protest at the Whitney

Above: Protest at the Whitney Museum of American Art on Sunday, December 9. Photo: NYC-DSA, the New York Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Above: Protest at the Whitney Museum of American Art on Sunday, December 9. Photo: NYC-DSA, the New York Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

NEW YORK—Members of Decolonize This Place and other activists flooded the atrium of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York on Sunday to protest Warren B. Kanders, the vice chair of the institution’s board of directors and owner of Safariland, a company that manufactures tear gas canisters and other products which have been used against asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border.

While the action was planned in solidarity with the ninety-five staffers who signed an open letter that called for the institution to answer for its ties to Kander, who helped financially back the museum’s current Andy Warhol retrospective, it also called attention to other issues, including the repatriation of cultural objects and the refugee crisis.

After assembling in front of the institution, around 250 participants in the demonstration began streaming into the museum around 1 PM. They unfurled banners which read “Warren Kanders Must Go,” “Whitney Museum: No Space for Profiteers of State Violence,” and “Greed Kills” and burned sage. Representatives of the American Indian Community House and the New Sanctuary Coalition, among other groups, also gave speeches. Flyers demanding the end of the criminalization of refugees, freedom for all incarcerated migrants, and for the speedier processing of all US asylum requests were handed out to museumgoers.  

Demonstrators expressed their disappointment with statements museum director Adam Weinberg and Kanders made in response to the employees’ open letter. “The Whitney is first and foremost a museum,” Weinburg wrote. “It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role . . . Through our openness and independence we can foreground often marginalized, unconventional and seemingly unacceptable ideas not presented in other sites in our culture.” The letter continued: As members of the Whitney community, we each have our critical and complementary roles: trustees do not hire staff, select exhibitions, organize programs or make acquisitions, and staff does not appoint or remove board members.”

Kanders defended his position as chairman, CEO, and owner of Safariland by declaring that tear gas provides authorities with an alternative to lethal weapons and that his company also makes products such as body armor in order to keep police officers safe. He also claims that his involvement with the Whitney reflects his own “personal values around diversity, inclusion, access and equality.”

“Safariland’s role as a manufacturer is to ensure the products work, as expected, when needed,” Kanders wrote in statement. “Safariland’s role is not to determine when and how they are employed. The staff letter implies that I am responsible for the decision to use these products. I am not. That is not an abdication of responsibility, it is an acknowledgement of reality. We sell products to government institutions, domestically and internationally, all of which must be certified to purchase and use these products.” He also argued that the politicization of all issues is not “productive or healthy.”

For demonstrators such as artist Shellyne Rodriguez, the institution needs to be held accountable for its decision to align itself with funders such as Kanders. “What will they do next?” Rodriquez asked the crowd. “We are here because we cannot allow this motherfucker to maintain this position at this museum.”

As the protest gained in momentum, firefighters were called to the museum due to the growing clouds of smoke from the burning sage and instructed activists to put out the smoldering herbs. After several shouts of “Fire, Fire, to the Colonizers,” the action moved outside.

December 11, 2018