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Student Organizations Occupy the Whitney’s Lobby to Demand the Ousting of Warren Kanders

The students drew parallels and connections between the museum’s board of trustee’s vice chair and other board members at their universities

University student teach-ins at the Whitney Museum’s lobby (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Persistent in their demand to oust Warren Kanders from the Whitney Museum’s board of trustees, the group Decolonize this Place (DTP) and its ally coalition of grassroots organizations held their seventh week of Friday evening protests at the museum’s lobby, as the installation of works for the 2019 Whitney Biennial has begun in the museum’s upper floors. Kanders is the owner and CEO of the defense manufacturer Safariland Group.

This week’s episode of the Nine Weeks of Art and Action was hosted by the group Queer Youth Power and a number of student organizations from universities across New York City. The students held a series of teach-ins about the conditions of students and teachers at their schools. The participants hailed from NYU Asian American Political Activism Coalition, Hunter Coalition for the Revitalization of Asian American Studies (CRAASH), NYU Student Labor Action Movement, Campus Action Network, No New Jails NYC, Indigenous Women’s Collective, and others.

The students called to “Root out the culture of toxic philanthropy and clarify lines of acceptability in the board of trustees.”

“We see the connections,” Said Areerat Worawongwasu, a New York University (NYU) student and an organizer with Queer Youth Power, linking between Kanders and questionable board members at academic institutions.

“The Whitney has Warren B. Kanders, and our university boards harbor student loan profiteers like William Berkley [chair of NYU’s board of trustees,] and like Laurence D. Fink [member of NYU’s board of trustees,] the stakeholder in private detention centers GEO Group group and CoreCivic, and like anti-sanctuary ICE supporter David Van Zandt [President of The New School,]” Worawongwasu said. “The Whitney and SVA [The School of Visual Arts] are gentrifying forces that have displaced queer and trans communities of color in the Meatpacking District, raised rents in Chelsea, [caused] big gentrification in China Town, and so did NYU Dorms and expansion projects.”

Monte Stevens (left) and Areerat Worawongwasu
“The removal of Kanders from the Whitney board is just the starting point of the decolonization of our museums and schools.”

Worawongwasu continued: “The removal of Kanders from the Whitney board is just the starting point of the decolonization of our museums and schools. We need the Whitney to not only hold Kanders accountable but also all of its board trustee members, to root out the culture of toxic philanthropy and clarify lines of acceptability in the board of trustees.”

Monte Stevens, a member of DTP, spoke about the violation of Indigenous people’s rights in the US. Last year, 71 cities across the country reported 506 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women, two-spirit, transgender and queer individuals. “Nobody knows where these women are,” Stevens said. “If found, they are found dead or through extreme sexual harassment and abuse.” Gentrification, says Stevens, displaces these marginalized groups and forcibly pushes them into the sex industry. “These are people that are not being talked about.”

Christopher Mejia, a student at Brooklyn College (BC) and a member of BC Student Union and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Brooklyn College decried his school’s rising tuitions, crumbling infrastructure and the “poverty wages” paid to teachers. Mejia called for “allegiance between students and teachers,” and explained about “$7K or Strike,” a campaign to raise the wages of adjunct professors at City University of New York (CUNY). Mejia called for free tuition, increase in diversity in universities, and accused the NYPD of spying on Muslim students in campuses.

“Decolonize the University,” some of the banners read

Another Brooklyn college student accused the school of failing to protect undocumented students, who are exposed to ICE arrests at the campus. “Students are the biggest donors to CUNY, but I guess we don’t really matter if we don’t have tear gas,” the student said.

Two NYU students who are members of the group Students Labor Action Movement (SLAM) described “forced labor” in the construction of the NYU outpost in Abu Dhabi. A large number of the construction workers the Emirati campus have not been compensated for their works, the students claim.

Another NYU student who belongs to the group NYU Decarbonize called on the university to divest from fossil fuel companies.

A New School student accused the university of exploiting students of color in an ad that markets the school as a hub for progressive ideology and social activism. “These ads are creating the false perception of the private money hungry institution that The New School is,” the student said. “There’s a violence in marketing towards marginalized communities,” she added and explained that the students appearing in the school’s ads were not compensated for their contribution. The student also accused the school of ignoring complaints about institutional racism and silencing sexual violence complaints while raising tuition prices. “You [The New School] are the oppressors that you claim to fight against,” she said.

A Hunter College student followed with complaints about the absence of an Ethnic Studies department at her school, saying that Hunter is “erasing the history of people of color.”

Christopher Mejia, a student at Brooklyn College: “teachers are paid ‘poverty wages’”

Brianna, a student from Columbia University, accused her school of gentrifying and colonizing Harlem. Public safety officers at campus police and assault Black and brown bodies, she said and described how students of color are signaled out and asked to present their ID cards.

Two members of the Incarceration to Education Coalition at NYU spoke next. In December 2018, the group occupied the university’s library for six days to pressure the board to divest from dining services companies that have dealings with private prison companies. The students have not achieved their goal, but they were able to persuade the university to provide new scholarships for formerly incarcerated students.

A high school student at NEST+m, who is currently applying to colleges, joined the conversation. The student accused New York City’s public high school system of erasing Black history in their curriculums and of mounting expenses on parents which exclude weakened populations.

The protestors tied trustee boards at their colleges with gentrification, labor abuses, and private prison companies

Earlier this week, over 100 artists added their support to an open letter penned by critics and theorists, calling upon the Whitney to part ways with Kanders and asking for broader reform in the choice of trustee boards at cultural and academic institutions. Almost 50 of the 75 artists participating in the 2019 Whitney Biennial have signed the letter.

After a relatively calm evening, the protesters promised to escalate the fight in the two weeks left to the opening of the Whitney Biennial on May 17.

Protestors promised to escalate the fight in the coming two weeks

The Whitney Museum’s press office declined Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

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