Activists Protest NYC's Whitney Museum of American Art Over Ties to Racist and Militarist Violence

6:30 p.m. on Friday, May 17 marked both the beginning of the Whitney Biennial and the climactic end of nine weeks of protest over the museum retaining tear gas mogul Warren B. Kanders on its board of trustees. Kanders’ role as a key stakeholder financially ties the institution to the arms trade. This has drawn outrage from activists who say that leading centers of culture and art, like the Whitney, are aligning with armed occupations which are fueled by racism and colonialism.

Activist group Decolonize This Place declared the nine weeks of action and were joined by a staggering list of partner organizations. Some media outlets have pitted the protesters against artists participating in the Biennial exhibition, which has been hailed for its diversity. This, however, is a mischaracterization; 51 participating artists signed a petition demanding that Kanders resign. Moreover, the protesters' capacity to take up space in the Whitney lobby each Friday between March 22 and May 17 relied on maintaining a positive relationship with the museum’s staff. Organizers repeatedly stated that their grievances were with museum leadership alone, not the front desk or security guards.

The coalition decrying Kanders is broad and highly inclusive, bringing together people who are against gentrification and Puerto Rico’s colonial status, and those calling for Palestinian and Kashmiri liberation, as well as Indigenous liberation in the Americas. Kanders’ company, Safariland, is notorious for supplying tear gas and munitions to police, army, and security forces that have suppressed uprisings against racial injustice. Safariland tear gas was used against protesters in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown. The tear gas used on migrants at the US-Mexico border comes from Safariland as well. Additionally, the company provided the bullets the Israel Defense Forces uses to kill and maim participants in Gaza’s Great March of Return. The security forces who lashed out at Standing Rock’s water protectors were Safariland customers. The New York Police Department, which has been criticized for its aggression toward working class tenants of color in gentrifying neighborhoods, has also been one of the firm’s clients. Kanders also profited off the US occupation of Iraq, raking in $300 million in 2007.

Over the past two years, museums and galleries across the world have come under fire for taking money from people connected to social crises and oppression. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, just turned away money from the Sackler family, who amassed a fortune selling OxyContin, which precipitated an epidemic of opioid addiction, overdoses, and an estimated 200,000 deaths.

The American Museum of Natural History, which still openly displays its affiliation with 19th century racism, colonialism, and eugenics, has Rebekah Mercer on its board. Mercer and her sister were majority shareholders at Cambridge Analytica — the data mining company infamous for corralling Facebook user data for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and also has partial ownership of Breitbart News. Activists from groups like Decolonize This Place say the relationship between these profiteers and the institutions who take their money allows donors a means of legitimizing their business practices.

A key theme in the protests against the Whitney was building solidarity between communities impacted by tear gas and the “less than lethal” weapons used to enforce occupations that activists denounce as colonial.

The occupation of Kashmir is one example, where India and Pakistan have been vying to control the territory since their partition in 1947. The occupation has curtailed Kashmiri calls for self determination and precipitated brutal violence against the Kashmiri people.

“Tear gas used in Palestine is used in Kashmir, too,” said Kashmiri lawyer Mahum Shabir addressing a crowd at the demonstration on April 19, which focused on Kanders’ links to violence against Palestinians. “There is a war on our people to maim them, to blind them, to take away their land, to imprison, to take away their dignity. But we resist by speaking, by living, by breathing [and] by being here.”

“As a Kashmiri,” she continued, “I am here to express my solidarity with the struggle of the people of Palestine, that of Black and Brown folks in this country, and the struggle of immigrants in this country.”

A massive throng of people assembled in front of the museum on the evening of the final action. At approximately 7:10 p.m., a small protest contingent dropped banners from the roof. One of them read “When We Breathe, We Breathe Together,” sending a message of solidarity and resistance in the face of a weapon that chokes its victims. As the crowd entered the lobby of the museum, organizers gave the staff chocolates, a token of appreciation for their support. They then held a joint press conference about how the art world is connected to racialized violence by threads of “blood money” and “defined by white supremacy.”

The highlight of the evening began after the speak-out ended as the crowd began to march to an undisclosed location. They left the Whitney, crossed through the Meatpacking District and into Greenwich Village, periodically taking the streets as they went. Banners that read “Abolish White Supremacy” and “Warren Kanders Must Go” were unfurled. Drummers from the War Resisters League and Korean community organization Nodudtol led the way.

As the procession came to its destination, a gray five-story condo near The New School, Amin Hussein of Decolonize This Place informed protesters that they had arrived at Kanders’ residence, 16 West 12th Street. It was time for another, louder speak-out. The arms dealer would get no sleep.

Shellyne Rodriguez of Take Back the Bronx chastised Kanders for supplying the NYPD with ballistic equipment and tear gas, which she said would be used in “working class neighborhoods of color." She told the billionaire’s neighbors, “You will not sleep, you better get Kanders off the block.” “If he stays with the board of the Whitney Museum, you will not be respectable citizens,” she explained.

Organizers spoke out into the night against Kanders, the Whitney, and the disparities in capitalism that entwine war, occupation, and racism. Replicas of tear gas canisters were placed before the front door. One giant replica, standing over five feet tall, had been rolled all the way from the Whitney. These were made and donated by the anti-war veterans group About Face.

Before dispersing, the organizers promised that, even though the nine weeks of action had concluded, they were far from done with Kanders. Pressure on the Whitney may have subsided somewhat, but the movement to delink art from oppression continues.

About the Author

Skanda Kadirgamar is a Brooklyn-based reporter who grew up in New York and now covers housing, labor, and South Asian diaspora activism. Follow them on Twitter @Skaitama.