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(all images courtesy of Decolonize This Place)

This Sunday, December 9, activist coalition Decolonize This Place will lead an action at the Whitney Museum of American Art in response to news that one of the museum’s vice chairmen, Warren Kanders, is the owner of defense corporation Safariland. The corporation was revealed as the manufacturer providing tear gas to US Customs and Border Protection officers deploying tear gas on asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border on November 25.

Decolonize This Place and other New York City activist coalitions will gather at the Whitney in solidarity with the near 100 museum employees who penned a letter to the museum’s administration addressing their distress, providing a set of demands to the museum requesting “the development and distribution of a clear policy around Trustee participation.” The action is being organized autonomous from, but in solidarity with the Whitney staffers.

Activists at Standing Rock

Artists involved with Decolonize This Place have crafted a set of protest art riffing off of Warhol’s Death and Disaster series — prints appropriating images of violent catastrophes and tragic accidents. (On November 27, Hyperallergic reported that Kanders is a “significant contributor” in the popular Andy Warhol exhibition at the Whitney, From A to B and Back Again.) Rather than Warhol’s iterations of Jackie O after the assassination of JFK, they appropriated photographs of Safariland’s tear gas canisters and images of activists barraged by smoke at Standing Rock.

On December 3, Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, released a statement addressed to museum staff and trustees, writing, “Even as we are idealistic and missionary in our belief in artists — as established by our founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney — the Whitney is first and foremost a museum. It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role. Yet, I contend that the Whitney has a critical and urgent part to play in making sure that unheard and unwanted voices are recognized.”

 In response, Decolonize This Place detailed their disappointment in the museum’s reaction on the action’s Facebook event, writing:

“We commend the efforts of the Whitney staff, and recognize the courage displayed and the risk they have taken in organizing and speaking out. This Sunday, we will assemble with our friends, families, and communities to make it known that as broad public stakeholders in the Whitney, we too refuse to tolerate the presence of Kanders on the board of the museum. Many of us, our families, and our communities here and abroad have been on the receiving end of the products made and marketed by Safariland and its numerous subsidiaries like Defense Technology. We consider Weinberg’s apparent decision to stand with Kanders a line in the sand. That line is unacceptable to us, and now the entire institution of the Whitney faces a broad crisis of legitimacy.

Weinberg celebrates the museum as a ‘safe space for unsafe ideas.’ Yet by standing with Kanders and Safariland, he affirms that the museum is a safe space for those profiteering from state repression, settler colonialism, white supremacy, and anti-black violence. These are the forces that create systematic unsafety and perpetuate death in the very communities the museum claims to serve, communities to which many staff at the Whitney belong … We have a responsibility to hold all of our institutions accountable, including the Whitney Museum. After much deliberation, reach outs, and consultation with collaborators, we are putting out this City-Wide Call. This is the beginning. See you in front of the Whitney Museum.”

“Riot Control” canisters developed by Safariland

Safariland tear gas found at the border

Safariland tear gas found at the border alongside an image of Whitney director Adam Weinberg

Jasmine Weber

Jasmine Weber is Hyperallergic's news editor. She is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, particularly interested in Black art histories and visual culture....

4 replies on “Decolonize This Place Plans Action at the Whitney Opposing Tear Gas Manufacturer on Museum Board”

  1. EXCELLENT! DO NOT LET UP UNTIL KANDERS IS REMOVED FROM THE BOARD! Weinberg’s letter was pathetic and he should be ashamed. Maybe fired.

  2. You guys are forgetting one important thing: We are a nation of laws. The tools of law enforcement are important to our safety. The body armor, the shields and holsters, the bomb robots, handcuffs, and, yes, even the teargas, when properly used by taxpayer-funded law enforcement officers, are important to ensure our safety and theirs. Talk to just one of the thousands of police officers from around the U.S. whose lives were saved by a Safariland vest or helmet. The Company has absolutely no control over how and when their products are used — you know that very well. I don’t like what’s happening at our southern border any more than any of you. Focus your efforts where they might do some good — on the people who are creating the problem (i.e. the Oval Office), not on the company that provides vital supplies to the men and women who are keeping us all safe.

    1. No offense but this is a typically superficial understanding of the issue. The past few decades has witnessed the equipping of domestic police like soldiers. There has been a dramatic rise in the use of SWAT teams since their inception, and there is an obvious danger to civil society in providing powerful weapon systems to police, who will likely use them (not to mention the legal frameworks and normalization that such developments bring).

      Moreover, the profit motive inherent in the military industrial complex means that corporate interests generate money from civil strife, mass incarceration at home, and draconian laws and enforcement practices. Providing a profit motive for violence is a good way to incentivize more of it. It’s actually less effective to target politicians who pass through office than the structure and it’s beneficiaries (after all, there is a bipartisan consensus when it comes to the weapons industry), though they should be targeted for censure as well.

      While this observation is well beyond the topic at hand, it’s not powerful weapons in the hands of police that keep us safe, it’s a prosperous society that provides opportunity, community, and an open platform for people to grow. The fact that our average lifespan as a nation has dropped due to suicide and opioid deaths indicates the level of desperation our society has cultivated. Cops with chemical weapons won’t fix this issue, nor make us safer…

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