Dozens have been arrested over the weekend across the Netherlands as people protesting a blackface holiday trope have been the recipients of abuse, while other areas of the country have been forced to cancel further protests as guarantee people’s safety can't be guaranteed.
Groups in their thousands took to the streets to protest Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, a controversial figure in Dutch Christmas celebrations who is portrayed by people painting their faces black and their lips red.
According to NL Times, people have been attacked with eggs, beer cans and physically assaulted just for protesting, and the group Kick Out Zwarte Piet have claimed local officials have not done enough to prevent pro-Piet protestors from assaulting them.
Across the country, activists were forced to defend themselves and cancel demonstrations. The police reported four arrests in Zaandijk, where 25,000 people showed up for the celebrations. Meanwhile, in the town of Hoorn, north of Amsterdam, two people were arrested for using a Nazi salute “as a means of disrupting public order". Clashes also occurred in the cities of Rotterdam, Eindhoven and Groningen.
What is Zwarte Piet?
Zwarte Piet is a character that accompanies Saint Nicholas, or ‘Sinterklaasfeest’, during Christmastime. He first appeared in an 1850 book by Amsterdam school teacher Jan Schenkman. Tradition states he is black because he is a Moor from Spain.
It has questionable origins and came about around the same time that black minstrel shows were the rage in America, with white actors painting their faces black and depicting black people as slow and dumb for the sake of humour. At the time, though in decline, the Dutch Empire retained many colonies in parts of the Caribbean and Africa.
Critics of Zwarte Piet argue that the character and the tradition of donning blackface is racist and should be stopped in the Netherlands.
Despite the negative connotations arising from the character, which Russell Brand once called a “colonial hangover", the vast majority of people in the Netherlands are in favour of retaining the character.
Still, there is a growing discontent with Zwarte Piet in parts of the population
Attempts have been made to re-characterise Zwarte Piet, with some saying his face is black because he comes down from the chimney, and that the colour is coal.
Still many want the practise to end. One black woman wrote on YouTube:
I was born in the Netherlands and I currently live in the Netherlands. When I was a little child.. I was bullied with black pete!! The older ones say it is a tradition for every kid. NO IT’S NOT! They called me black pete all the time, they said to me that I was a slave of sint nicolas, that i’ve had to give some candy to them en do things for them. I cried allot back then as a child.. but it made me stronger now! One day i said to them “ Call me what you want, I know I am not black pete, I don’t judge people by their race, I define every person beautiful in their own special way.. i don’t say that the people who loves black pete are racist but black pete is a racist thing.. people get hurt.. children also.. i’ve been there..