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Activists protesting Warren B. Kanders at the Whitney Museum of American Art on Friday, May 17. Photo: Lauren Cavalli.
Activists protesting Warren B. Kanders at the Whitney Museum of American Art on Friday, May 17. Photo: Lauren Cavalli.

“You Can’t Hide”: Protesters March from Whitney to Warren B. Kanders’s Home During Biennial Opening

On Friday, May 17, during the official opening of the 2019 Whitney Biennial, more than 150 artists, activists, and collectives mobilized against Warren B. Kanders, the owner of the defense manufacturing company the Safariland Group and the vice chair of the Whitney Museum of American Art, as part of the last in a series of actions intent on pressuring the institution to remove Kanders from its board. The demonstration traveled from the museum through the streets of downtown Manhattan to Kanders’s townhouse on West Twelfth Street in order to deliver the message that there is “no safe space for profiteers of state violence.”

Many of the participants in the protest, which began on the steps of the museum at 6:30 PM, had taken part in all of the “Nine Weeks of Art and Action” at the Whitney. Organized by Decolonize This Place and grassroots organizations such as Art Space Sanctuary, the Chinatown Art Brigade, Mobile Print Power, and Take Back the Bronx, the demonstrations have been held every Friday since March 22 and have focused on drawing attention to various issues—including the plights of Puerto Rico and occupied Palestine, as well as gentrification—and how Kanders is connected.

The controversy over Kanders’s involvement with the museum began last November, when images of tear-gas canisters—imprinted with the Safariland logo and found at the border between the US and Mexico—began circulating on social media. Not long after, Hyperallergic published an article linking Kanders to the company, which prompted nearly one hundred employees of the museum to pen an internal letter to the Whitney’s upper management expressing outrage over his business dealings. They also demanded that the institution reconsider its ties to Kanders and be more transparent about policies around the appointment of trustees.

The concerns and demands of the staff who signed the letter have since taken on a life of their own outside of the museum. Activists and community groups have taken up the cause and have amplified, and modified, the staffers’ demands. The movement against Kanders is also part of a wider campaign against toxic philanthropy that is being led by prominent figures such as Nan Goldin, who is set on holding the members of the Sackler family associated with Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, accountable for their role in the opioid crisis.

As the action started, demonstrators wearing masks and covering their mouths with handkerchiefs congregated outside of the museum. They passed out signs conveying messages such as “Greed Kills,” “Decolonize This Museum,” “Choking Freedom at the Whitney,” and “Our Humanity Will Not Be Broken,” and energized the crowd with choruses of “Fuck Kanders” and “Fuck Safariland.” Several protesters eventually unfurled banners from the outdoor gallery on the Whitney’s fifth floor, one of which read: “When We Breathe / We Breathe Together.”

When the protest moved into the museum, various activist groups and members of the press filled the institution’s lobby. Greeting the group, Decolonize This Place organizer Amin Husain said, “Welcome to week nine. I’m exhausted; you’re exhausted. We’re pushing forward,” before passing the “mic” to other speakers. Among those who addressed the crowd was Betty Yu of the Chinatown Art Brigade. Prior to coming to the Whitney, Yu had led an action protesting the gentrification of Chinatown, for which she and roughly two dozen others walked from the International Center of Photography to the New Museum, the Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA), OnCanal, the Canal Street Market, and the Hotel 50 Bowery. Yu called out MoCA board member and real estate developer Jonathan Chu, one of the largest landlords in Chinatown, and said that the Whitney-Kanders protests inspired the group to denounce him.  

Activists marching from the Whitney Museum to West Twelfth Street. Photo: Lauren Cavalli.

Other speakers included Nardeen Kiswani of Within Our Lifetime, who labeled Kanders a war criminal and asked protesters to lift their voices in solidarity with those participating in the Great Return March in Palestine, and Decolonize This Place member Shellyne Rodriguez. Before pouring out of the front entrance, Husain criticized the media coverage of the biennial, much of which, he said, pits the protests against the Whitney Biennial artists—more than half of the artists in the exhibition signed an open letter demanding Kanders’s removal from the board. Speaking to the Whitney, he said: “We could have shut the museum down today, but after nine weeks of action, we offer museum leadership a final window to do the right thing: remove Kanders and participate in the formation of a process with stakeholders, staff, community groups, scholars and artists, and more. Fall is the deadline.”

The group proceeded to march to West Twelfth Street, drawing the eyes of curious bystanders and city residents who opened their windows and came out onto their stoops to see what was going on. While there was a large presence of police vehicles and officers on foot walking alongside the protesters, they did not interfere with the action except to ask people to stay out of the street. In front of Kanders’s New York home, people gathered on both sides of the road, chanting “Warren Kanders you can’t hide; we charge you with genocide.” People handed out flyers to neighbors, informing them of Kanders’s address and alleging that his tear gas, bullets, and other weapons were used against migrants at the border, water protectors at Standing Rock, and demonstrators in Ferguson and Baltimore. “You will not rest easy on West Twelfth Street,” Rodriguez yelled among the crowd, “because everybody knows now where you live.”

Before everyone dispersed, activists made it clear that they would be back to continue protesting at both the museum and Kanders’s home. Husain said that the Whitney has yet to respond to any of the groups’ demands and has refused to correspond with them.  

The Whitney declined Artforum’s request to comment for this article. 

Activists outside of a townhouse owned by Warren B. Kanders. Photo: Lauren Cavalli.