Saturday, in the Dutch historical city of Gouda, the police arrested no fewer than 90 people, protesting both for and against the "Black Pete" blackface character appearing at a children's party marking the beginning of the traditional pre-Christmas, gift-giving festival of Saint Nicholas.
"Sixty people were arrested for demonstrating in unauthorised areas, and 30 for disturbing the peace" said police spokeswoman Yvette Verboon.
You may wonder what could happen during a festive gathering, held to celebrate the arrival of St. Nicholas, to cause such a law-and-order turmoil.
It's our old friend political correctness at work, with attendant accusations of racism. The word "black" means all the difference in the world. We'll have to abolish it from our vocabulary, we cannot use it any more without provoking mayhem.
Not even children and, as in this Dutch case, their events are immune from the PC clutches, as we know from the over 30,000 nursery toddlers and school children labelled racist or homophobic over minor squabbles in one single year in the UK, where schools are forced to report un-PC words used by kids to education authorities, which keep a register of "incidents". These records can remain on file, and schools will provide future employers or universities with them as a pupil's reference, with the potential to blight a child for life.
Back in Gouda, thousands of parents and their young children - some with their faces painted black - gathered in the the city's market square where the celebration was taking place to welcome the national arrival of Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) and his black-faced helpers on a white horse.
A TRADITION WHICH DIVIDES A NATION
According to Christmas folklore in Holland and Belgium, Black Pete (Zwarte Piet in Dutch) is the jolly companion of Saint Nicholas, who climbs down chimneys to help him deliver presents to kids.
The character has a long history. The Dutch celebrate the Sinterklaas festival during a period that culminates on Saint Nicholas Day, 5 December. The beginning of the festivities coincides with St Nicholas' arrival by boat accompanied by Black Pete, or rather hundreds of Black Petes packing the flotilla following the saint’s vessel. St Nicholas then rides a white horse through the streets, escorted by the Black Petes amusing children as they hand out sweets and treats to them.
It's a fun, joyous time for kids and adults, seen as the highlight of the year.
Dutch cities take it in turn to host the start of the annual festival. This year, the national event of Saint Nicholas' arrival aboard a steamboat from Spain kicked off in Gouda on 15 November, broadcast live on Dutch national television and looked forward to by children.
The actors and revellers portraying the Black Pete character are white people who traditionally paint their faces black, sport frizzy hair, golden earrings, large red lips and gaudy, bright-coloured Medieval costumes.
Across the Netherlands, celebrations in which Saint Nicholas comes to town surrounded by Black Petes have been attacked by "anti-racism" campaigners. The critics, including a group called "Zwarte Piet is Racism", claim that Pete is a racist stereotype from the colonial era, and "liberal" politicians have called for the character to be abolished.
This antagonism has led to an increasingly acrimonious polarisation of the Dutch society, because the overwhelming majority of the country supports Black Pete. A poll showed that more than 90% of the Dutch reject the idea that Black Pete is racist and would not change his appearance.
And, in a population of less than 17 million, over 2 million people signed a Facebook petition last year, calling on Black Pete's appearance to remain the same.
While the Facebook page "The Dutch 'Black Pete' tradition is racism" has a risible number of 198 "Likes", the Facebook page "Pietitie" in Pete's support has 2,012,438 "Likes". It says: "Don't let the Netherlands' most beautiful tradition disappear."
This FB page is Holland's most popular ever.
Kudos to the Dutch. Make no mistake. This is not just to maintain a nice tradition and a children's festival, important as it is. This is a movement to resist invaders who try to impose their ways and wills on the colonised Europeans.
The Dutch say Black Pete is harmless fun, an integral part of Dutch culture that is now under fire from outsiders. As Dutchman Marco put it: "This is how I celebrate, how my grandmother and grandfather and parents celebrated, and I don't think it's racist."
The Dutch Freedom Party, with its leader Geert Wilders, has proposed legislation that would enshrine Pete's black colour in law.
Martin Bosma, the Freedom Party's culture spokesman, said: "Ministers and mayors are working to give this loyal helper another colour. That must not happen. Our culture should not be damaged from on high. This law must protect Black Pete."
Belgium, where Black Pete is also a popular character and the same pre-Christmas celebrations take place in many cities, faces similar problems.
Human rights activist Maria Hengeveld, who writes for the Africa is a Country website, claimed: "In general, attacks on Zwarte Piet are widely interpreted as attacks on (white) Dutchness and threats to (white) children's right to jovially celebrate their 'cultural heritage'". She went on to argue that politicians, lawmakers and big businesses "are sensitive to public feeling" on the issue. As an example, Albert Heijn, Holland's largest supermarket chain, went back on its promise to ban Black Pete from its stores after a huge public outcry.
Even the country’s Prime Minister Mark Rutte, probably sensing that the electorate wouldn't be pleased with anything different, has backed the side that favours Black Pete.
VICTORY FOR BLACK PETE
This shows what a united, determined nation can do. Some meddling from the UN was revoked:
The [Facebook] page, attracting over a million likes in just one day, followed a letter from the UN's human rights body announcing an investigation and warning the Dutch that the [Black Pete] character is a "racist stereotype".And last week the highest administrative court in the Netherlands, the Council of State, overturned the ruling of a lower court which had called Black Pete "a negative stereotype" that "infringes on the European treaty of human rights".
Marc Jacobs, a Belgian Unesco representative, the UN's cultural organisation, has denied that the Jamaican who signed the letter, was authorised to do so.
"She's just a consultant who abused the name of the UN to bring their own agenda to the media. All the hoopla that Shepherd has caused with her letter is nothing more than a bad move in the game of pressure groups in the Netherlands," he told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper.
The letter, on headed, official UN high commission for human rights paper, was sent to the Dutch government expressing concerns over the tradition and accusing the authorities of failing to react to complaints of racial discrimination.
Verene Shepherd, who said she was the chairwoman of a UN investigation into the Sinterklaas festival earlier this week called on the Dutch to ban Black Pete.
The Council of State refused to rule on whether the character was racist.
SCUFFLES IN GOUDA
The procession in Gouda was marred by scuffles, whether between the occasion's supporters and protesters, some of whom were wearing T-shirts saying "Black Pete is racist", or between protesters and police is not clear. Probably both, because the protesters did not remain in their cages, the only place suitable for them.
The Dutch police were forced to make dozens of arrests because protesters moved to the centre of the Medieval city, where the festival was taking place, to demonstrate, instead of staying in designated protest areas outside Gouda's market square. When they were asked to leave the square, they refused and the police took the necessary measures.
Public prosecutor spokesman Wouter Bos said all those held for demonstrating in the wrong place were anti-Black-Pete protesters and they would be fined 220 euros each. Not much of a punishment.
Some children got mixed up in the trouble, and Gouda mayor Milo Schoenmaker said the atmosphere had been "vicious". "It's a pity that adults from outside the city felt the need to demonstrate among the children at the end of the procession," he told the national news agency ANP.
The Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte joined the debate, supporting the controversial ceremony: "Everyone can talk about Black Pete's colour. But we should not disturb a children's party in this way" he told broadcaster NOS. The clashes made him “deeply, deeply sad”, he said.
For the first time, in an attempt to mollify the critics, the mayor introduced other coloured Petes, like "Cheese Petes" with yellow faces, "Stroopwafel Petes" with striped, light brown faces resembling a Dutch biscuit of the same name, and "Clown Petes" with white faces.
This didn't placate demonstrators and made many people angry.
"Black Peter is black," said the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. "We cannot do much to change that."
Well said. Aren't tradition and national folklore values to respect a bit more, and the hypersensitivities of minorities, who are after all uninvited guests to the Netherlands treated with great generosity, a bit less? Why should the Dutch, as well as the rest of white Westerners, be the only ones expected to make sacrifices of their identity?