Prime minister Mark Rutte has described the angry mobs who attacked people demonstrating against the blackface Zwarte Piet tradition at this year’s Sinterklaas processions as ‘asos’ or anti-socials, but failed to explicitly condemn the violence.
‘It is a serious matter because everyone has the right to protest, it has to be possible,’ Rutte told reporters in The Hague. ‘We can’t let anti-social elements stop that.’
Rutte went on to downplay the problems, pointing out that the main procession in Zaandijk, had gone off well. ‘So you see, it can be done,’ the prime minister said. ‘But in a couple of places there were problems because football hooligans were waiting to cause trouble.’
The worst violence was in Eindhoven, where an estimated 250 football hooligans and pro-Piet activists surrounded a small group of demonstrators on Saturday, throwing eggs at them and hurling racist and sexist abuse. In Tilburg on Sunday, police arrested 44 pro-Piet demonstrators to stop them attacking a small anti-Piet demonstration.
In Nijmegen, The Hague, Leeuwarden and Den Helder anti-blackface activists were unable to hold their protests, or had their demonstration cut short, because of the threat of attacks.
On Sunday Amnesty International, the national ombudsman and the director of the Centre for Public Order and Security as well as MPs called on Rutte to speak out in defence of the right to free speech.
It is up to society at large, not politicians to solve the dispute, the prime minister said. ‘What we can do is make a deal that adults behave like adults when they are in the vicinity of small children.’
The prime minister’s comments were immediately criticised by GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver, who said Rutte was wrong to dismiss ‘peaceful demonstrators and racist hooligans’ as part of the same problem. ‘It is time for leadership,’ he said. ‘Speak out clearly against racism.’
In Amsterdam on Sunday, 400,000 people turned out to welcome Sinterklaas, who was accompanied by 350 sooty-faced Piets. The Dutch capital has been phasing out the traditional blackface make-up over the past few years.
Two opinion polls published this weekend both show that most Dutch people still support the traditional blackface Piets but that more people are amenable to change.
In particular, young people are more likely to support a shift towards sooty faces, the EenVandaag and Maurice de Hond polls show.
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