For Veerle Ros, who was a PhD-student at the Faculty of Arts until a few months ago, Zwarte Piet is a source of ongoing irritation. ‘The fact that it’s so clearly a racist caricature, hurting so many people, just bothers me so much.’
And the go-to defense of the Zwarte Piet proponents only makes it worse. ‘They implicate that tradition is more important than how members of our society feel.’
Veerle was pleased with the way the municipality treated the protesters. ‘They gave us a site in the city centre, with good visibility. I love that protests like this one took place all over the country at the same time, and I’m very glad we were able to say our piece without disturbing the festivities.’
But just outside the designated space for the protest, Veerle and her friends found themselves faced with a large group of ‘intimidating-looking white men’, many of them hard core fans of the local football club. Most of all, they simply seemed to want trouble.
At one point some guy started doing Nazi salutes
‘Just minutes before I arrived, the other group got physical with some of the protesters’, Veerle says. ‘They just came charging, trying to attack them. Luckily, the police intervened.’
It was frightening, Veerle admits. ‘They kept shouting at us, saying we were ruining a children’s celebration, and yelling racist stuff that I tried my best to forget immediately. They threw eggs, too – one of my friends got hit.’ At one point, Veerle recalls, some guy lifted up his shirt to show his Groningen tattoo, doing Nazi salutes with his other hand.
‘I think all the footage from last Saturday really paints a picture of the kind of people who’re trying to shut us down’, she remarks dryly. But she is hopeful that change is possible. ‘I’ve seen so many people change their opinions over the past few years, and the parades themselves are increasingly incorporating colourful or smudged Piets.’
For German fine arts student Charly Jaź – who prefers the pronoun ‘they’ – Piet isn’t a problem; blackface is. Charly wanted to bring the visibility to the issue that it isn’t okay to use blackface as part of the celebration. ‘I think we were successful, in that respect, because there has been a good amount of media coverage. I don’t think there is much you can do to change some people’s minds. But I just felt it would be wrong not to do it.’
Charly doesn’t think there is anything to lose by ditching blackface during the holiday. ‘Look, there’s plenty of evidence that Zwarte Piet negatively effects children of colour in the Netherlands. And it’s harmful for white children too – because it reinforces an impression that subtle racism is okay; it gives them permission to make that practice their own.’
But when Charly rode up to the Emmaplein on Saturday, they saw police trying to chase away ‘a bunch of nationalists dressed like hooligans. They were aggressive.’ Charly joined their friends protesting peacefully behind the barricade, but ‘it was quite stressful; it felt like it could escalate very quickly. It felt sort of dangerous to be there.’
In the end, they stuck it out. ‘We decided to cheer whenever we saw a Piet with soot instead of blackface’, Charly chuckles. It was a funny way to protest – by positive affirmation. ‘There’s nothing wrong with celebrating Sinterklaas, and family, and candy. But it’s important to consider that just because you don’t personally have bad intentions, that doesn’t mean your choices don’t negatively affect other people. It’s very simple, really.’
For Sorsha Passmore, a second year master’s student in marine biology, Zwarte Piet was a central figure in her childhood. She was born in the Netherlands but moved to England when she was twelve.
‘Zwarte Piet was normal for me; I never thought anything of it until a couple years ago. An English person I knew posted something about this weird practice Dutch people have. At first I was kind of offended’, she admits. ‘But that’s the thing about privilege: it’s easy to think something is not a problem when it’s not a problem for you personally.’
She had a bad feeling the day before the protest. ‘I know how much this means to Dutch people. I had nightmares.’ But she was still shocked by what came next. ‘Before we even started, all these men attacked us: they hit us, tried to take our signs. One pushed my friend to the ground before the police arrived. Another tried to shoot fireworks at us’, she says. ‘I’m still really shaken up.’
She can’t understand why people would go out of their way to be terrifying at a children’s celebration. ‘If the objection is that the holiday isn’t about race, but about children – then why are grown adults screaming at people? Children don’t care what colour Piet is. They just want their sweets. Just because something is a tradition doesn’t make it morally defensible. We aren’t trying to eradicate Piet; just make him more inclusive. We are more convinced than ever to keep showing up.’
Mayor Peter den Oudsten was aware of both the anti Piet and pro Piet demonstrations he announced before the weekend. ‘We agreed to alot the anti Zwarte Piet group a space at the Emmaplein. But the contact with the other person who’s announced a demonstration has not been going well.’
Den Oudsten urged everyone to let the protest against Zwarte Piet take its course. ‘We have reason to believe that some football supporters are planning to prevent the protests from happening. Tot hem I want to say: don’t! Groningen is a tolerant city, where citizens can voice their opinions and be met with respect. Everyone has a right to protest, and we value that right very much.’
According to the municipality, there were about forty Kick Out Zwarte Piet protesters present at the Emmaplein on Saturday, ‘and about eighty individuals looking to put a stop to the protest.’ Police were largely succesfull in keeping things from escalating between the two parties, the mayor’s office announced. One man ended up being arrested for hurling a piece of firework at the protesters.