Quotidian 3-1 (February 2012)John Helsloot: Zwarte Piet and Cultural Aphasia in the Netherlands

To refer to this article use this url: http://www.quotidian.nl/vol03/nr01/a01

The incidents in Dordrecht and elsewhere

Zwarte Piet is racism’. On Saturday 12 November 2011, two young black Dutchmen stood in silence in T-shirts with this phrase in Dordrecht, the town in the west of the Netherlands where the official televised arrival of St Nicholas took place that year. At the very least for a few hours, such a place is the focal point of nationwide attention. Therefore this television broadcast is highly prized by Dutch municipalities as marketing vehicle for the city as a whole. Some 60,000 visitors were expected in Dordrecht itself, with an estimated television audience of 1.8 million. With this in mind, the quarter million euros budgeted for staging the parade were considered well-spent by the city council.[2] Under such circumstances, it is only natural that local authorities will try to avoid anything that might compromise the spectacle. On the other hand for anyone intent of making a point, this is a prime occasion.


Fig. 1: Sinterklaas entry in Dordrecht, November 2011. Quinsy Gario and Kno’ledge Cesare wearing a T-shirt with ‘Zwarte Piet is racism’. Photo: http://zwartepietisracisme.tumblr.com/.

With this in mind Amsterdam-based poet and dramatist Quinsy Gario and poet and rapper Jerry Afriyie alias Kno’ledge Cesare set off to Dordrecht. The preceding months, in an art project of their own making, they had toured poetry and summer festivals wearing and selling the same type of T-shirts. Their text ‘Zwarte Piet is racism’, somewhat reminiscent of Kurt Tucholsky’s 1931 controversial dictum ‘Soldaten sind Mörder’, aimed at provoking a discussion on relations between ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ in the Netherlands. Public attention, though, was rather modest. In Dordrecht, however, things would be different.

In 2009 photographer Philipp Abbass alias ‘Stereopiet’ posted pictures in Rotterdam’s city centre, figuring for example an aggressive Sinterklaas with the KKK logo on his arm. With no comment provided the implicated message was assumed to be obvious. ‘Artists have always tried to expand the boundaries of the “normal” display of art, often coming into contact with the law by doing so’, ‘Stereopiet’ further explained his action in an essay on his website. ‘Also in this case the question will probably be if legal measures will be imposed due to an “offense” against the regulations concerning public space.’[3] This proved to be a foreshadowing of the Dordrecht case.

Whereas mainstream media kept a guarded silence that weekend, on internet a video was posted showing Gario first being dragged away by both uniformed and undercover police and then kept violently to the ground for several minutes, resisting and protesting ‘I didn’t do anything at all’.[4] Together with Cesare and two young women - a journalist and a Danish anthropology student - accompanying them, he was subsequently arrested and taken into custody. At first, so it later transpired, Gario and Cesare wanted to hold up a banner with the ‘Zwarte Piet is racism’ text, coupled, this time, to the slogan ‘the Netherlands can do better’. When told by police officers passing by they were not allowed to do so, because of a local authoruity ban on ‘demonstrations’ that day, they rolled up the banner. Instead, they exposed their T-shirts with only the Piet text. They claim the police officers then acquiesced in this. But later other officers took offence and summoned them - several times official sources later confirmed - to take off the T-shirts. From the moment they refused to obey police orders, the video begins. They were held in custody for over seven hours at the police station, fined for 140 Euros, which they refused to pay, and then set free.

Because the case was not brought to court, and it seems unlikely it ever will be, there is no jurisprudence on whether wearing a T-shirt with a text expressing an opinion is within or beyond the limits of the constitutional liberty of expression prevailing in the Netherlands. According to at least one professor of law the odds seem to be against the latter. Apart from this, the arrest gives the impression of being made, not on the basis of law-enforcement, but rather because the police officers simply disagreed with the Zwarte Piet statement. This is corroborated by Gario’s question to the police whether a banner with a pro-Sinterklaas slogan (Hup Sinterklaas) would be allowed, to which the answer was affirmative. The Zwarte Piet text, however, was considered ‘not funny’. Furthermore, a spokesperson for the local authority explained afterwards, because of that text ‘public safety was at stake. The parade is a children’s festival. Keep things tranquil there’. The mayor himself equally pointed to the freedom of expression allowed to the local Occupy movement, camping in front of Dordrecht’s city hall. ‘But in the case of the St Nicholas parade, things are simply different’, he said. To him that was the end of the matter, and there seemed to be no need for further discussion.[5]

The next day, Sunday 13 November 2011, St Nicholas and his Zwarte Pieten held their festive parade in Amsterdam and a handful of young black men and women tried to copy the Dordrecht protest. While spray-painting their T-shirts with ‘Zwarte Piet is racism’ and another slogan, they too were harshly arrested by police, on the grounds of disturbing the peace. Also present in this case is the suggestion that what primarily spurred the officers was their personal disapproval of the protesters’ action, as one of them is reported to have said ‘Sinterklaas too has rights’.[6]

What makes the 2011 Dordrecht and Amsterdam incidents unique in the history of Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands is the actual intervention by the police, up to the level of violence, in suppressing opposing views.[7] But in hindsight they were foreshadowed by events taking place in August 2008, in the town of Eindhoven in the southern part of the country. As part of a long-term exhibition in the local Van Abbe art museum on ‘Be(com)ing Dutch’, two young female artists, Annette Krauss and Petra Bauer, coming from Germany and Sweden respectively, made a project called ‘Read the masks. Tradition is not given’ – the mask in question being that of Zwarte Piet. On the assumption, as they stated, that Zwarte Piet was ‘a cultural tradition that has been depoliticized, neutralized and then incorporated into the collective memory and consciousness of present society’, the public was invited to partake in an artistic ‘performance’ of a protest march meant to give ‘voice to a critique against the phenomenon of Zwarte Piet’.[8] At the museum, participants were to be provided with signs bearing slogans like ‘Black Peter doesn’t exist any more’ and ‘Zwarte Piet – a white man’s construction’.

As soon as the media and public opinion got news of the planned protest march, there was a public outcry condemning the initiative. The museum received hundreds of negative emails and thousands of similar comments were posted at the websites of local and national newspapers, and discussion boards. The hopes of the organisers that this performance in August, i.e. well before the actual festive occasion in December, would facilitate an open exchange of views, were smashed. What was even more, the management of the museum considered that the mails they received were of such a threatening nature that the safety of participants in the planned march was in jeopardy. Therefore, the march was ultimately cancelled. The ‘mere’ threat of violence, in 2008 coming from outraged ordinary citizens, materialised three years later in real violence, by the Dutch police.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this is, especially when seen from abroad, that only very few voices publicly denounced the police actions.[8] It’s a fair guess that the majority of the Dutch approved of these. This is also evidenced, in contrast, by the intensity of that year’s public debate, in response to the activists’ compelling claim, on how to qualify Zwarte Piet.[10] It may be safely assumed that a majority, yet again, rejects his equation with ‘racism’. Their reactions and argumentations may be characterised, I argue, as evidence of cultural aphasia.