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Whitney Museum workers angry over vice chairman's ties to border violence

Story behind tear gas photo of mom, children

Leadership at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art has responded to employees' call for the museum to address a report linking a member of the organization's board of trustees to the Trump administration's recent use of force at the U.S.-Mexico border

Museum Vice Chairman Warren B. Kanders owns defense manufacturer Safariland, a maker of law enforcement and security products, including body armor and tactical gear. Photos show the company's logo also appears on tear gas canisters and smoke grenades used against asylum seekers at the border between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California, art news outlet Hyperallergic reported.

President Donald Trump has defended the administration's use of tear gas on migrants, saying border agents were "being rushed by some very tough people." U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said its agents were assaulted and hit by rocks.

Safariland, which was founded in 1964 and is based in Jacksonville, Florida, was formerly known as BAE Systems Products Group. Kanders purchased the company, where he is also chairman and CEO, for $124 million in 2012.

Nearly 100 Whitney employees signed an open letter following a November 27 Hyperallergic report calling on the museum's leadership to respond to Kanders's links to the crisis at the border, a Whitney representative confirmed to CBS MoneyWatch. A museum spokesperson said the letter was authentic, but declined to comment further.

"We are writing to convey our outrage and our frustration and confusion at the Whitney's decision to stay silent on this matter," the letter stated.

"First and foremost, some of us are deeply connected to the communities that are being directly impacted and targeted by the tear gassing at the border. For the Whitney not to acknowledge that this news may impact its staff is to assume we are separate from the issue, that it is happening somewhere else to some other people."

Signers of the letter, who include prominent curators, artists and educators, added that they "felt sick to our stomachs" and "shed tears" after the Hyperallergic story appeared linking Kanders to the border incident. 

Trump defends use of tear gas against migrants at U.S.-Mexico border

The letter demands that museum leaders consider asking for Kanders's resignation and create a staff-wide forum for employees to discuss the matter and relevant policies. Kanders is one of five vice chairmen at the Whitney, considered by many to be the country's most important museum devoted to American artists. 

Whitney Director Adam Weinberg issued a memo to staff and trustees on Sunday that skirted the controversy. He called the museum "a place of great promise, hopes and dreams, often against great odds."

Without naming Kanders or directly addressing the employees' letter, Weinberg also wrote that "staff does not appoint or remove board members," noting that he would understand if some people opted to resign their positions at the museum.

"To those of you, and I trust it is nearly all, who want to move forward despite some significant differences of opinion, I am here as your partner, to lead and to work hard every day to make the Whitney, and possibly the world, a better place. I accept that there may be a few of you who are not inclined to do so, but I would like nothing more than to continue this journey together."

Museum staffers behind the uprising said Whitney leaders had acknowledged their request that they weigh asking for Kanders to resign. "We received a positive response from leadership early this morning, and look forward to continued discussion," they said, Hyperallergic reported.

The tone of the museum's response, however, suggests that the Whitney is unlikely to take action against Kanders. 

Whitney board President Richard M. DeMartini and three other trustees said in a letter to board members that Hyperallergic had unfairly singled out Kanders. 

"He has been a model trustee: extremely generous, committed and thoughtful. The Kanderses have also been strong supporters of shows for artists of color as well as political exhibitions presenting a variety of views; in fact, they recently funded an exhibition excerpted from the Whitney's exhibition 'Protest' at Brown University."

Kanders defended himself in a letter addressed to the Whitney Board of Trustees Monday, explaining that Safariland's products, including safety holsters and bomb suits, intend to keep people safe, and that he is "not the problem the authors of the letter seek to solve." 

He said the company also manufactures tear gas -- which has legitimate uses. "Regardless of one's political persuasion, I hope we can all agree that uncontrolled riots pose a serious threat not only to the safety and security of law enforcement, but also to the public in general. When faced with a chaotic situation, law enforcement officers have few options for crowd control, and non-lethal products (including 'tear gas') are on the list." 

Kanders insisted that he is, in his role as owner of the company that manufactures the tear gas used at the border, only responsible for ensuring "the products work, as expected, when needed."

"Safariland's role is not to determine when and how they are employed. The staff letter implies that I am responsible for the decision to use these products. I am not."

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