Dutch police have arrested up to 90 people as protesters clashed at a traditional ‘Black Pete’ festival in Gouda. Demonstrators view the celebrations as racist due to the character’s traditionally blackened face and Afro wig.
On Saturday, “Sixty people were arrested for demonstrating in unauthorized areas, and 30 for disturbing the peace” during children’s festivities, police spokeswoman Yvette Verboon told AFP.
The demonstrators in Gouda were divided into two camps, both for and against the ‘Black Pete’ character. “Arrests were made on both sides,” Verboon said.
Scuffles between people supporting and protesting the historical Christmas figure began when Saint Nicholas came out on to the balcony of the main square and protesters held up a banner, saying: “Black Pete Racism”.
The racial debate has been gaining traction in the Netherlands. Many have argued that the traditional Christmas figure, known as Saint Nicholas’ sidekick, is a colonial racist stereotype.
‘Black Pete’ is usually played by a white person, who paints his face black, lips bright red and dons an Afro-style wig.
“Some black kids feel hurt at this time of year,” said one protester. “It’s a real shame that in a civilized country, in 2014, you still have to defend equality,” a man at the procession who gave his name as Knoledge told AFP.
Meanwhile, supporters of ‘Black Pete’ argue that the figure is part of their cultural heritage, making him an integral part of Christmas celebrations. In terms of blackened faces, they adopt the view that Black Pete just came out of the chimney after delivering gifts, which is why his face is pitch black.
“This is how I celebrate, how my grandmother and grandfather and parents celebrated, and I don’t think it’s racist,” said one of the supporters of the tradition.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte expressed deep disappointed at the violence. “Everyone can talk about Black Pete’s color but you can’t disturb a children’s party like that,” he told NOS.
Earlier, Rutte said the community should resolve this issue, not politicians. “Personally, I think he can stay black. But this is a matter for the community. It is not a task for politics.”
Local policymakers have been discussing the idea of trying out other Black Pete versions, including orange, yellow and even rainbow.