Who is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution

Continuing Controversy

The Dutch character Zwarte Piet has developed and changed over time. Here is a look at some of those changes and the current controversy over this figure.
Background and Development
Growing Controversy
Change Becomes More Widespread
Continuing Controversy
More Sooty Piets
The official 2018 arrival in Zaanstad featured “chimney” Piets, reflecting the changes that are spreading slowly across the Netherlands.

The “Kick Out Zwarte Piet” (KOZP) group planned to protest in other places, not the official entry in Zaanstad. They hoped to bring the message to entry committees that say they are neutral and don’t engage the conversation. Jerry Afriyie of KOZP says, “This is 2018 and the Sinterklaas feast needs to be for all children.” Demonstrations were planned for The Hague, Rotterdam, Eindhoven, Leeuwarden, Nijmegen, Maassluis, Apeldoorn, and more. Demonstrations in Nijemgen, Maassluis, and Apeldoorn were cancelled that morning due to threats against them and poor visibility from the authorized locations. 

However, violence did break out from some of the counter demonstrations supporting traditional Zwarte Piet. Several were led by large groups of footballers from the various cities.

Sinterklaas
Zaanstad 2018
Photo: ANP

Zaanstad—the official 2018 national arrival

The slowly growing prominent change to Piet’s appearance does not mean an end to the controversy. Four action groups registered to demonstrate in Zaanstaad: two against traditional blackface Zwarte Piet and two in support of the traditional image. 

Careful planning and strong security yielded a smooth Sinterklaas arrival in Zaanstad. 25,000 people were expected and more than 30,000 were present, lined 5-deep along the parade route. 

Strict rules kept the Zwarte Piet supporters and opponents in separate sections that were somewhat removed from the parade itself and apart from each other, preventing confrontations. No cars were allowed near the parade route, people were searched, and bags checked. So there was both free expression and a safe children’s party.

The organizer of the pro-Zwarte Piet group, with 100 signed up on Facebook, said, “It is, of course, just a children’s party. There are millions of people in the Netherlands who love Zwarte Piet and do not see it as something to do with slavery or anything like that.” On the other side, as an opponent says, “It is time that the Sinterklaas feast becomes a feast for all children.”

About forty people demonstrated against Zwarte Piet, carrying banners and signs, and chanting “Weg met Zwarte Piet” (“Away with Zwarte Piet”). A black-painted Piet stood in front of the demonstrators; he did move along when police urged him to do so. Parents hustled their children past, singing Sinterklaas songs.

Demonstrators
“Blackface is NOT children’s feast” “Racism is NOT fun”
Photo: ANP

Rotterdam

Some of the opponents of Zwarte Piet rejected the place set up for them by the Rotterdam mayor.

Activists hung a banner, “Zwarte Piet is racisme”, on the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam. Beneath the banner members of the anti-Islam movement in blackface handed out Pegida sweets.

A confrontation between opposing demonstrators on the Erasmus bridge led to three arrests—one anti-Zwarte Piet and two Zwarte Piet supporters. Police reported that a smoke bomb was thrown at the anti- protesters from a car and the occupants wanted to start a fight with the demonstrators. The police stepped in and stopped the violent confrontation. 

“Zwarte Piet is racist” banner on Erasmus Bridge
Photo: ANP

Eindhoven

A small group of about twenty KOZP activists were confronted by about 250 PSV footballers. As police tried to keep the two groups apart, the PSV fans threw eggs, beer cans, and pepernoten.

PSV demonstration
PSV counter demonstration in Eindhoven; anti-Piet protestors holding signs “Party for every child”
Photo: ANP

Six people were arrested for open violence: throwing beer cans and eggs, kicking an agent, and using discriminatory and racist slogans.

The mayor said a border has been crossed, “in the netherlands everyone can freely express their opinion. but to be honest, there could hardly free speech because of very intimidating behavior a large group aggressive, unannounced hooligans. scolding, insulting chants, inciting, throwing eggs. it is really miracle that peaceful demonstrators have kept up for so long. as mayor, i must preserve right speech. impossible today.”

The Public Prosecution Service announced that they would be continuing investigation into the situation, particularly tracking down people who committed criminal offences during the Zwarte Piet demonstrations.

Leeuwarden

The group of about twenty KOZP demonstrators stayed in the designated spot, even though it was about 20 meters from the Sinterklaas procession. Directly across from them a group of Cambuur footballers wanted to disrupt the demonstration. When the KOZP activists began to play music, the others tried to drown them out with Sinterklaas songs. 

Police came with vans forming a barrier between the two groups. They also had batons and dogs, if needed. Two people were arrested and the KOZP activists were taken away in the vans for their own safety. Following the parade, the rest of the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators dispersed.

Police barricade
Police prevent confrontation between Piet protest groups in Leeuwarden
NU.nl

Bus Stopped in Alkmaar

Activists from Amsterdam tried to go to Den Helder. However, they were stopped in Alkmaar. There had been disagreements about the demonstrators needing to have their own security guards and what time the bus needed to be in Alkmaar. Police stopped the bus in Alkmaar, as these conditions had not been met.

The group later went to Amstelveen and held a quiet demonstration at the Sinterklaas entry there.

Stopped bus
KOZP demonstrators held in Alkmaar until after the arrival in Den Helder
Photo: ANP

Hoorn and Zwolle

An unannounced demonstration in Hoorn was shut down by police, who led about twenty people away. There was also a small confrontation in Zwolle. People were led away there, as well, but there were no arrests in either Hoorn or Zwolle.

Nijmegen

Planned anti-Piet demonstrations were cancelled in Nijmegen after mayors said they could not guarantee protesters’ safety.

Tilburg

Forty pro-Piet demonstrators were detained in Tilburg as police said they were looking for a fight.

The Hague

Supporters of Zwarte Piet threatened to create a disturbance in The Hague. Police consulted with KOZP members who agreed to end the demonstration to safeguard their own safety. Police escorted the action group to the Central Station. Police also intervened to keep the Zwarte Piet group from mixing with the KOZP group, thus preventing a confrontation. One person was arrested for insulting a police officer.

4 demonstrators with signs
Photo: ANP

Museums are taking the lead in bringing a more accurate understanding of the country’s history. In 2015 the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam removed racist labeling from its informational labels. The Hague’s Mauritshuis put a statue of its slave-owning founder in a less prominent place. The Amsterdam Museum, recognizing the mix of both positive and negative conditions has now replaced “The Golden Age” with the simple “17th Century.” The 17th century conservator, Tom van der Molen, said, “In Western history, the ‘Golden Age” has an important place strongly linked to national pride, but the term’s positive associations such as prosperity, peace, wealth and a clear conscience don’t tell the full story of the historical reality at this time. The term ignores the many negative aspects of the 17th century, such as poverty, war, forced labour and human trafficking.”

The city of Amsterdam has voted to make the first official municipal apology for the Netherlands’ slaving past at a festival in July 2020.


Why the Netherlands is More Split on ‘Black Pete” Than Ever
The debate is a symptom of deeper divisions in Dutch Society

How do non-native residents of the Netherlands view Zwarte Piet, St. Nicholas’ blackface servant?

‘Only American Neurotics Think We’re Racist’: Debating Discrimination in the Netherlands


SOURCES
• “Grimmige sfeer maar geen al te grote incidenten tijdens intocht Sinterklaas in Nederland: verschillende arrestaties”, SPS en bvb, NOS, November 17, 2018
• "Intocht Zaanstad sfeervol verlopen, arrestaties in meerdere steden," NU.nl, November 17, 2018
• "Festive fun or racism? Dutch 'Black Pete' row gets violent, Channel NewsAsia, November 19, 2018
• “Amsterdam museum renames period known as Dutch Golden Age in recognition of colonial wrongs,” by Senay Boztas, The Telegraph, September 14, 2019.