THE HAGUE – The Dutch version of St. Nicholas arrived Saturday in the Netherlands in an annual children’s party that has become the backdrop for increasingly acrimonious confrontations between supporters and opponents of his sidekick, Black Pete.
White people often don blackface makeup to play the character in parades across the country.
Opponents say such depictions promote racist stereotypes, while supporters defend the helper of Sinterklaas, the white-bearded, red-robed Dutch version of St. Nicholas, as a traditional children's character.
Though the two sides faced off along the route of parades in a number of towns, there were no reports of serious violence. Police presence was high in towns where demonstrations were organized.
The nationally televised arrival parade happened amid tight security, in the central city of Apeldoorn. Thousands of children and their parents cheered as an actor playing Sinterklaas arrived. His helpers handed out candy and high fives.
For the first time, there were no Petes in full blackface at the official arrival. Organizers instead put smears on their faces to represent soot from chimneys they climb down to deliver gifts to children. The “soot” ranged from light to dark dustings.
Dutch media reported that the leader of the Netherlands’ arm of anti-immigrant movement PEGIDA — wearing a Pete costume and blackface makeup — was detained by police in Apeldoorn.
Police said in a tweet that a number of people were peacefully detained for refusing to go to locations set aside for demonstrators.
Hundreds of anti-Black Pete protesters gathered in a park in The Hague, where blackface Petes formed part of the official parade, for a peaceful demonstration.
A row of three umbrellas carrying the messages “Black Lives Matter,” “Black Pete is Racism” and “Stop Black Face” was laid out on the grass by demonstrators.
Mariam El Maslouhi told the crowd she hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to protest in the city again next year.
“The Netherlands has heard us, The Hague has heard us, Parliament has heard us,” she said.
Some Dutch cities, including the capital, Amsterdam, have stopped using blackface makeup in their Sinterklaas parades.
But the changes anger some.
Overnight in The Hague, supporters of the traditional version of the character put up hundreds of posters that superimposed the face of the leader of anti-Pete activists on a blackface depiction of Pete.
Last week, a group of protesters vandalized cars and threw fireworks at the venue of a meeting of anti-Pete activists in The Hague. On Thursday and Friday police detained three people for making online threats to the festivities in Apeldoorn.