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A 2019 protest at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Lauren Cavalli.
A 2019 protest at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Lauren Cavalli.

Ousted Whitney Trustee Warren Kanders to Quit Tear Gas

Warren Kanders, chairman and CEO of Safariland and a controversial ex-trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art, is divesting from tear gas. The Jackson, Florida­–based defense manufacturer announced on Tuesday that it will sell the divisions of the company that “provide various crowd control solutions including chemical agents, munitions, and batons, to law enforcement and military agencies.” A public statement issued by Safariland does not mention the ongoing nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, the recent well-documented use of tear gas on crowds across the United States, or the growing movement to defund the police.

Kanders claims that Safariland products saved the lives of thirty-four people so far this year and cites an incident where a “young pregnant emergency medical technician” survived a shooting because she was wearing one of the company’s protective vests. “Our safety and survivability products have taken two forms, passive defensive protection such as body armor, bomb suits, and safety holsters,” Kanders said in a release. “This divestiture removes the active component and allows Safariland to focus on passive defensive protection. 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. First responders—including police, fire, EMT, domestic abuse, and drug and addiction intervention counselors—take immeasurable risk each day when they report to work. Safariland will always support them.”

The arts patron, who first joined the museum’s board in 2006 and who has donated $10 million to the Whitney, was dislodged from his position as vice board chair in July 2019 following months of protests over his ties to chemical weapons. Decolonize This Place launched a campaign against Kanders and the Whitney’s association with controversial donors after Hyperallergic published photographs of tear gas canisters that were used against migrants at the US-Mexico border in November 2018. The activism of Decolonize This Place, petitions launched by academics and other cultural producers, and Artforum’s publication of “The Tear Gas Biennial”—a statement by Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett that underscored the effectiveness of a boycott to bring about change—are among the efforts that led to eight artists’ withdrawal from the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Kanders stepped down days after the London-based collective Forensic Architecture declared that it would pull its work Triple Chaser, which investigated human rights abuses allegedly committed by Safariland.

Renewed backlash against Kanders has been fueled by images and videos of police teargassing protesters in Los Angeles; in Minneapolis, where the forty-six-year-old George Floyd was killed by the police officer Derek Chauvin; in New York; in Oakland, California; and in Seattle, among other cities. The aggressive tactics have been internationally condemned, and hundreds of medical professionals, health experts, and lawmakers have called for the police to stop using the chemical agent, which was banned in warfare by the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and only later ratified by the United States in 1975. Yet, the use of tear gas remains legal for law enforcement purposes. Many have also criticized the use of tear gas—a lung irritant—since America is currently trying to overcome a health crisis due to the spread of Covid-19, which attacks the respiratory system and has caused more than 113,000 deaths in the US.

The transaction that involves two divisions of Safariland—Defense Technology and Monadnock—breaking off from the company is expected to be completed in the third quarter of the year. Defense Technology’s current management team will become the owners of the newly separated business. According to the New York Times, these two segments of Safariland brought in 6 percent of its overall revenue.