Dutch police are appealing to the public to help them find three men in blackface suspected of involvement in an attack on anti-racism activists.
On Tuesday, police released photos of three men – wearing blackface and dressed as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), the controversial blackface character that’s a traditional fixture of Dutch Christmas festivities – that were taken during a violent confrontation in Staphorst, a town in the Dutch Bible Belt, on the 19th of November.
The clash occurred when cars carrying activists from the protest group Kick Out Zwarte Piet, as well as observers from human rights group Amnesty International, were confronted by hundreds of supporters of the Dutch tradition. The group, many of whom were wearing the black facepaint, red lipstick, curly black wig and “Moorish” costume traditionally associated with Zwarte Piet, had set up a roadblock to prevent the activists attending a demonstration scheduled for an annual event where the blackface character plays a prominent role.
Footage showed the mob, some of whom were carrying lit flares, blocking a car then striking it and pelting it with objects before it was able to drive off.
Another photo showed a group in blackface triumphantly holding a banner they had stolen reading “Listen to Black voices, don’t make blackfaces” – which was then shown on fire.
Police said that the anti-racism activists and Amnesty International observers were severely intimidated by the group, which surrounded three cars, shaking them and pelting them with eggs, stealing items from one car and slashing a tire of another. Amnesty said its observers were trapped for about half an hour and threatened with violence by dozens of people, as the car was kicked and struck with a pole, rocked back and forth, and had a windscreen wiper and licence plate ripped off.
The human rights group, along with Kick Out Zwarte Piet, filed a criminal complaint for intimidation, threats and vandalism over the incident.
Police had previously released blurred photos of the suspects – who they said had “emphatically crossed the line” – on Thursday, giving them a deadline of 9AM on Tuesday to come forward, before releasing the unblurred photos and calling on any members of the public who recognised them to notify police.
The ugly scenes in Staphorst were just the latest flashpoint in the annual culture war battles over Zwarte Piet, which has led to the character being phased out of many annual parades in Dutch cities in the lead-up to Christmas as a racist relic.
But the tradition still has fervent supporters in more conservative rural areas and on the political right, leading to heated standoffs like those in Staphorst. In 2017, Piet defenders set up roadblocks around the northern village of Dokkum to keep out protesters, while in another incident that year, activists wearing blackface stormed the grounds of a primary school in Utrecht that had dropped the character from its Christmas festivities, demanding his reinstatement.
Critics say the character, supposedly the helper of Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, is an obviously racist throwback, which fuels negative stereotypes of Black people and has no place in modern Dutch society. In 2015, the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination described the character as a “vestige of slavery.”
Zwarte Piet’s defenders try to claim the character has no racist connotations, and is an innocent part of Dutch Christmas traditions, with many arguing the character’s appearance is simply due to him having climbed down chimneys to deliver gifts. The far-right Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders, even floated a move in recent years to enshrine Zwarte Piet’s physical characteristics in law, in order to “safeguard Dutch national identity.”
Since the clashes in Staphorst, Dutch police have faced criticism for having failed to take action against the large mob that confronted the protesters, and the government’s Justice and Security Inspectorate has said it will investigate the police’s actions.
Protesters have also criticised the local authorities for withdrawing permission for the Kick Out Zwarte Piet demonstration to proceed in the wake of the violence.
"When demonstrating is made impossible, a mayor must stand up for the rights of the demonstrators,” Kick Out Zwarte Piet leader Jerry Afriyie said in a statement.
“We are waiting for the day when, if safety cannot be guaranteed, a mayor cancels a [Sinterklaas] event instead of a demonstration.”