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Warren Kanders, Former Whitney Museum Vice Chair, Vows to Exit Tear Gas Trade

Kanders, who was ousted from the Whitney board last summer after months of protest, says he will sell certain divisions of Safariland.

A silver tear gas sculpture at the final protest of “Nine Weeks of Art and Action” at the Whitney Museum (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Warren B. Kanders, art collector and former Whitney Museum vice chair who resigned last summer after months of protest over his role in the use of tear gas against civilians worldwide, announced today, June 9, that he is divesting his company, Safariland Group, from divisions that sell tear gas and riot gear.

According to a report by the New York Times, Safariland Group will sell two of its divisions, Defense Technology and Monadnock: The former manufactures tear gas and rubber and sponge rounds while the latter sells riot gear including an array of batons. The two segments generate 6% of the company’s overall total revenue of about $500 million, the report says.

Last week, Hyperallergic reporting mentioned the use of Safariland tear gas against protestors in Minneapolis. Photographs on social media showing Safariland-branded tear gas canisters strewn across protest sites in the city have once again brought Kanders’s company under public scrutiny.

A cloud of tear gas on the third night of protests in Minneapolis following the murder of George Floyd (photo courtesy Dan Aasland/Flickr)

Prior to that, Kanders resurfaced in the headlines in May when New York attorney Neal Sher filed a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) asking it to revoke the Whitney Museum’s nonprofit tax-exempt status on grounds that the museum allegedly “orchestrated and acquiesced in a concerted smear campaign” against the former vice chair. Kanders told Hyperallergic via a spokesperson that he had “no knowledge or involvement” with Sher’s complaint against the Whitney.

In a statement to the Times, Kanders said, “As we look to the future, Safariland will continue to support public safety professionals in all lines of service as they risk their lives daily to keep the public safe.” The statement did not make any reference to the use of its products against Black Lives Matter protesters.

Kanders’s representatives have not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment over his decision to remove tear gas from Safariland’s offerings.

Protesters marching towards Warren Kanders’s house in Manhattan in May of 2019 (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

According to the statement, Defense Technology will be sold to its current management team. The transaction is expected to be completed later this year. No further details were disclosed about the second division, the price of the deal, or the nature of Kanders’s compensation.

Controversy surrounding Kanders surfaced in November of 2018 when Hyperallergic reported on the use of Safariland tear gas against asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border. Days later, a group of more than 100 Whitney staffers penned a letter asking the museum’s leadership to respond publicly to the article and formulate “a clear policy around Trustee participation.” The letter was followed by large demonstrations by activist organizations like Decolonize This Place, culminating in a series of protests, “Nine Weeks of Art and Action,” leading up to the opening of the Whitney Biennial in May 2019. The protests were followed by the requested withdrawal of eight artists from the exhibition.

Forensic Architecture, the research group that used its slot in the 2019 biennial to display its investigation into the use of tear gas and bullets manufactured by companies led by Kanders, and later withdrew from the exhibition, tweeted a response today. “Tear gas is a chemical weapon,” the group said. “We need to move beyond Kanders and use the momentum of the current protests to ban tear gas outright and worldwide.”

The London-based group withdrew from the exhibition after it found evidence that linked Sierra Bullets, a weapons manufacturer co-owned by Kanders, and attacks on Palestinian protesters in Gaza by the Israeli army. Following Forensic Architecture’s investigation, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) served a legal notice to Sierra Bullets indicating that selling bullets to the Israeli army may be aiding and abetting war crimes.

It remains unclear if Kanders plans to remove Sierra Bullets from his investment portfolio.

Decolonize This Place, the activist group that led the protests against Kanders and the Whitney, responded to the news with a message to the former trustee.

“Now you have seen which way the wind is blowing, so you are quitting the tear gas business,” the group said in a statement provided to Hyperallergic.

“But we are not done with you,” the statement continues. “We call on you to show the world that you acknowledge the wrongs by returning the profits to those who were harmed by your products. Individuals, groups and movements that you knew would be harmed by the armed violence of states.”

“Make reparations by handing the money over to causes devoted to care, healing, and justice,” the group requested from Kanders. “We call on you to show that this is not just a calculated business decision to sell when the going gets tough.”

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