SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Counter-protesters who blockaded a motorway to sabotage a demonstration against the blackface character Zwarte Piet last November are appearing in court in Leeuwarden this week.
In total 34 people are accused of endangering public safety by bringing traffic to a standstill on the A7 at Joure on November 18. In doing so they prevented a bus full of anti-racism protesters travelling to Dokkum, where the arrival parade for Sinterklaas was being held.
The Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) parade has been the focus of demonstrations in recent years against his companion Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, who is perceived in some quarters as a racist caricature.
The UN committee for the elimination of racial discrimination said in 2015 that Zwarte Piet’s appearance reflected ‘negative stereotypes of people of African origin’. Hardline Dutch traditionalists maintain that a character played mainly by white actors in blackface make-up with curly wigs and red lipstick is part of a harmless children’s tradition.
The demonstrators agreed during talks with Dokkum’s mayor Marga Waanders to stage last year’s protest in a designated area just off the main route of the parade. But after they were held up by the blockade Waanders cancelled the protest on public safety grounds.
The 34 counter-protesters arrived for court on Monday morning in the same party bus that formed part of the blockade fleet last November. They shared selfies and videos on social media on their journey to the courthouse. One defendant proposed to his girlfriend, who accepted, before going into court to stand trial.
Clogs and banners
Some members of the group wore wooden clogs, which they were ordered to remove before entering the courtroom. Outside the building a small group of supporters gathered beside banners with slogans such as ‘Zwarte Piet is black’ and ‘hands off Zwarte Piet’.
The first hearings on Monday morning were delayed for an hour after one of the three judges was taken ill, but he was allowed to continue after being examined by a doctor.
The first three accused to appear were a 24-year-old man from Twijzelerheide, a man aged 23 from Leeuwarden and a 29-year-old woman from Damwâld.
Many of the suspects responded to a Facebook message posted by Jenny Douwes, from Harkema, who is accused of sedition. The proceedings are expected to last the rest of the week, with anti-Zwarte Piet protesters due to give victims’ statements after the suspects have been heard.
Court officials have set up a live link in a second courtroom to screen proceedings in order to accommodate the large number of spectators at the hearings.
Attempts by the public service broadcaster NTR to modernise Zwarte Piet by replacing the full black make-up with soot smudges, in keeping with the traditional story that Zwarte Piet becomes black from going down chimneys, have met with fierce resistance.
In recent decades, however, the character has slowly lost his more overtly stereotypical characteristics such as large gold earrings and a pastiche Caribbean accent.
Last week NTR was forced to clarify reports that only ‘sooty Piets’ would make an appearance during this year’s parade in Zaandam after one of nine local organising committees resigned in protest.
NTR said that some ‘totally black Piets’ would still feature, but the range would be more diverse and include Piets with straight hair. ‘The more often they go down the chimney, the blacker they get,’ said a spokesman. (DutchNews)