By Simion Blom*

English translation: Estelle Roijmans

(original article was published in Dutch on the website )


On Saturday, November 12, I was arrested with 200 others in Rotterdam. We were on our way to a peaceful demonstration to call for a better “Sinterklaas intocht”. The Netherlands deserves a celebration that is inclusive, without the character of Zwarte Piet mentioned in history as a racist caricature of an African. An inclusive festivity is possible and that is proven by the steps collectively taken in the Flanders. Unfortunately, we were denied the right to demonstrate.

What happened

The protest against Zwarte Piet was based on the idea of a peaceful demonstration. We didn’t go to Rotterdam with the intention to provoke, but to make a statement simply by being present.

On the bus, the group was encouraged by Jerry Afriyie to remain peaceful during the demonstration. He gave a speech not to use violence and not to respond to provocations or to provoke. The purpose was to bring the message of a racism-free Netherlands. He said that people who came with other intentions should get off the bus.

From the moment we left Amsterdam, we were almost immediately followed by the police. Once we arrived in Rotterdam we were not told that there was a demonstration ban, which is why we walked towards the city center calmly. This was permitted and a few police agents said that they were marching to protect and accompany us. After ten minutes the group was divided into smaller groups and people walked different directons. Until then, there was absolutely no question of a protest or demonstration. The group I was with (about twenty people), was suddenly surrounded by agents.

We stood there for an hour, without any explanation. After a while, a bus arrived and it was announced that we were detained for violating a ban on demonstrations. Without any warning or invite to leave the place beforehand. After all, there was no demonstration. This resulted in some people opposing to the arrest.

Two hours we were kept in the bus. After this, we were detained for six hours in a large garage with a temperature of about four degrees. Everyone knows how cold it was that Saturday. While we were there, the officers bullied and tried to confuse us. The time was stretched unnecessarily; most interviews were re-done up to four times. After six hours we were released and again had to sit in the bus. For the second time I saw unnecessary use of force by the police. If I had not been there I would not have believed it.

Demonstrating is a fundamental right.

You, me, everyone has the right to peacefully demonstrate and use the tools provided by democracy to pursue a better world. For using fundamental rights, like demonstrating, there is no need of a license. But above all, everyone is allowed to move freely in the Netherlands. It is therefore unacceptable that the authorities interfered with our message.

As journalist Patrick Meershoek in Het Parool (14 November) wrote: “The police action seemed to aim primarily at keeping potential troublemakers as far as possible, despite the constitutional right to demonstrate. The idea behind this strategy seems to be that the unlawfulness of an action can only be established once the events that authority wants to protect are already over. Presumably it will be recognized that the mayor and police did not act as suggested in the protocol, for example by not announcing in advance to the demonstrators that a ban on demonstrations was in place. A prohibition that was perhaps too harsh.”

Similar demonstration bans and arrests after the first protests during the “Sinterklaas intocht” of 2011 and 2014 were eventually declared unlawful by the judges. The violence used by the police was also found excessive by those judges. So this is not an incident but a structural hindrance  by the government. Who exactly is protected by this act and against what? But above all, who controls those who should protect citizens?

Who controls the government?

We have trust in our law. However, healthy skepticism is good for improving the government, society and the position of citizens. Its an advantage for everyone both black and white. That is why I am a member of the city council and why we wanted to demonstrate..

Remarkably, in the discussion about Zwarte Piet it seems that those freedoms are not guaranteed. Both the protests silenced while the power is used to label them as extremists. This is unacceptable and should not be a part of Dutch society. This comes across as a selective application of fundamental rights. And our legal system will not benefitdoesn’t get any benefit out of it.

The Way Forward

Luckily, many people have seen what really happened via Facebook and Twitter. This is important, because I was stunned to see the incorrect information the police brought to the media’s attention. Different organizations have spoken over the ban on demonstration and the decision to end the peaceful protest. Among those Amnesty International and the Rotterdam Anti-Discrimination Desk . According to Amnesty International “the overall demonstration ban in the center of Rotterdam and the end of the peaceful protest were disproportionate “.

If the mayor was of opinion that our safety was at risk, because of other protesters, then he had the duty to protect peaceful demonstrators. As the Rotterdam antidiscrimination agency stated: “Freedom of speech also means you have room people should have the space to express their opinion about Zwarte Piet, even during the intocht.”

The founders of the organization Kick Out Zwarte Piet, are in their daily life active in improving the position of people with a multicultural background. And in reducing inequalities in our education system. Everyone benefits from a society with less unjust inequality. . This is why I feel connected with the message of the organization.

The underlying challenge to me as a politician is clear. The lack of understanding the message brought by the group that asks to reform Zwarte Piet shows a lack of knowledge about the history of slavery. This is no surprise, as Dutch knowledge about slavery has never been taught properly.

I am genuinely shocked by the banality and the racism that I and others experienced among ot after that Saturday. Because this country deserves better, we must commit ourself to create a racism-free Netherlands. Not only with words, but with deeds, where the freedom of speech for everyone is respected. . That is in everyone’s interest. Let’s have that debate so our nation can grow.

*Simion Blom is memebr of Amsterdam Council, elected for Groenlinks (Green-Left)