Ousted Whitney Museum Board Member Still Selling Tear Gas Despite Divestment Claim

Despite claims of divestment, Warren Kanders’s companies are still selling chemical weapons used by police against peaceful protesters.

WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2018/12/09: Activists took over the lobby at the Whitney Museum of American Art  to protest and demand the removal of the museums board of directors Vice Chairman Warren B. Kanders. Kanders is the CEO of Safariland, a corporation that manufactures the tear gas used against migrant families presently at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Activists protest and demand the removal of Vice Chairman Warren B. Kanders, CEO of Safariland, from the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City on December, 9, 2018. Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Despite previously claiming that he was divesting from the tear gas business after a heated activist campaign directed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, former Whitney board member Warren Kanders appears to have simply rearranged his holdings. Companies owned by or associated with Kanders continue to sell chemical weapons that have been deployed against American protesters and civilians around the world, according to corporate records reviewed by The Intercept.

The controversy began in 2018 following a report revealing Kanders’s ownership of Safariland LLC, a seller of military and police equipment including, infamously, dangerous tear gas and smoke munitions that had just days earlier been launched against asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. Safariland became an art world and human rights flashpoint, and protests against Kanders’s chemical weapons profits led to his ouster from a prestigious seat on the board of the Whitney, a position he’d enjoyed since 2006. Safariland’s gas and smoke weapons were made by Defense Technology, a weaponry company it owned.

Reporting from around the world has found that Safariland and Defense Technology-branded munitions are used to incapacitate a litany of vulnerable targets, from protesters rallying against the murder of George Floyd to migrants attempting to cross the U.S. border with Mexico. While tear gas and smoke grenades of the kind marketed by Defense Technology and Safariland are typically characterized by law enforcement agencies as a safe and humane means of dispersing a crowd, the toxic chemical compounds inside are known to cause severe organ damage, chronic conditions like bronchitis, and sometimes permanent physical injuries to their targets if struck directly by gun-launched canisters. In May 2021, after Defense Technology tear gas was used against protesters in Oregon, a Kaiser Permanente study found that hundreds of women exposed to the chemicals subsequently reported abnormal menstrual cycles. While domestic laws deem tear gas safe enough for police to fire in mass quantities into throngs of Americans, its use on the battlefield is banned by the Geneva Protocol, a prohibition against chemical warfare.

Fallout from the protests didn’t stop at Kanders’s resignation from the Whitney’s board. In June 2020, after Safariland grenades were used against racial justice protesters outside the White House, the New York Times reported that an apparently chastened Kanders was “getting out of the tear gas business” entirely, with Safariland announcing that it would sell off Defense Technology, its chemical weapons subsidiary. The divestiture “allows Safariland to focus on passive defensive protection” like body armor and holsters, Kanders stated in a company press release, which noted that “Defense Technology’s current management team will become the new owners of the business.” But according to materials reviewed by The Intercept, Kanders never exited the tear gas business, but merely rearranged his stake in it.

Florida-based Cadre Holdings bills itself as a “premier global provider of trusted, innovative, high-quality safety and survivability products for first responders, federal agencies, and outdoor/personal protection markets,” with a large portfolio of companies that manufacture protective equipment, gun holsters, and other tactical accoutrement. Among the many companies owned by Cadre, itself run by Kanders since 2012, is Safariland LLC, whose website today is devoid of tear gas and smoke grenades and rather bills itself as “providing trusted and innovative life-saving equipment to law enforcement, military, outdoor recreation and personal protection markets.”

Defense Technology is not mentioned anywhere on Cadre’s website. But when Cadre Holdings filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission last year as part of its initial public offering, among its 23 disclosed international subsidiaries was Defense Technology LLC. Defense Technology was again listed as a subsidiary in Cadre’s March 2022 annual shareholder report. Amid the many risk factors disclosed in the report, Kanders’s company stated explicitly that it continued to sell chemical weapons, noting, “We use Orthochlorabenzalmalononitrile and Chloroacetophenone chemical agents in connection with our production of our crowd control products,” two of the most popular toxic compounds used to create tear gas. “Private parties may bring claims against us based on alleged adverse health impacts or property damage caused by our operations.”

Documents recently filed with the Florida Department of State offer further proof of the nondivestiture: In a Defense Technology annual report filed in March, two years after Safariland claimed that it had cut ties with the company, Warren Kanders and Safariland LLC are both listed as corporate officers. And all three companies list the exact same address for their registered agent in their most recent Florida paperwork.

According to its website, Defense Technology is still very much in the chemical weapons business. In the “chemical agent devices” section of its website, the popular Triple-Chaser tear gas grenade still receives top billing; Triple-Chaser is a particularly infamous brand whose widespread use against civilians was the subject of an incisive short documentary by filmmaker Laura Poitras and the research group Forensic Architecture, exhibited at the 2019 Whitney Biennial to protest Kanders’s relationship with the museum. (Poitras was a founding editor of The Intercept.) Defense Technology lists a total of 117 different chemical weapons, including dozens containing the deeply toxic compounds hexachloroethane and 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, often abbreviated as CS.

Not only does Kanders still control Defense Technology via his majority stake in Cadre, but the company also appears to remain tightly integrated with Safariland. Despite the claims of divestiture, the two companies don’t appear to have gone to any great lengths to conceal their close ongoing relationship, and records suggest that the companies are not merely connected but one and the same. Federal procurement records show that Safariland was still selling “less-lethal” Defense Technology weapons to the Bureau of Prisons as of January. As recently as April of this year, Safariland posted a job opening at the Defense Technology Training Academy; a retail job posted by the company notes, “The Safariland Group offers a number of recognized brand names in these markets including … Defense Technology.” In their respective website terms of use pages, Cadre Holdings, Safariland, and Defense Technology provide the exact same Jacksonville, Florida, mailing address, with the latter, updated over a year after the alleged divestiture, actually instructing those with copyright infringement notices to address any such complaints to “Safariland, LLC Attn.” As of publication, both Safariland and Defense Technology’s web domains have identical registration information, according to filings reviewed by The Intercept, and share the same main contact phone number.

“At first I thought it was just a case of someone using old letterhead, but as I was digging deeper I found more and more things that hinted the companies are still connected.”

A call placed to Defense Technology to request comment on the divestment prompted an automated message from Safariland; after selecting Defense Technology’s extension, another automated Safariland greeting was played.

Cadre Holdings, Safariland, and Defense Technology did not respond to requests for comment.

Noam Perry, an activist and researcher with the American Friends Service Committee, shared his findings with The Intercept after looking into Safariland while working on a report about police militarization. “I knew going into the project that Safariland divested Defense Technology in 2020, so I was surprised when I saw receipts and shipping slips from 2021 that still identified Safariland as selling Defense Technology weapons and ammunition,” Perry told The Intercept via email. “At first I thought it was just a case of someone using old letterhead, but as I was digging deeper I found more and more things that hinted the companies are still connected.” While Perry thought at first that the divestment was simply dragging on, “in March the first annual report of Cadre Holdings came out and led me to believe they indeed lied.”

In a 2021 article for the Union of Concerned Scientists questioning whether Safariland had ever actually quit the chemical weapons business, researcher Juniper Simonis published emails obtained via public record request showing that the company continued to peddle Defense Technology gas weapons in 2020, citing “unprecedented” levels of demand, even after claiming to have divested from the chemical weapons business. Simonis also noted that Safariland continued to register trademarks using the Defense Technology brand, an unusual practice post-divestment.

“The news about Kanders’s misrepresentation of his business practices does not surprise us,” said Amin Husain, a professor at New York University who helped organize the anti-Kanders protests against the Whitney with the activist group Decolonize This Place. “This kind of dishonesty is typical of the tycoon class who use their art world associations and investments to launder their crimes against humanity.”

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