An anti-racism campaigner was told to leave the picturesque Belgian town of Ath on Sunday after being warned by the mayor that he could not “guarantee his safety” from angry townsfolk.
Mouhad Neghif from the anti-racism group Brussels Panthers had led a campaign against a blackface figure known as the “Savage” who appears in the town’s annual Ducasse procession which dates back to the 15th century.
Mr Neghif told media he had been ordered to leave the town and was followed by police until he was twenty-five miles outside the historic city’s limits. Two other members of the group were detained by police after they unfurled a banner with the slogan “Stop Blackface”.
The Panthers object to a figure in the parade known as the “savage” or “wild man”, who is portrayed in blackface and has chains around his wrists. The character is meant to scare children.
The group has launched a petition asking UNESCO to remove Ath’s status as world heritage site, arguing that the figure is racist and demeaning to black people.
The Ducasse procession dates back to 1481. Each year thousands of people line the streets of the medieval town to watch the procession of giant figures.
Bruno Lefebvre, the Socialist mayor of Ath, said that he had spoken to to Mr Neghif when he had been seen on Sunday morning by security staff and told he could not guarantee his safety at the hands of the townsfolk.
Mr Lefebvre said Neghif that comments he had made on the internet had “shocked the population”.
The use of blackface is a frequent cause of controversy in Belgium and arguments over whether the practice is racist flare up every year around the start of December when Père Noel/Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, visits children to hand out presents.
He is traditionally accompanied by “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete in Dutch), normally played by a white child in blackface. Traditionalists claim that the character is black because he is covered in soot from coming down the chimney with Father Christmas and deny that the figure is racist.
In the Netherlands, where Mr Zwarte Piet is also a traditional figure, groups supporting the tradition and opponents have clashed in recent years.
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