Reed ’21: Please, Mr. Kanders, stay

Last July, Brown alum Warren Kanders ’79 P ’23 stepped down as vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art amid a storm of protests by the activist group Decolonize This Place. The protests were sparked by reports that tear gas sold by Kanders’ law enforcement supply company The Safariland Group had been used against migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. For weeks, demonstrators stood outside the Whitney protesting Kanders and the sale of Safariland products to organizations like the New York Police Department, the Israel Defense Forces and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the U.S. Border Patrol.

Today, these same attacks are being leveled against Kanders, but from a different source. A group of Brown students and alums have spearheaded a campaign called Warren Kanders Must Go, which demands the University sever all ties with Kanders, a member of the advisory council for the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and a generous University donor. They say Safariland’s sale of tear gas makes Kanders a “war merchant” with a “violent legacy,” a CEO whose company sells products that “strip migrants, refugees and marginalized peoples of their dignity and safety.” By accepting his donations, they argue, the University is legitimizing these kinds of business practices. For this reason, they argue that the University should dissociate itself from him: The University should remove Kanders from his advisory board position and should no longer accept his donations.

These calls for Kanders’ ostracism are unwarranted; the personal attacks, gross and defamatory. Not only is it unclear Safariland tear gas was used in several of the cases to which Kanders’ critics point, it’s even less clear that, in the instances where Safariland tear gas was used, it was used unjustly. But supposing you concede these points, you’re still a long way from saying Kanders is in any way morally responsible for the actions of the organizations to whom he sells. The bar for excluding gifts ought to be a tall one. The criteria should be: “Was the money obtained through unjust means?” and “Does the donor have a record of statements or actions antithetical to the tenets of human rights?” It is clear that Kanders and his Safariland business dealings do not meet this standard for exclusion.

Does Safariland sell tear gas? Yes, one of its subsidiaries, Defense Technology, manufactures and sells tear gas. Have they sold tear gas to domestic and foreign law enforcement agencies? Yes, but here’s where the critics’ argument begins to fall apart. In a 2018 op-ed in The Herald, Kanders’ critics point to four instances in which they say Safariland tear gas was used unjustly against protesters. Their first case is the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. The problem? Warren Kanders was not part of Safariland from 2007 to 2012. He left after the company was sold to British defense conglomerate BAE Systems, and he would not return until Kanders and Co. acquired Safariland in July 2012, more than a year after the revolution ended.

The op-ed also points to the 2016-2017 protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. To quash the protest, police used crowd control weapons like water hoses and tear gas, which resulted in the injury of 300 protesters. The anti-Kanders op-ed attempts to tie Safariland to this event by citing the “alternative news” source Unicorn Riot, which claimed Safariland crowd control weapons were among those that had been used against the protesters, a claim which the authors themselves concede no other news outlet has been willing to make.

There is solid evidence, however, that the U.S. Border Patrol, the Israel Defense Forces and police departments in Ferguson, Missouri, and Puerto Rico have used Safariland tear gas.

But since the Kanders critics have most recently keyed in on the Border Patrol incident, that is the case I will focus on here. The undisputed facts are this: In late 2018, U.S. border patrol officers used Safariland tear gas on migrants, including children, who were attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

But beyond that, the reports are extremely murky. Some have described the event as a “peaceful march at the border,” while other reports have said migrants “rushed the border area” and “overwhelmed police blockades” before tear gas was deployed.

From these varied and conflicting reports, there is far from any consensus about whether officers were unjustified when they used tear gas at the border. The entire anti-Kanders argument hinges on that premise, yet, in their most recent op-ed, the writers make no effort to justify it. They simply take it as given and then attempt to transfer the supposed guilt of the user onto the seller. But their op-ed has given no consideration to the possibility that using tear gas was justified in these instances. It is certainly possible that the authors’ premise is correct. But I reject that they know this for a fact.

Some people may defend this line of reasoning by saying that, in fact, it is never okay to use tear gas. But there is such a thing as a violent protest. There is such a thing as a riot. Think back to Charlottesville. Imagine if instead of marching around Confederate statues, the mob of white supremacists was marching toward a synagogue with the intent to commit violence. I, for one, want the police to have every tool necessary to defuse such a situation. Would the same people who criticize Kanders be against the use of his tear gas in this scenario? While there’s clearly a difference between migrants at the border and a mob attacking a synagogue, the point is that it is easy to foresee a scenario in which using tear gas is clearly not unjust and may even be necessary.

Weapons and tear gas are necessary to the mission of the Border Patrol and law enforcement agencies more broadly. And in some circumstances, these agencies may be justified in using tear gas. It may even be preferable to other crowd control weapons when attempting to disperse crowds that pose a threat to public safety. For this reason, it is not true that selling to these groups necessarily means you are selling to someone you know will misuse your product. So the question becomes, “Do we forsake tear gas altogether because it has the potential to be used for evil as well as good?” I suspect if this becomes the new standard, we’ll have to ban far more than tear gas and dissociate ourselves from more individuals than just Warren Kanders.

Every weapon has the potential to be misused. But blaming the seller for the crimes of the buyer requires proving that the seller had a reasonable obligation not to sell to that individual. But it is rarely that clear. There are inevitably cases in which a just sale of weapons results in an unjust use. In these situations, the blame for unjustly using tear gas lies with those actually deploying it.

Supplying law enforcement naturally leads to these types of ethical dilemmas. But the right to associate with Brown should not be a tool to be wielded against people with whom many, or even a majority of students take issue — particularly on an unsettled controversy such as this where there are people of good faith on opposing sides. The Kanders case provided a perfect opportunity for constructive dialogue about ethical donations. Unfortunately, most of that conversation has been drowned out by the personal and toxic attacks on Kanders.

I don’t know Mr. Kanders. But given his long history as a Brown University benefactor and philanthropic supporter of the arts, I will give him the benefit of the doubt. And so long as he continues to support Brown, I thank him for doing so.

For months, protesters have chanted, “Warren Kanders Must Go.” Please, Mr. Kanders, stay.

Andrew Reed ’21 can be reached andrew_reed@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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