Op-eds, Opinions

Zimmerman ’15, Duncan ’16, Culhane ’15, Bustos ’16: Why is Brown greenwashing tear gas and rubber bullets?

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Op-Ed Contributors
Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Among the scientists, environmentalists and investors on the advisory council of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society sits Warren Kanders ’79. Kanders is the chairman of The Safariland Group, described in his profile on IBES’ website as “manufacturers of safety, survivability and other products for the law enforcement and military markets.”

Kanders has played a consistent and prominent role in developing the supply of and market for crowd-control weapons globally. The Safariland Group emerged from a conglomeration of body armor companies. As chairman and chief executive of Armor Holdings, Inc., Kanders laid the foundation for The Safariland Group by overseeing the acquisition of American Body Armor and Safariland in the late 1990s. In the intervening years, BAE Systems bought Armor Holdings and ultimately sold it back to an affiliate of Kanders & Company in 2012, at which point the company name became The Safariland Group.

Kanders’ company supplies many crowd-control weapons used by law enforcement and military agencies around the world. Safariland’s catalogs, including its 2018 product catalog, have a section offering “less lethal” impact munitions, smoke bombs and riot control grenades. From Egypt to the occupied Palestinian territories, Ferguson to Standing Rock, the weapons sold and promoted by The Safariland Group have been used to suppress protests, maim or kill activists and intimidate social movements.

Less lethal weapons and crowd-control weapons are designed to inflict pain and temporarily impair movement without penetrating the body or causing serious injury. According to a 2014 American Civil Liberties Union report, law enforcement agencies worldwide increasingly rely on crowd-control weapons when confronting popular protests. However, the terms “less lethal” and “non-lethal” do not mean that protesters walk away unscathed. A 2016 study by the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations and Physicians for Human Rights reported the widespread and devastating physical — and, at times, fatal — impact of crowd-control weapons.

The impact of The Safariland Group’s weapons has been documented across the world. War Resisters League, the “oldest secular pacifist organization in the United States” according to its website, alleges that tear gas canisters manufactured by a Safariland Group subsidiary were used against protesters in Cairo in 2011. B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights nonprofit, released a report co-sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme on the use of tear gas in the West Bank — Palestinian territory occupied by Israeli forces — that clearly mentions that Israeli forces utilize weapons manufactured by a Safariland Group subsidiary as well.

According to its catalog, The Safariland Group’s rubber bullets are widely used by law enforcement for crowd maintenance or “single subject compliance.” In the United States, protests in Ferguson, Missouri and other police confrontations with the Black Lives Matter movement included “indiscriminate use of tear gas, disorientation devices, acoustic devices, beanbag rounds and rubber bullets,” according to the ACLU.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a Guardian journalist both identified weapons used against Ferguson protesters as those of a Safariland Group subsidiary.

In 2016, law enforcement used water cannons, tear gas and other crowd-control weapons against hundreds of unarmed water protectors opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, which resulted in 26 hospitalizations and around 300 injuries. Images posted by the nonprofit media organization Unicorn Riot allege that The Safariland Group’s weapons were used at the site; multiple reports have confirmed that crowd-control weapons were used at Standing Rock, though they do not make specific mention of The Safariland Group. A Navajo woman, Vanessa Dundon, lost sight in her right eye after she was shot in the face with a tear gas canister. That same night, a concussion grenade hit a 21-year-old woman bringing water to others at the camp and blew the bone out of her arm. 

The use of crowd-control weapons harms the people fighting for the future of human rights, the environment and our society. It is shocking that IBES disregarded Kanders’ connections to the suppression of social justice movements and that his role in the company did not prevent his selection as part of the advisory council. According to the President’s office website, the selection of the members of advisory councils is based on a member’s “expertise or experience” that can offer “valued perspectives on the areas of interest.”

Given the social and environmental record of The Safariland Group, we have to ask: Were IBES — an organization dedicated to researching environment and society — and the President’s office not aware of the company’s business? What sort of expertise does Kanders bring that contributes to the Institute’s stated commitment to preparing “future leaders to envision and build a just and sustainable world”?

We cannot pretend that the decision to place someone in a position of power exists in a vacuum. Through our actions, we demonstrate our beliefs and we reinforce, or, as in this case, contradict our ambitious rhetoric. IBES and the President’s office’s decision indicates their tacit support of the increased militarization of U.S. law enforcement. In addition, the less lethal weapons market continues to expand despite incidents of death and injury related to the use of tear gas and other less lethal weapons. The Safariland Group, created under years of guidance and leadership by Kanders, sells weapons used against people challenging the status quo and prevents physical demonstrations.

By aligning himself with IBES, Kanders can greenwash his career in the crowd-control weapons industry — covering up his culpability in human rights violations by appearing to support environmentally progressive causes. IBES, by inviting Kanders to sit on its advisory council, effectively condones Kanders’ attempts to reframe The Safariland Group’s work as being in the public’s interest.

Someone who owns a company that is directly involved in suppressing movements — many of which are actively combating the environmental and social issues that IBES exists to address — should not have an advisory role or any other role at Brown. As alums, we are proud to have attended an institution that prides itself on critical engagement and scholarship. Having Kanders on the IBES council reflects neither.

Klara Zimmerman, Sophie Duncan, Trevor Culhane and Camila Bustos can be reached at klara.a.zimmerman@gmail.com, sophiesduncan@gmail.com, trevorculhane@gmail.com and camilabustos93@gmail.com respectively. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.