Zwarte Piet highway blockade sentences reduced; “Sends the wrong signal” says activist
The Arnhem-Leeuwarden court of appeal on Thursday convicted 15 pro-Zwarte Piet protesters for their role in blocking the A7 highway to prevent two buses of anti-Zwarte Piet protesters from reaching the national Sinterklaas arrival in Dokkum in November 2017. The court did, however, lower their sentences to 90 hours of community service.
A Kick Out Zwarte Piet activist who was confronted with the highway blockade in November 2017 told NL Times that he has mixed feelings about the ruling. On the one hand, he is pleased that the activists were not acquitted. But he is disappointed by the lowered sentences. According to him, low sentence sends the wrong signal because it opens the door for more people to act this way.
A total of 34 pro-Zwarte Piet protesters were previously sentenced to between 80 and 240 hours of community service, and one received a suspended prison sentence of one month. The 15 protesters sentenced on Thursday were the ones who appealed against their sentence. The others accepted the original ruling.
According to the court, the suspects did not want action group Kick Out Zwarte Piet to protest at the national Sinterklaas arrival party in Dokkum in 2017, despite the protest getting municipal approval. "They then took the law into their hands and played their own judge", the court said. "Undermining a decision of the council in such a way and depriving others of the ability to demonstrate is very serious and inadmissible."
The court pointed out that in a democratic society it is precisely unpopular opinions that may run counter to prevailing views that must have room to be expressed through demonstration.
Regulating demonstrations and maintaining public order and safety are tasks of the government and not of individual citizens, the court said. "It was therefore not up to the suspects to determine where and when the demonstrators were allowed to demonstrate. Nor was it up to the to prevent disturbances they feared by committing criminal offenses themselves", the court said.
The court convicted the suspects of all charges - blocking the A7 highway, preventing a demonstration, coercion, and in one case incitement. But considered the high community service sentences imposed in the initial ruling and demanded by the Public Prosecution Service too harsh. According to the court of appeal, the various charges mainly revolve around the same crime. The court also took into consideration that no serious accidents occurred during highway blockade. The suspects' sentences were therefore lowered to 90 hours of community service each.
“I have mixed feelings on the one hand. They wanted to be freed of all charges, and they didn’t get that. On the other hand they did get a sentence reduction,” said Mitchell, a Kick Out Zwarte Piet activist who was confronted on the highway that day in 2017.
Regarding the court’s statement that it is a democratic society and people can’t take the law into their own hands just because they do not like someone else’s message, he said: “Of course I agree with the statement, but if you truly stand behind that notion it should be reflected in the punishment.”
When asked if he agreed with the court when it said the offenders were unlikely to repeat their actions: “I’m also disappointed by that because I do think they would be capable of repeating their actions. They even said so, and they seem proud of their actions,” Mitchell stated. “We’ve also seen other people across the Netherlands have tried to repeat their actions,” he remarked, referring to an incident in Den Helder, Noord-Holland.
On Wednesday Kick Out Zwarte Piet announced that they will be protesting against blackface Zwarte Piet at Sinterklaas arrival parties in twelve municipalities this year. This does not include Apeldoorn, where the national Sinterklaas arrival party will be held on November 16th, because the organizers already announced that there will only be so-called Chimney Pieten at this party. Chimney Pieten have soot marks on their faces, instead of complete blackface makeup.
"We are only focusing on cities where change is still not forthcoming", Kick Out Zwarte Piet leader Jerry Afriyie said to NOS.