Against Zwarte Piet in 2017: A Personal Account

“”Stop silencing black voices”, we wanted to say.”

guest post by Archana Ramanujam

*Excerpts of this blog post are featured in ERIF’s 2018 Sinterklaas Brand & Product Study.

Researcher & Activist

In 2017, the number of anti-Zwarte Piet demonstrations in the Netherlands burgeoned. There was the attempted demonstration at the national intocht in Dokkum  [1] in the northern province of Friesland, of course, where Sinterklaas and the Pieten first ‘arrived’ in the Netherlands. There were also other actions in Rotterdam[2], Weesp [3] and Leiden [4] among other places, and the second demonstration in Dokkum [5] directed at freedom of speech around demonstrating against Zwarte Piet.  This increase, in my opinion, was in part due to a growing resistance to the caricature, but also due to the repression received at the first demonstration at the national intocht, where demonstrators were prevented from getting to the location where they were supposed to demonstrate.

I was part of the group of demonstrators headed to Dokkum on the 18th November to demonstrate at the national intocht, and I helped organize the second demonstration in Dokkum on the 2nd of December. While I am Dutch and a woman of color, I am not black and am ultimately an ally or accomplice in this matter. I feel strongly about the issue as my daily experiences crystallize how real racism is in the Netherlands, and Zwarte Piet is a very visible and increasingly political manifestation of this. 2017 was my second time involved in the demonstrations. The previous occasion in 2016 was a jarring encounter with the reality of speaking out against a tradition that is at once very racist yet very dear to many Dutch people who often deny its racist nature.

In 2017, demonstrators making their way to Dokkum were intercepted by Frisian (from Friesland) pro-Pieten, as those who defend Zwarte Piet are called in the Netherlands. I was in a car following three buses of demonstrators out of Amsterdam and Rotterdam towards the small town. A number of pro-Pieten in cars overtook the buses and hit the brakes, essentially blocking the entire highway near Joure, another town in Friesland. I heard from many fellow activists in the buses that it felt quite threatening. The pro-Pieten were altogether too friendly with the police; they exchanged pats on the back and handshakes. Pro-Pieten gesticulated at the bus and flew flags of Friesland [6] as they stood among the cars and the buses for at least an hour (not the 25 minutes that the media reported), before they moved their cars with all but their license plate numbers noted by the police. The demonstrators stayed in the bus, for fear of escalation.

When we finally continued on, the police suggested that they escort us via a circuitous route, as many of the other routes were blocked by more pro-Pieten. I did wonder at the time why they simply did not remove those groups, but we believed the police. Roughly a half hour later, as we arrived in Harlingen, the alarm bells started ringing among those in the bus as well as our group in the car. We were going in a completely different direction from Dokkum. The police proceeded to stop us in Harlingen and tell us that there was a noodbevel (an emergency measure) in Dokkum. We were too late, due to our interception and detour, and the mayor had hence forbidden us from coming to the town. People were outraged at the police; many felt that they had been taken ‘for a ride’, myself included. We headed back to Amsterdam under police escort, to make sure we would not return to Dokkum. We were not allowed to go to another demonstration, taking place in Weesp, that same day. A silver lining among all the push-back, was that the demonstration in Rotterdam that same day, against both Zwarte Piet as well as the police violence effected in 2016, had gone very well.

There are many dynamics in these events that I cannot do justice to in a personal account such as this. Cities in the randstad (city-rich western region of the Netherlands) such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam are perceived as far more liberal, wanting to change the image of Piet, as compared to more provincial areas such as Friesland. There is an historical tension along this divide. Friesland has its own language, and Frisian people take pride in this and their identity which can at times, such as during the first attempt to protest in Dokkum, manifest as nationalism. Those on the highway that day wanted to defend a national tradition. Moreover, they wanted to show that Frisians would not stand for the changes that ‘softer’ city folk from the randstad supported [7]. In doing so, they undermined the right to freedom of speech and demonstration in the Netherlands while defending a racist caricature. The police and the mayor of Dokkum facilitated this. This was the starting point for the second demonstration.

The tone for organizing the second demonstration was determined. It was focused on showing that despite setbacks, we stand for our freedom to demonstrate and to reject Zwarte Piet, and to show that there is a double-standard in these freedoms in the Netherlands. “Stop silencing black voices”, we wanted to say. It was important to do this in Dokkum, as this would show that these fundamental rights are important not only regardless of the color of your skin, but also regardless of where you are.

We brought the demonstration together in 6 days with a relatively small team, which speaks to the amount of time and energy activists are willing to put into abolishing Zwarte Piet. After 3 long meetings, many phone calls, a trip to see the mayor of Dokkum and much sweat and elbow grease, two buses departed at 10am from Amsterdam, making their way with a large police escort including tow-trucks, motorcycles and flashing lights. We encountered a number of middle fingers directed at us (which was the case the first time we attempted to protest as well) as we passed people on the road. When we arrived in Dokkum, we walked through a street lined with bystanders watching us. There were a number of sneering faces in this welcome party, including folks dressed up as Zwarte Piet. We arrived at our location; incidentally not the initial central marketplace we had asked for but a parking lot next to a shopping center.

The demonstration was more of a rally in the sense that there were poets, bands and speakers giving voice to the stance against Zwarte Piet as well as the importance of freedom of speech. It was a frigid day, and 250 people from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds stood out in the cold and the rain and with a heavy police presence to make their voices heard.

Onward, to double the size and number of demonstrations next year. Together we are strong.











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