“Why am I being exposed to this inside a museum?” a disgruntled visitor asked a Whitney security staffer. The visitor, a Californian on a holiday visit to New York City, was objecting the display of profiles of fallen Palestinians from the 2018 Gaza border protests, also called the Great March of Return, installed by Decolonize this Place (DTP) in the museum’s lobby last night, April 19, during the fifth of their Nine Weeks of Art and Action.
“This is offensive to me,” the vexed visitor complained. The security staffer found himself in the position of having to defend the activists’s right to protest, and soon after, he needed to separate the visitor and the protesters, as an expletive-laden physical scuffle broke out between the two sides.
That was the opening chord of a heated evening at the museum. This week’s protest underlined the involvement of Warren B. Kanders, a vice chairman on the Whitney’s board of trustees, in the actions of the Israeli military in the Occupied Territories through his association with weapons manufacturers.
The contentious theme of the evening drew other antagonistic players, including a political Youtuber, “whose presence led to a few tense altercations and kept the museum’s staff on their toes.
The security team also expressed its concern over the presence of several masked protesters, who veiled their faces in Palestinian Keffiyehs and red bandanas. Amin Husain, an organizer with DTP, explained to the staff that those protesters were masked only to protect their identities from the cameras of right-wing individuals in the room.
Members of Within Our Lifetime, a youth organization for Palestine, broke the tension in the air with a cheerful Dabka (Palestinian folk dance) flash-mob. The dance was followed by a string of chants including: “Warren Kanders you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide”; “from Brooklyn to Palestine, occupation is a crime”; and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
“Warren Kanders is invested in multiple companies that supply weapons to the Israeli military and is directly profiting from the mass murder of Palestinians in Gaza,” said Nardeen Kiswani from Within Our Lifetime. Kiswani went on to say that 270 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli snipers since March 30, 2018, while taking part of the Great March of Return. Some of the slain unarmed women, children, disabled people, medics, and journalists she named were featured in the posters behind her. Another 25,000 people have been wounded by tear gas and non-lethal ammo, she added.
“Tear gas canisters are fired and leaving havoc all over Palestine. Art has always been a way of expressing an individual’s freedom to be themselves. How can the vice chair of the Whitney be tied to something so terrible?” another member of the group asked.
Earlier in April, Hyperallergic reported that riot control munition produced by Kanders’s Safariland Group was used by the Israeli military against Palestinian protestors at the Gaza-Israel border. This week, DTP revealed that IMI Systems, the exclusive supplier of small-caliber ammunition to the Israeli army, uses Sierra Bullets in its high-powered RazorCore ammunition. Sierra Bullets, a Missouri-based defense manufacturer, is owned by the Clarus Corporation. Kanders owns millions in Clarus stock. Those bullets, the activists say, were used by Israeli army snipers to gun down Palestinian protesters in Gaza.
The Whitney has declined to comment for this article.
“Kanders is art washing through his blood money as a profiteer. We see this normalization in Israel, where they’re trying to attract famous artists to come and perform, while Palestinian women and children are being attacked with rubber bullets and tear gas,” said another member of Within Our Lifetime. “We won’t let those who profit of Israel’s settler colonialism and the genocide of Palestinians hide in the board rooms of museums.”
DTP member Marz Saffore called for solidarity between Palestinian and Black people, saying: “The tear gas that we are talking about, used against Palestinians who are fighting for their right of return, was used against my people in Ferguson, Oakland, and Baltimore.” Saffore added that in 2016, the NYPD purchased $7.3 million of gear from Safariland. “I’m fighting for Palestine, the same way they fight for me,” she said.
Kashmir-born writer and researcher Mahum Shabir linked between the occupation of her country with the statelessness of Palestinians. “In Kashmir, when we see Palestinians, we see a mirror image of our own suffering,” she said. “The tear gas used in Palestine is used in Kashmir too; The so-called non-lethal weapons are used in Kashmir too.”
Members of the Puerto Rican activist group Comité Boricua En La Diaspora reported that Safariland’s tear gas was also used against protesters on their island. “Mr. Kanders thinks that dignity, honor, and love can be bought,” a member of the group said. “We got news for you,” she said addressing Kanders, “you can’t buy that shit.”
Anne Spice, a member of the Tlingit indigenous tribe in Canada, gave an account of her community’s struggle against the Canadian government’s plans to pass an oil pipeline through their territory. “They know their claim to the land is illegitimate, so they have to buy their weapons to hide themselves,” she said, calling for Indigenous and Palestinian liberation.
Hayley Mackenzie Bain from the group Mobile Print Power said, “We are here today, because we do not separate art from politics … art is the tool of the people, and it should not be used against them. The politics of the art world does not exist out of the politics of the real world.”
Shellyne Rodriguez from Take Back the Bronx spoke about artist Glenn Ligon, who publicly sided with the Whitney on the Kanders controversy. In March, after DTP’s first protest at the museum, Ligon posted a photo of his Whitney Artist Lifetime Pass on Instagram with a caption that read: “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor gloom of night, or sage smoke or fake blood will keep me from using my artist lifetime pass at one of my favorite museums.”
“Imagine the ‘caucasity’,” said Rodriguez in response. “Upward mobility silences people, even when they know this shit is wrong … We are the Trojan Horse; That’s the legacy that was left for us by the Black liberation movement.”
Viamoana Niumeitolu from DTP and the Mahina Movement, and a representative of the student group Decolonial Time Zone, spoke on the unity of struggles from New York City to Gaza. “We are free here because a Palestinian kid put his life on the frontlines for us,” Niumeitolu said.
Yesterday, an autonomous group of activists staged a protest against Kanders on the seventh floor of the museum. The protestors carried posters that read “#KANDERSMUSTGO” and “COMPLICIT IN KILLING OUR COMMUNITIES.”
“It’s much bigger than Kanders, but we promised ourselves that we won’t lose this fight,” Husain said in a closing statement, “If we don’t stand up, we die.”