Decolonize This Place and collaborators at the Whitney Museum demand the resignation of Warren Kanders in December 2018 (Photo: William Powhida via Twitter)
In recent weeks, a campaign organized by Decolonize This Place has emerged and gained momentum targeting multimillionaire Whitney Museum trustee Warren B. Kanders over his ownership and chief executive position at a weapons manufacturer whose tear gas product was recently used against migrants – including small children – at the United States-Mexico border. Kanders is a majority owner, and chairman and CEO, of Safariland LLC, whose 19 brands of riot gear and so-called “less lethal” weapons includes Defense Technology, the manufacturer of the tear gas canisters that Customs and Border Protection fired into Mexico against migrants seeking asylum in the US from violence in Central America.
Kanders is not the only tear gas profiteer with ties to the art world, however. David Rubenstein, the co-founder of the private equity behemoth Carlyle Group, is chairman of the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, vice chair of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, a trustee at the National Gallery of Art, and a member of the board of regents of the Smithsonian Institute. Carlyle Group is an owner of Combined Systems, whose armaments have also been used by security forces in conflicts worldwide.
Defense Technology and Combined Systems products are favored by police and militaries around the world. In recent years they have been used against protesters on at least four continents – from Venezuela to Ferguson and Standing Rock and from Tunisia to Palestine. Though the Geneva Gas Protocol and other international treaties prohibit the use of gas and other “riot control agents” in warfare, the line between police and military actions has grown increasingly blurry. The use of military weapons, equipment, and training by police forces has rendered the difference mostly academic.
The chairman and CEO of Defense Technology’s parent company, Safariland, is Warren B. Kanders, an investor who Forbes estimates is worth $700 million. Kanders is a major donor to the Whitney Museum in New York City and is a member of its board of trustees – a role which has drawn unwanted attention as the museum has faced escalating protests as well as a call from more than 100 workers at the museum for Kanders to step down. Kanders is also a member of the advisory board to Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society, a position that drew protest from students at the school earlier in 2018.
Kanders’ partner Allison sits on the board of directors of the Aspen Music Festival.
So far, Kanders has remained unapologetic for profiting off the use of chemical weapons to attack migrants and crush political dissent. “I’m very comfortable with our business – we’re technological leaders in every aspect of what we do. We expect to continue that. I feel good about it,” he told Forbes in December 2018.
Kanders got into the weapons and armor business in the 1990s after a career in investment banking. He identified the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as a watershed moment for those hoping to profit from global conflict. From Forbes’ December 6, 2018 profile of Kanders:
“I was looking out the window. I saw the first plane coming down,” he said on Monday. “There happened to be a person in our group who was a Holocaust survivor who just ran out of the building. He thought we were all going to die. I realized at that time that we needed to be ready for this,” by which he meant more conflict.
That bet has paid off big for Warren and Allison Kanders, who now own a swanky, art-filled, five story townhouse in Greenwich Village that garnered an extravagant write up in Architectural Digest. The descriptions of the Kanders’ home, floriferous garden, and art collection offer a stark contrast to the living conditions faced by those joining the migrant caravan.
Kanders’ involvement in chemical weapons sales and the art world was most recently brought to light on Twitter by Santa Fe Reporter journalist Aaron Cantú who found Kanders’ Whitney Museum position on LittleSis, PAI’s database of powerful people and organizations. The blog HyperAllergic picked up on the story, which has since been reported widely as the campaign targeting Kanders has mounted.
While public outcry has focused primarily on Warren Kanders, private equity billionaire David Rubenstein also has governance positions at prominent cultural institutions while profiting from the manufacture and sale of tear gas and other weapons.
Rubenstein is a co-founder and co-executive chairman of the Carlyle Group, one of the largest private equity firms in the world. Carlyle Group is an owner of Combined Systems, a weapons manufacturer headquartered near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border whose tear gas has been used in many of the same conflicts as that made by Warren Kanders’ company.
As mentioned above, Rubenstein is chairman of the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, vice chair of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, a trustee at the National Gallery of Art, and a member of the board of regents of the Smithsonian Institute. He is also a member of the board of trustees of the University of Chicago.
Like Kanders, Rubenstein leads a life of extravagance. As of December 10, 2018, Forbes estimated Rubenstein’s net worth at $2.7 billion. His collection of historical documents includes a 13th-century copy of the Magna Carta, a rare facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln.
The cultural and educational institutions taking money from chemical weapons profiteers have stood by their benefactors in the face of the recent protests. The Whitney Museum’s official statement in response to the call for Warren Kanders to step down did not mention him by name and declared that the museum “cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role.”
As the protest movement builds in intensity, organizations like the Whitney Museum that take money from Kanders and Rubenstein will find it increasingly difficult to simply write off gas attacks on migrant children and protesters as abstract “ills of an unjust world” that cannot be righted. People of conscience have taken note, and these institutions will need to reckon with their concrete connection to state violence through the weapons profiteers that sit on their boards and fund their activities.
NOTE: This article has been amended to include the name of the group and the campaign behind the protests at the Whitney Museum.