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Dutch police detain protesters before Saint Nicholas arrival

Associated Press Associated Press 12/11/2016 By MIKE CORDER, Associated Press
A girl dressed as Saint Nicholas passes Dutch police officers in Maassluis, Netherlands, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016. Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, and his helper Black Pete are at the center of a long-time controversy because Pete is often played by white people in blackface makeup. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong) © The Associated Press A girl dressed as Saint Nicholas passes Dutch police officers in Maassluis, Netherlands, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016. Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, and his helper Black Pete are at the center of a long-time controversy because Pete is often played by white people in blackface makeup. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

MAASSLUIS, Netherlands — The Dutch incarnation of Saint Nicholas arrived in the Netherlands on Saturday amid a huge security operation to prevent violent confrontations between supporters and opponents of his helper, "Black Pete."

The children's character known as Sinterklaas has in recent years been at the center of a heated debate about race in the Netherlands. That's because of his sidekick "Black Pete," who is often played by white people in blackface makeup.

Opponents claim he is a racist caricature who harkens back to slavery, while supporters see him as a harmless figure of fun and an integral part of cherished Dutch tradition.

Thousands of people, including many children wearing "Black Pete" costumes who clambered up trees and street lights to get a better view, crowded into the historic harbor of Maassluis for the nationally televised arrival of Sinterklaas. They were watched over by hundreds of police and security guards amid fears of confrontations.

The celebrations passed peacefully in Maassluis, but police detained 180 anti-Black Pete activists in nearby Rotterdam for defying a ban on protests in that city.

Even Prime Minister Mark Rutte had appealed for calm ahead of the celebrations, using his weekly press conference Friday to tell people on both sides of the debate to "just be normal."

About 20 far-right activists were easily outnumbered by police as they demonstrated in Maassluis, holding up a banner that said: "We are not ashamed of Black Pete."

One of them, John Morren, said he was there to defend a Dutch tradition.

"We are demonstrating for the preservation of a children's party," he said.

Police said they arrested a man with a large knife in a bag near the festivities in Maassluis, but later tweeted that he was actually carrying a bag of tools and was not on his way to the celebration.

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