As the smoke began to fill the lobby of New York City's Whitney Museum on Sunday, some unsuspecting visitors hiked up their scarves to cover their mouths.
“That’s sage,” one protester said to those waiting on line for tickets. “You think that’s bad? Try tear gas.”
Chants in both English and Spanish took up the spaces that hadn’t yet been touched by smoke: “Through the tear gas our ancestors bring us fresh air!”
After about an hour, the fire department arrived and escorted the demonstrators outside.
The chants continued: “Fire, fire, fire to the colonizers!” “¡Fuego, fuego, fuego a la colonia!”
The protest, organized by a group called Decolonize This Place, was to demand the resignation of the museum’s vice chairman, Warren B. Kanders, 12 days after it was revealed by the website Hyperallergic that he is also the owner, chairman, and CEO of the company Safariland, which manufactures law enforcement gear—including the tear gas reportedly being used on migrants at the southern border.
While the museum would likely rather focus on celebrating its recently-opened, blockbuster Warhol retrospective, it has nevertheless become increasingly mired in the controversy surrounding its vice chairman, who also provided the show with “significant support.”
Less than a week after Hyperallergic’s initial report, 95 Whitney staffers penned and signed an open letter to the museum’s leadership to “convey our outrage” at Kanders’ connection to the violence at the border, as well as their “frustration and confusion” at the museum’s then lack of public or internal comment.
They also demanded that their concerns be relayed to the museum’s board, that the board considers asking for Kanders’ resignation, that the museum convene a staff forum to discuss the issue, and that it institute a “moral line” for trustees. “Because we feel strongly about this,” the letter reads, “we believe it is our responsibility to speak to this injustice directly, even as the Whitney has chosen not to. To remain silent is to be complicit.”
Three days later, on December 3, Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, responded with a statement to museum staff and trustees.
Acknowledging that “we truly live in difficult times,” Weinberg wrote that the Whitney “cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role,” before celebrating the politics of some of its recent shows by artists from marginalized communities, such as “David Wojnarowicz, an outcast voice silenced much too early,” and “Zoe Leonard, a poet of the unseen and unsung.” (Unmentioned was the museum’s 2017 exhibition, An Incomplete History of Protest, which featured activist and political works from the Whitney’s collection).
The Whitney Museum did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Kanders also penned a statement on December 3, defending his company and writing that “Safariland’s role as a manufacturer is to ensure the products work, as expected, when needed.
Safariland’s role is not to determine when and how they are employed. The [Whitney] 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.”
“I am not the problem the authors of the letter seek to solve,” Kanders wrote.
Safariland’s mission statement, trademarked and listed on its website, is “together, we save lives.”
The company and its 19 brands manufacture everything from body armor to prisoner restraints, tear gas, “impact munitions,” and more. The slogan for its brand Defense Technology is “less lethal solutions.”
“We are the largest global manufacturer of body armor for police officers, we provide safety holsters that prevent criminals from taking firearms from cops and we make the majority of the bomb suits worldwide worn by people who risk their lives to keep us safe,” wrote Kanders in his statement.
Not mentioned in Kanders’ statement, however, is the company’s history of controversy.
“Less-lethal weapons are dangerous. Especially if deployed indiscriminately or inappropriately, they can cause severe injuries, including death,” the suit reads.
Safariland has also seen its fair share of legal trouble.
According to the International Business Times, the company has paid out more than $40 million in settlements to the Department of Justice. In 2008, the company - then called Armor Holdings - reportedly shelled out $30 million for knowingly manufacturing and selling defective bulletproof vests. In 2011, it paid just over $10 million for bribing a U.N. official to receive contracts to manufacture body armor for U.N. peacekeepers.
It is important to note that Kanders sold the company to the UK-based BAE Systems in 2007, before buying it back in 2011. However, the IBT reports that Safariland’s legal troubles all derive from his period of ownership.
“Kanders distanced himself from the company at just the right time for BAE to be footed with legal settlement bills,” Anna Feigenbaum, author of Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today, told the International Business Times. “By adopting the Safariland name after he bought back Armor Holdings, Kanders was able to bury the company's checkered past through re-branding.”
Still, according to federal records, Safariland has amassed over $16 million in U.S. government contracts over the last 11 fiscal years.
While Kanders did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, he did speak to Forbes in the days before the protest.
“Whether it’s under Obama—he was fond of using these products very frequently—or under Bush or Clinton or whomever, we are there to make nonlethal products and to provide those products to friends of our government through very prescribed channels,” Kanders told the magazine.
According to FEC filings, Kanders has made numerous contributions to government officials and candidates across the political spectrum, including John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and Cory Booker’s 2013 Senatorial campaign.
With regard to the Whitney staff’s outrage, however, Kanders told Forbes he was unbothered: “I have pretty thick skin. I do what I feel is right. People need to be protected and police officers with families are living today because of what I do, what our company does.”
On the Facebook event for Sunday's demonstration, Decolonize This Place said that it “refuse(d) to tolerate the presence of Kanders on the board of the museum.”
Amin Husain, an artist and organizer with Decolonize This Place and another group called MTL+ Collective, told The Daily Beast that “our action, our organizing, comes very fast, but also very deliberately… We frame it as autonomous, but in solidarity [with the museum’s staff].”
“We're obviously moved by [the staff’s open letter],” Husain said, “but then we read the statement from the director, which was on so many levels unacceptable. Frankly, the way they spoke about things - it's not even accurate of how museums work and how funding works.”
Husain, also a graduate of the Whitney’s famed Independent Study Program, said, “I think that the ecosystem of the art world is largely in bed with funding that comes from very bad sources. I mean, there has to be some red line, right?”
Shellyne Rodriguez, an artist, organizer with Take Back the Bronx, and collaborator with Decolonize This Place, echoed Husain’s sentiment.
“There's a responsibility to start to address these people one by one, and start to disrupt these institutions that harbor these people,” she told The Daily Beast. “I don't care how much money you have. This narrative, that money buys you impunity: that's bullshit. We have to start changing it, because we know it's not working.”
“To allow Warren Kanders to continue sets a precedent,” she said. “To know his name, to know what Safariland is, and to see the direct impact of that: no response sets a precedent. We have no choice. We have to go to the Whitney Museum and we have to force their hand.”
Asked whether museums and cultural institutions have a moral obligation to refuse funding if it comes from sources like Kanders (and the financial ability to do so), Rodriguez said, “I think that we just shut up and took the money for so long that [the possibility of] surviving without it is so unheard of, to the point where people think you're crazy.
“I don't think it's the responsibility of the people who are challenging this to have the answer to that. I think the challenging of it creates the possibility of thinking about what goes next, because we know that we're taking this money from people who are creating an unsustainable living condition across the board. It’s not just migrants that are getting tear gassed, it’s the destabilization of their countries that have happened for decades.”
“We need to take up the battles where they present themselves,” she says. “The Whitney is a battleground, and getting this asshole off their board, it's just ethics at this point, but much more.”
Linda and Alan Harris, visiting from Chicago and observing the protest from the adjoining museum gift shop, grappled with the issue. “It's tainted money, honey,” said Linda to Alan. “We're really on a slippery slope, here.”
Still, if she were the Whitney she told The Daily Beast, “I think I would not deny his money. It's still doing public good, but I would make a public statement, on the part of the Whitney, that we do not support what he does, and that we are in favor of asylum seekers, and pursuing the law for immigrants, which is being denied. I would be very public about it, but I don't think it helps the Whitney to deny the gift, because it's still providing a public good.”
“I think they should have the discretion to decide who they would like to have on their board, who they would like to have publicly represent them,” said Alan.
Michael Anderson and Taylor Williams were visiting from Denver, and waiting to buy tickets. Williams told The Daily Beast that she thought Kanders’ money was morally troublesome, but at the end of the day still provided a public good: “If [the museum is] not having any income coming in anywhere else, then how're they going to fund art to give to the people?”
Anderson agreed: “Can bad people still do good at some time? Do you still take good with the bad, or are you bad all the time now, and everything you say is bad, and I don't want any of it?”
The Whitney, Kanders, and Sunday’s protesters all evidently have very different answers to that essential question.