Men in blackface aggressively block Zwarte Piet demonstrators; Staphorst mayor bans protest
People wanting to protest against actors in blackface makeup dressed as Zwarte Piet at the Sinterklaas arrival party in Staphorst, Overijssel, were met with aggressive reactions and violent behavior from people who want to keep the character as is. Zwarte Piet is often portrayed as the buffoonish assistants to Sinterklaas by white people wearing chocolate brown or black face makeup, curly black wigs, a thick coat of lipstick to give the appearance of big lips, large hoop earrings, and a Moorish costume.
Local broadcaster RTV Oost noted that there was a “grim atmosphere” at in Staphorst. As a result of the clashes, Mayor Jan ten Kate banned the pre-approved demonstration organized by Kick Out Zwarte Piet. The group had worked with the municipality in advance to ensure their right to gather and protest. “Safety cannot be guaranteed in the village and on the Marktplein where the party will take place,” the municipality said in a statement. A riot police unit was also mobilized.
Hundreds of people angered by the prospect of a protest gathered at the A28 highway exit which leads into town. They essentially set up a checkpoint where they blocked people from entering Staphorst if they were believed to be protesting.
One video from the scene showed a large group of young men, many of whom were in blackface makeup and a Zwarte Piet costume, gathered menacingly around a car. As they inspected the occupants of the vehicle, they held lit smoking flares against the cars windows, and began pelting it with items while shouting, “It’s a children’s party!” That line was frequently used in past years as justification by people who claimed that Zwarte Piet is not racist, saying it is not intended to be a commentary or parody of Black people.
The men continued to throw items at the vehicle as the driver tried to accelerate out of the crowd. Police did not intervene. RTV Oost noted that fireworks were known to have been thrown at one car, and possibly more. Eggs were also used to pelt a car, and another vehicle’s tire was punctured.
“Once again, our right to protest has been taken away at the last minute and the authorities have smothered us in favor of a group that does not grant us that right,” said activist Jerry Afriyie. He said a window was smashed on one of the buses used by Kick Out Zwarte Piet demonstrators. Afriyie likened the blokkade to what happened near Dokkum, Friesland in 2017 when counter-protestors shut down all lanes of the A7 to prevent Kick Out Zwarte Piet activists from reaching the demonstration site agreed in advance with the mayor of Dokkum by the deadline.
The violent scenes drew police away from the town and to the access roads. As a result, officers could no longer guarantee the safety of visitors and protestors. The mayor used that justification to ban the Kick Out Zwarte Piet protest from continuing.
Often believed to be traditional, the look of Zwarte Piet is derived from the book, Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht, written by Jan Schenkman in 1850. The look actually changed in subsequent print editions. It was also when the story was adapted to have Sinterklaas arrive by steamboat from Spain. Also in 1850, Princess Marianne, the daughter of King William I of the Netherlands, purchased a Nubian boy from a slave market in Egypt. The two sailed by steamboat to the Netherlands.
A years-long push to strip the racist elements from the character has been adopted in a growing number of municipalities. It was also picked up by the national television program Sinterklaasjournaal, which only features Piet characters with smears of soot and a wider variety of hairstyles and hair colors.