Last night, on the evening of the 2019 Whitney Biennial’s official opening, a crowd of over 150 activists gathered at the Whitney Museum for their largest action yet: a culmination of Nine Weeks of Art and Action, a protest series spearheaded by Decolonize This Place (DTP) to oppose Whitney vice chair Warren Kanders. In a surprise move, the protesters marched from the Whitney Museum to Kanders’s townhouse in Greenwich Village to end the night.
In recent months, many have called for Kanders’s removal from the museum board for his connections to weapons manufacturing. Kanders is the founder, chairman, and chief executive of the Safariland Group. In late 2018, US immigration officers launched Safariland-branded tear gas at asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border. Safariland products have been used globally in Puerto Rico, Gaza, and beyond; the company also signed a $7.3 million contract for ballistic equipment with the New York Police Department in 2016.
DTP says its protests were inspired by a letter signed by nearly 100 Whitney Museum employees expressing their dismay at Kanders’s connection to the border clash, demanding “the development and distribution of a clear policy around Trustee participation,” and for “[Whitney] leadership to convey our concerns to the Board, including that they consider asking for Warren Kanders’ resignation.”
Prior to this evening’s action at the museum, the Chinatown Art Brigade, WRRQ Collective, and NYU’s Asian American Political Activism Coalition held an “Anti-Displacement Walking Tour and Public Action,” trekking from Manhattan’s Chinatown on the Lower East Side to the Whitney Museum, demonstrating in front of cultural hotspots in the neighborhood and identifying the modes of displacement that have affected the neighborhood. Chinatown Art Brigade accuses the Whitney (which moved to the Meatpacking District in 2015) and the neighboring High Line of displacing businesses in the area, which have since relocated to Chinatown.
Starting at the corner of Stanton and Chrystie Streets at 3pm, the group of approximately two dozen carried a banner bearing the phrase “CHINATOWN IS NOT FOR SALE.” Other protest materials warned, “The community is watching.” Along the tour, they stopped to demonstrate in front of the ICP, New Museum, Museum of Chinese in America, a pop-up called OnCanal, Canal Street Market, and the Hotel 50 Bowery.
“We need housing and health care, not more white box galleries and luxury hotels,” the activists recited in a speech made in Mandarin and English in front of the New Museum. “Museums and nonprofit spaces have no business partnering with real estate developers who only profit off of our community without giving back.”
One bystander, who identified himself as a Queens resident named Sachel Martin, was watching the protest at the International Center of Photography and he told Hyperallergic: “I’m ready to move out of New York City … I can’t stand someone pushing someone out of something that they don’t belong … who the hell are they to push someone out of their crib … that’s bullying to me, my brother. I’m anti-bully. I stand for these people.” After his conversation with Hyperallergic, Martin walked with the protesters for a few blocks down Bowery joining in with the “Chinatown is not for sale” chants.
The crowd grew as the tour continued; along the way, Whitney Biennial artist Eddie Arroyo, whose work deals with gentrification in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, joined the tour. Two plainclothes NYPD officers walked the tour route but did not confront the activists.
Outside of the Canal Street Market, one of the vendors, Robert James, came to confront the protestors, visibly distressed. “What these people did here by putting us here was amazing for this neighborhood,” James, who calls himself a longtime Lower East Side resident, told Hyperallergic. “It didn’t hurt anybody or displace anybody.” He was met with chants from the protesters saying, “Fire to the gentrifier” until he returned into the market and the group moved on to Hotel 50 Bowery.
There, one speaker declared: “Chinatown is not just a tourist destination or a place to get a cheap dumpling, it’s a place where people live and work.”
When the group reached the Whitney around 6:30 pm, activists unfurled banners from the museum’s outdoor terrace on the 6th floor. Down on Gansevoort Street, the crowd of protesters cheered and whistled as they saw the banners, one reading “WHEN WE BREATHE/WE BREATHE TOGETHER,” covering the building’s facade.
Activists banged pots and pans to draw attention to their cause while the line quickly grew outside of the museum with eager art lovers anticipating one of the largest art events in New York. An activist handed out stickers designed by Mark Newgarden and Patrick Pigott in collaboration with biennial artist Nicole Eisenman, which show a tear gas canister with the captions, “Support the arts with military-scent maximum-choke” and “More tears than an ex-chair.” The sticker also features an asylum-seeker being choked by the tear gas while carrying a sign reading “Amnesty.” A large police force was waiting outside, but no clashes occurred between the police and the protestors. The designed appeared to be based on the Garbage Pail Kids stickers that were popular in the United States in the 1980s and 90s.
An autonomous collective of artists called (D)IRT handed out altered Whitney Museum Guides, detailing the Kanders controversy and calling out a number of other board members, to unexpecting museum patrons.
Wasim, a museumgoer who was leafing through the pamphlet, told Hyperallergic that he doubts the effectiveness of the protest. “It would be cool to see them protest in real admission hours and actually turn people away from paying,” he said. His friend, a student who preferred to stay anonymous, was far more skeptical: “This kind of stuff is happening everywhere. People are so accustomed to it that people are desensitized to a lot of stuff. I don’t know what this [protest] is doing other than creating a spectacle.
“We mean war for Kanders. We mean war for Safariland,” Shellyne Rodriguez from Take Back the Bronx said inside, kicking off the event inside the museum’s lobby.
Amin Husain, an organizer with DTP, started by addressing the art press in New York. “We are concerned that these protests are being pitted against the Whitney Biennial artists,” he said. Husain read a statement printed on the back of one of the posters distributed at the event:
The Whitney Biennial has taken an important step in decentering whiteness as an exhibition. But it remains embedded in a museum and a broader art world that has white supremacy at its core …. We see this play out in the reviews of the biennial so far. We note the condescension of those white art critics who are now lamenting that the artists in the biennial are not properly political, that they “play it safe.”
“White supremacy does not get to measure the risk — or the level of safety — we take in resisting white supremacy,” Husain said.
Nardeen Kisewani from Within Our Lifetime, a youth group for Palestine, said that Kanders has also profited from the Iraq War in addition to ammunition that his company sells to the Israeli army. “The extent of his crimes is deeper than we probably know,” she said.
The activists then posed an ultimatum to the Whitney Museum. Husain said: “Fall is the deadline. We will be back if necessary, and our tactics will escalate further.” The activists also demanded that the museum establish a decolonization commission that would include community members.
Nitasha Dhillon, an organizer with DTP thanked the Whitney’s staff before leading the activists out of the museum’s lobby. “You started everything,” she said to the staffers and apologized to them for having to clean after the group’s pizza party protest several weeks ago.
The Whitney Museum’s press office declined Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
In the galleries of the museum, patrons were introduced to the controversy surrounding Kanders via Forensic Architecture’s commission for the biennial, “Triple-Chaser,” which incorporates video footage of the use of Safariland-produced grenade canisters on civilians. Forensic Architecture also provided a printed map detailing Safariland’s presence around the world, explaining that the London-based research group has “found evidence of tear gas manufactured by Safariland being used against civilians in fourteen countries, including six states or territories of the United States.”
“Triple-Chaser” also looks into the potential use of open tip match bullets made by Sierra Bullets in Gaza; Sierra Bullets was acquired in 2017 by the Clarus Corporation, of which Kanders is the executive chairman, for $79 million. The video concludes by informing the audience that after sharing its findings with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the center has served legal notice to Sierra Bullets indicating that the export of its bullets to the Israeli army may be aiding and abetting war crimes.
Over 50 of the 75 artists participating in the biennial have also added their signatures to a letter titled “Kanders Must Go,” initially signed by 120 prominent scholars and critics earlier that month. The letter, published on the Verso blog, states that the supporting artists and academics’s aim is amplifying the staffer’s demands for ideological and financial reform at the museum.
“Universities and cultural institutions like the Whitney claim to be devoted to ideals of education, creativity, and dissent beyond the dictates of the market,” the letter states. “Yet, these institutions have been historically entwined with the power structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism.” Those institutions, the letter continues, “provide cover for the likes of Kanders as they profit from war, state violence, displacement, land theft, mass incarceration, and climate disaster.”
Husain then invited the protestors to march to an undisclosed location nearby. The DTP organizer revealed the destination only a block before they arrived at Kanders’s home in Greenwich Village — to which protesters cheered. At the vice chair’s doorstep, they gave impassioned speeches in front of his townhouse and deployed smoke to represent Safariland tear gas. There, they burned sage, blew horns and raised chants like, “Warren Kanders you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide” and “Fuck Kanders.” Police escorted the group throughout the march.
Protestors also distributed a note to Kanders’s neighbors and students of the New School who reside in college dorms nearby, informing them of the presence of a “profiteer of state violence” on their street. “Mr. Kanders, your tear gas was used against my people,” said one activist from Comité Boricua En La Diaspora. “We’re taking our city back. You’re not safe if we’re not safe.” The protestors warned neighbors that they will be “getting less sleep” as long as Kanders lives on their block.
Neighbors and pedestrians appeared confused. “I can’t figure out what this is about,” said one onlooker to Hyperallergic, “They’re talking about Palestine, Puerto Rico … they’re covering everything.”
The protestors vowed to return to Kanders’s house every time a civilian is killed by his companies’ weapons and ammunition. “If you take peace from the people, we take peace from you,” Kisewani, from Within Our Lifetime, said.
The activists ended their protest in front of Kanders’s house with a chant: “We will be back.”