Gario came to the Netherlands with his mother for the first time in Ever since, the character has appeared throughout his poetry and artwork. Gario began making T-shirts like the one he wore to Dordrecht and photographing people wearing them on the street and posting them to a Tumblr page.
Several weeks ago, as he stood among the crowds waiting for Sinterklaas in one of his T-shirts, Gario and a companion were approached by a police officer, who told them they would have to leave. When Gario asked for a reason, citing his freedom of speech, he says he was tackled to the ground. He was pepper-sprayed and pushed into a doorway where an officer held him by the neck and rubbed the pepper spray into his eyes and nose.
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He was then taken into custody along with a researcher and a journalist who had accompanied them to record their presentation. The Dutch often say they don't have a problem with race.
But the way Gario and many others I talked to see it, in the Netherlands, race is inextricably connected to immigration—something many Dutch people do openly have a problem with, as suggested by the rise of such politicians as Geert Wilders, who has expressed a deep distrust of immigrants and has called for closed borders. Wilders was praised extensively by Anders Behring Breivik, the man behind the Norway terror attacks. Gario is not the only artist and activist making an issue out of Zwarte Piet. In , Petra Bauer and Annette Krauss organized a march as part of an exhibition exploring the meaning of Zwarte Piet.
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When the media caught wind of the exhibition, the artists received death threats, and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven canceled the march. Bauer and Krauss were shocked by how unwilling many people were to even discuss the issue. But Krauss says the cancelation of the march ended up being a good thing. In , Hoofdpiet was introduced—he is a leader in charge of all of the other Zwarte Piets—and, since that time, other Piets have been introduced as well: There is a Piet in charge of navigation, a Piet who wraps presents, and another Piet who is in charge of pepernoten cookies.
Small changes in the outward appearance of the character have also been made: Earrings are no longer as common and wigs have become more curly in texture rather than coarse and frizzy. In the past, Zwarte Piets often had a Surinamese accent and played the role of a bumbling fool.
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