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Back to the ’60s (again): Ex-Whitney Trustee Warren Kanders’ Dow Chemical Moment

During this tumultuous time, I keep flashing back to the turmoil of the late ’60s—the era when I came of political age as a college student, participating in the landmark 1969 March on Washington against the Vietnam War and attending antiwar “teach-ins” conducted by professors and students at my university, Cornell, which had a strong, politically active Asian Studies department.

That same year, Cornell became internationally famous for a march across campus by rifle-toting black students, which I witnessed from my usual studious perch next to the picture window in Olin Library that overlooked the Arts Quad. The armed marchers were protesting against racism and the slow progress in establishing a black studies program at the university:

Students with rifles, marching across Cornell’s Arts Quad, April 20, 1969
Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections

The current unrest throughout our country demonstrates how far we’ve yet to go in addressing race-related grievances.

Another prominent target of student demonstrations in the late ’60s was Dow Chemical, maker of the innocuous Saran Wrap and the noxious Napalm, which infamously melted the flesh of Vietnam civilians who got caught in its corrosive shower. An iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photo from the Vietnam War showed a naked 9-year-old girl running from a South Vietnamese napalm attack that had burned her back. She and other terrified children were fleeing from that horror.

After initially resisting the resisters’ demands that it halt its production of napalm, Dow stopped making it in 1969. Now Warren Kanders, who resigned under political pressure last July from his position as vice-chairman of the Whitney Museum’s board, has announced a reversal similar to that of Dow Chemical: As reported yesterday by the NY TimesRobin Pogrebin, Kanders revealed that his company, Safariland, plans to shed “two business segments—Defense Technology and Monadnock—that made tear gas and other crowd control products” used by law enforcement and the military. Like Dow, the provocatively named Safariland (hunting for humans?) had initially resisted the resisters.

The use of Safariland’s tear gas against civilians was decried in “Triple Chaser,” the incendiary video by the Forensic Architecture collective that sparked controversy at last year’s Whitney Biennial.

Line of visitors waiting to get into the 2019 Whitney Biennial
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The victory for those who hounded Kanders—Forensic Architecture and another activist group, Decolonize This Place—could give pause to future museum benefactors who may be understandably loath to subject themselves to vicious vetting of their business activities.

As I wrote here:

Its [the Whitney’s] posture of reluctant tolerance for the protesters’ ill-conceived dissent was ultimately self-defeating: There may now be destructive repercussions for the museum’s programs, its staff relations and, especially, its relationship with its board. Who would want to be a benefactor of a museum that stood by while one of its most devoted supporters got dragged through the mud?

My position in that post was that “Kanders’ products are not the enemy; those who misuse them are.” For what it’s worth (or not), tear gas (which I’ve personally experienced three times) is less abhorrent than napalm.

That said, the recent uses of tear gas or similar chemical agents to disperse peaceful protesters in general and, more egregiously, to clear the site that President Trump had chosen for a photo op may have been too much for Kanders, who has previously stated that his “personal values [are] around diversity, inclusion, access and equality.”

Just like museums that are reconsidering their previous reluctance to take strong political stands (a sea change that I analyzed here), Kanders may be reconsidering his own previous stance, “taking a knee” in solidarity with those who see police brutality against blacks as a serious threat to our democracy.

We may never know Kanders’ reasons for withdrawing from tear-gas production: His statement, as described by the Times, “did not address the reasons for selling off the divisions of the company, except to say that it allowed Safariland to focus on products like bulletproof vests that offer ‘passive defensive protection.’”

Passive protection”? The Safariland Cap

Contacted by me, a Whitney spokesperson today declined to comment on this latest chapter in the Kanders saga. I’m guessing that, like Kanders, the museum wants to put this donor-relations debacle behind it. That may not happen if Decolonize This Place has its way: The group menacingly warned Kanders (in a statement reported by Hakim Bishara in Hyperallergic) that “we are not done with you.”

DTP then proceeded to issue these commands (as reported by Bishara):

We call on you to show the world that you acknowledge the wrongs by returning the profits to those who were harmed by your products. Individuals, groups and movements that you knew would be harmed by the armed violence of states.

Make reparations by handing the money over to causes devoted to care, healing, and justice. We call on you to show that this is not just a calculated business decision to sell when the going gets tough.

Instead of deploying another fusillade of aggressive rhetoric, DTP should take a lesson in deescalation from the eight artists who withdrew from the 2019 Whitney Biennial, only to withdraw their withdrawal when Kanders resigned from the museum’s board.

You need to pick your battles. Gassing the donor base of valuable cultural institutions with a barrage of threats and demands shouldn’t be one of them.

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