NL Times | November 18, 2017
The A7 highway blocked near Heerenveen by about 35 people refusing to let groups of people pass through to protest Zwarte Piet, blackface and racism at the Sinterklaas arrival in Dokkum, Friesland. 18 Nov. 2017. photo: “Otto” / Kick Out Zwarte Piet
By Zack Newmark
Busses filled with Zwarte Piet protestors were stopped by a group of about 35 white people stationed on the A7 highway outside Heerenveen, Friesland on Saturday. The protesters were on their way to the official Sinterklaas arrival in Dokkum about 50 kilometers away, where they had approval from city officials to march against the character.
“It seems like the extreme right really blocked us from exercising our freedom of speech, and none of them were arrested,” said one Kick Out Zwarte Piet member to NL Times. The protestor, Otto, wishes to keep his real name anonymous for fear of attacks by extremists.
“There were about 30 white men, and a few white women, and some of them got out of their vehicles and were banging on the windows of our busses,” Otto said, calling the situation “scary.”
“Zwarte Piet shows how extreme Dutch people can become when you try to criticize racism or Dutch society. What happened proves our point,” he noted.
By blocking the highway, the counter-protestors created a situation police called “life threatening and punishable” a spokesperson told local broadcaster Omroep Fryslan.
“The extreme right wing people kept us there with motorcycles, and cars in a coordinated effort for 45 minutes,” Otto explained. Police arrived after about 15 minutes, but instead of immediately escorting the activists to Dokkum, they stood around chatting with the counter-protest for a half hour, Otto added.
“Finally, police agreed to guide us to Dokkum,” using a winding route west through Friesland instead of a direct route on the A7, he continued. But by that time it was too late.
Officials refused to let Kick Out Zwarte Piet move forward with their march through the area because the rally was not able to start at their pre-approved time, Otto lamented.
“Given the situation that has arisen, the safety of the demonstrators and the public can not be guaranteed,” police said in a published statement. They said that was the reason the protest was not allowed to move forward by a deputy mayor in Dongeradeel, the municipality that presides over Dokkum. The Sinterklaas arrival took place at 12:30 as scheduled, and included Zwarte Piet characters in blackface makeup, and some who were smeared with makeup meant to look like soot.
The three busses, with a total of over 150 on board, were then escorted by riot police squads towards Amsterdam, where two of the busses originated. The third came from Rotterdam, where some protestors also rallied on Saturday against racism in the Netherlands.
“This shows that the police breaks their promises. We did everything we could by the book. Kick Out Zwarte Piet had meetings with the mayor and police and did everything right,” Otto said. He then questioned whether or not authorities covertly coordinated with the counter-protestors to block the activists from rallying at the agreed upon time and place.
On Friday, an open letter from Dongeradeel mayor Marga Waanders, the police and the prosecutor’s office called on counter-protestors to put a stop to any planned blockade of Kick Out Zwarte Piet.
Zwarte Piet is believed by many groups in the Netherlands to have deep connections with racism and slavery, particularly because the character is often portrayed by white people wearing blackface makeup. The Zwarte Piet character often has large bright red lips, nappy hair, and large gold hoop earrings, and he is frequently portrayed as either a bumbling fool. The traditional outfit he wears has been likened to clothing worn by black children given as slaves by wealth Dutch people in the 17th century, prompting the Amsterdam Sinterklaas party organizers to create a new costume for this year’s event.
“It’s a crazy day. I don’t know how to feel. Everyone is safe, so that’s important.” Otto said.