'Welkom in Gouda', giant letters announced to welcome the thousands of Dutch people who came to welcome the national 'arrival' of Saint Nicholas and his black faced helpers, the Black Petes (Zwarte Pieten in Dutch) on 15 November. The anti-Zwarte Piet protesters, on the other hand, were only welcomed by far-right hatred, biased journalists and police brutality.
My husband and I arrived in Gouda under typically Dutch weather. Already in the parking lot, a caravan of 'proud Petes' - adults offering to blackface other adults for free - was setting the tone of the day. We found our way to the main square where the celebration was taking place. A 'children's party' invented by adults, featuring White actors with blackface, golden earrings, curly hair and large red lips. While only a few kids were black faced, as an outsider I was surprised to see how present the Zwarte Piet figure is. You will find blacked-faced supermarket staff members, Zwarte Piet faces on candies, balloons, Dutch flags and of course on Saint Nicholas' boats arriving in the city port.
Two days prior to the event, organisers of the protest were asked to hold their action outside of the city centre, behind the train station. The mayor's decision, which was purportedly taken because the police could not guarantee the security of protesters against far-right groups, clearly violated the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. States have a positive obligation to facilitate and protect peaceful assemblies. The mayor chose the disregard the organisers' preferred location and proposed an alternative location, which was not suitable for the message to be heard by the target audience. This came following The Netherlands' highest administrative court's decision overturning a lower court's decision that the Amsterdam mayor shouldn't have allowed last year's festivity because Black Pete 'forms a negative stereotyping of black people'.
Organisers of the Gouda action bravely chose to maintain a peaceful silent protest on the main square. The actual protest was very small, as most of the protesters had already been arrested. Some individuals were even arrested, in one case brutally, while walking down the street with a 'Zwarte Piet Niet' sweatshirt. The protest was so small that we struggled to even find it, among the thousands other people massed to attend the 'children's party'.
Once we joined the group, we were standing between police officers and hundreds of journalists. Some isolated members of far-right groups attempted to take our banner away, and many shouted at us. Activists were silent, simply holding banners and T-shirts to pass on their message: the figure of Black Pete is a legacy of the Netherlands' colonial past and conveys a stereotypical image of Dutch citizens of African and Caribbean descent.
The police clearly had the capacity to protect us and we actually thought that they were. We soon realised that what they presented as a way out of the demonstration was in fact a simple way to arrest us. Without any form of notification, we were taken to The Hague police station, locked up in police vans cells. Soon we heard that about 90 persons got arrested that day, for threatening the public order. 42 were with us, released one by one around five hours later, in The Hague.
A woman who shared the police cell with me told me that there is a new generation of People of African Descent in the Netherlands which is determined not to stay passive like their parents and grand-parents. She explained how she felt disappointed with the administrative court's decision allowing the festivity. 'They mock our face', she said, 'but we are very serious when claiming our equal rights'.
People were arrested for conveying a message of hope for the new generations of a diverse country, for asking that their voice is heard, as equal Dutch citizens, for asking that historical abuses stop feeding today's structural discrimination and racism. In solidarity I stand with them, hoping that the polarisation of the Dutch society is a sign that positive change is coming.
This opinion appeared on the blog of the European Network Against Racism on 17 November 2014.