On April 19, members of the Palestinian youth organization Within Our Lifetime broke out into a spontaneous dabke on the first floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. The dancers were surrounded by protesters holding up photos of Palestinians killed during the Great March of Return. The crowd cheered its support for the dabke flash mob and chanted demands for the resignation of Warren B. Kanders, a Vice Chairman of the Whitney’s executive board and CEO of Safariland, which he purchased in 2012 for around $124 million. The company produces arms that have been used against protestors in occupied Palestine, along the U.S.-Mexico border, and in U.S. cities like Baltimore and Ferguson.
The protest was the fifth action organized at the Whitney since late March by a New York organization called Decolonize This Place (DTP). The group pressures museums, such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Brooklyn Museum, to respect human rights. In March, DTP called for nine weeks of collective protest and anticolonial art at the Whitney leading up to the museum’s Biennial on May 17. During the first five actions, organizers have spoken out against colonial violence in Kashmir, Puerto Rico, Palestine, and the United States.
However, opposition to Kanders dates back to November, 2018, when around 100 museum employees and affiliates signed a letter addressed to Director Adam Weinberg. The workers, who described themselves as “generally speaking, [the] most diverse and lowest paid staff,” expressed their “outrage” at the Whitney’s indifference toward Kanders’ supply of tear gas to patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border. In addition to demanding Kanders resignation, employees also called for implementing a protocol to assess future museum leaders and a role for employees in decision-making.
Since the letter was released, DTP has advocated for these demands within a decolonial framework. According to Amin Husain, a Palestinian artist and co-founder of DTP, “[d]ecolonization means more than better board members.” He continued, “[a]t some point [the Whitney is] probably going to call us in for a conversation. We’re going to be in the room with the stakeholders, and we’re going to be doing a step-by-step process.” DTP collaborates with 25 other organizations that are engaged in local resistance against gentrification in New York City, as well as solidarity with Puerto Rico, Standing Rock, and Palestine.
The ties between the decolonial movements represented in this coalition go beyond mere symbolism or strategic base-building. Defense Technology, a subsidiary of Safariland, sells gun holsters, rubber bullets, batons, and tear gas that have been used against protestors challenging oppressive governments around the world. Police in Baltimore and Ferguson shot Defense Technology tear gas at citizens who were rallying against the police murders of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown. In November, 2018, when a caravan of Central American migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. approached the border between Tijuana and San Diego, they were met with at least 24 canisters of the same chemical.
Israeli authorities have a particular affection for Kanders’ company’s hardware. According to researcher Robert Trafford, Israeli army and law enforcement officials have been making purchases from Safariland for over a decade. Whenever Palestinians challenge Israeli rule, Safariland products, including sponge grenades, tear gas canisters and launchers are immediately deployed to repress them. Although these are all advertised as “soft” or “less lethal” riot control, each can be deadly if it hits an individual’s upper body. Bedouin villagers in the Naqab have been forcefully evicted with the help of Safariland munitions, and protesters resisting occupation in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh often face Kanders’ tear gas, as do those participating in the Great March of Return in Gaza.
Safariland’s global presence and the response that is being mobilized by groups like DTP illustrate how both repression and resistance in Palestine are evolving. As law enforcement around the world has become increasingly militarized and privatized, an international market for aggressive “riot control” munitions has been spawned that turns civil dissent into profit. Simultaneously, transcending borders and narrow identity-politics, communities around the world that are targeted by these weapons have begun to recognize the intersections of their grievances and to identify the companies that produce “riot control” munitions, as well as the governments who buy them, as common enemies.
According to a report released by MarketsandMarkets, the value of the global “riot control” weapons trade is projected to grow to around USD 11.78 billion by 2021, a 25 percent increase from its 2016 value. According to the group’s analysis, this spike is a result of the “economic crisis and political unrest” that have sparked mass resistance around the world.
In other words, Kanders and others like him have turned violence into a lucrative and influential business. Safariland is one of the top five corporations that have propelled international weapons growth. This gives the company an outsize impact on how law enforcement agencies respond to dissent.
However, as Amin Husain said at DTP protest, “[i]t’s much bigger than Kanders.” Numerous parties, including the Israeli government and several Israeli corporations, are heavily invested in the industry of riot control. U.S. law enforcement officials have flown to Israel since 2004 to participate in training exchange programs that have been deemed by social justice activists as aggressive and discriminatory. Moreover, as of 2019, Israel was the eighth largest arms vendor in the world. The munitions produced within its borders have been sold to regimes in Myanmar and Sudan, which have been accused of egregious human rights violations.
But global democratic dissent has not diminished in the face of the multibillion-dollar arms trade developed explicitly to stifle it. Instead, groups like DTP have built an organizing model that is striking a blow to not only multiple colonial regimes around the world, but also the industry that continues to enforce them.
DTP’s strategy has already borne fruit. Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, who was scheduled to display his art as part of the Whitney Biennial in May, announced that he would be boycotting the event in support of DTP. Earlier in April, a group of 120 academics, artists, and activists published an open letter to the Whitney calling for Kanders’ resignation. Most recently, on April 29, dozens more artists endorsed this demand by adding their names to the letter. These included 46 of the 75 artists that had planned to take part in the Biennial this year.
While the impact of these successes on countering the riot control industry may be limited, DTP’s work is reverberating around the world as more communities unite together to advance social justice.