NEW YORK: Weapons Manufacturer Resigns from Museum Board After Protests

Photo: Whitney Board Trustee Warren Kanders and his wife Allison Kanders, who also resigned from her committee position at the museum last week.

By David Martinez

Last Thursday, Warren Kanders resigned from his position as vice-chair of The Whitney Museum of American Art’s board of trustees after months of targeted protests demanding he step down. He became the focus of mass outrage late last year after it was revealed that he is an owner of the weapons manufacturer Safariland which made national news for its ties to attacks on migrants at the US-Mexico border.

Safariland manufactures weapons for law enforcement and militaries used to repress mass revolt through supposedly non-lethal means. Safariland tear gas canisters were found after the border patrol launched attacks on migrants in Tijuana last year, in the repression of the Black uprisings in Ferguson, and in the ongoing Israeli violence against occupied Palestine.

After the revelation of Kanders’ ties to imperialist violence, Whitney employees drafted a public letter calling for the museum to respond, and the pressure continued as artists withdrew from the Whitney Biennale, one of the bourgeois art industry’s biggest annual displays of contemporary art. However, it was the ongoing weekly and unsanctioned protests inside the Whitney museum lobby, led primarily by the organization DecolonizeThisPlace, that made it impossible for the Whitney and Kanders to ignore the outrage.

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Protesters occupy the Whitney in May

In a public statement released Tuesday, DecolonizeThisPlace appears to be turning away from confrontational action and advocating for formal communication with the Whitney Museum through a “decolonization process,” including the proposal of a commission to carry this out.

If pursued, this would be an unfortunate turn towards unprincipled conciliation with a bourgeois institution such as the Whitney. So far, the uncompromising demand for Kanders to step down, enforced by outside pressure, demarcated the struggle along class lines, with Kanders and the Museum defending imperialism and DecolonizeThisPlace and others representing the masses rebelling against oppression. With a joint “Decolonization Commission” in the works, DecolonizeThisPlace now identifies itself as one of many “stakeholders” in a collaborative process with the museum. Lines which had reflected the reality of class antagonisms are becoming blurred.

The Whitney’s Board of Trustees is full of members of the bourgeoisie engaged in wholesale imperialist exploitation. Hedge fund billionaire Kenneth C. Griffin, another member of the board, has donated $2 million to the DefendArizona Superpac, which lobbies for increased border enforcement. In addition, his company Citadel is a majority shareholder in CoreCivic, a company that operates private prisons and immigrant detention centers, including the Houston Contract Detention Facility where Honduran migrant Yimi Alexis Balderramos-Torres died last month.

The Whitney Museum has a $308 million dollar endowment founded by an heir to the Vanderbilt family, one of the US’s longtime bourgeois dynasties. Like other cultural institutions under capitalism, the museum and art market at-large provide the bourgeoisie a hobby to spend their superprofits in ways that propagate their image as cultured benefactors, while doing nothing for the masses.

All art is at the service of a class. Nowhere is this clearer than in the multibillion dollar world of the capitalist art market, which not only functions as a market for speculation and investment for the international imperialist bourgeoisie, but also as a cultural arena to reproduce bourgeois ideology.

There is no such thing as decolonization or justice for the oppressed nations under US imperialism, the number one enemy of the world’s people. The masses demand imperialists like Kanders be held accountable for their crimes against the people. His resignation is a victory, but one that will be short-lived if opposition leadership trades the rebellious momentum it has organized for a seat at the imperialist table.