This week news broke that there would some streets named after notable figures in the fight against Dutch colonial domination and various prominent cultural producers of our islands. The celebratory-padding-ourselves-on-the-back tone of the messaging across media platforms was however off putting. Don't get me wrong, it is good that the history of the struggle against Dutch white colonial domination is highlighted through those who fought those fights. But the framing of this all is frankly rather disturbing.
In the articles about the new streets and the press release the speech of the first female mayor of Amsterdam Femke Halsema of Groenlinks was noted as the jumping off point. This erases the decades of work that grass roots campaigners and organizers have put into changing the structural and decorative landscape of the city. What this endeavour has done doesn't come close to reckoning with the continued veneration of genocidal colonists through street names in Amsterdam. It only adds the names of those who had to deal with their murderous and racist legacies and presents them as equal. Jan Pieterszoon Coen or Abel Tasman, who both have streets in de Zeeheldenbuurt, have nowhere near the same amount of courage of somebody like Quashiba. She's a hero and they're simply not. Continuing to pretend otherwise is going along with a white supremacist fantasy.
The problem with the celebratory tone of this news is that it also obscures the fact that at the moment those who are fighting injustice in the Netherlands are ridiculed, mocked and persecuted. Halsema herself has repeatedly derided the work of anti-racists in the Netherlands in national publications. In her first speech as mayor she even noted that those who 'peacefully' demanded the right to be themselves would find her on their side. I'm not so sure that she would categorize Virginia Gaai as a peaceful fighter. And this idea of the peaceful fighter coming from her is hypocritical when you consider that she as the leader of Groenlinks was instrumental in sending Dutch military troops to Afghanistan for an unjust war.
When she presented this initiative during her speech in this years perpetually woefully underfunded annual Emancipation Day observance she mentioned that she wanted the city to 'become everyone's city'. Well, it actually already is. It sounded like Halsema had yet to take the Black Heritage Tour by Jennifer Tosch. When you take the tour you would know that the buildings along the UNESCO world heritage canals are still unabashedly boasting architectural references to slavery and colonial products. From sculptures of sugar cones and tobacco leaves to actual busts of people of African descent and Black children as accessories for white gentry. Amsterdam is as much Halsema's city as it is from a kid with ancestry to those who toiled on this island during slavery who will go to one of our primary schools come the beginning of the school year. The city of Amsterdam was namely part owner of the West Indian Company under whose umbrella St. Maarten was colonized, administrated and its salt ponds were exploited.
The problem with street naming vanity projects such as these is that it attempts to ahistorically right a historical wrong by decentering responsibility to repair the damage that was done. As mentioned earlier, the Zeeheldenbuurt for instance will not be touched. The murderous villains in world history will still be upheld as heroes within the Amsterdam city context. The same can be said about the Transvaalbuurt with among others its Paul Krugerplein. Kruger was a late 19th century leader of the Boers, descendants of VOC invaders in Southern Africa, who abducted women and children from the Tswana and Basothos chiefdoms and enslaved them to work in their homes. It's bizarre that this man still has squares, streets, avenues and roads named after him and we're supposed to be happy with a few streets in a far away part of the city that, no offence to IJburg, most don't visit unless you have to.
Let's not forget that the only reason the names were chosen for these streets is because last year people objected to the naming committee naming the streets in this new part of the city based on a battle against the Spanish. The 1573 battled led to a release from Spanish power and Amsterdam becoming the violent and aggressive geopolitical player it became through colonial pillaging, genocide, slavery and the all round awful things it sent its sailors to do in other parts of the world. That the but-colonialism-and-slavery-was-so-long-ago crowds do however seem to find this important to remember is telling. By presenting the name change as something that Halsema came up with negates the fact that the mayor's office has yet to formally apologize for slavery and recently had to be forced by the new city council to do so by July 1st 2020. The time up until then will be spent researching the extent of Amsterdam's involvement, which in all likely translates to figuring out how to downplay how much damage they wreaked on our ancestors on the islands and how that continues to contribute to the way in which The Hague views us and treats us.
It's great that Camille Baly is getting the recognition that he deserves, but that should not be limited to this street. His work should be included in every high school English literature list. At the moment it isn't. It's terrific that Roestam Effendi is being highlighted, but does this mean that Amsterdam will acknowledge the Indonesian date of independence or stick with the Dutch one that places it fours year later? It's awesome that Frank Martinus Arion is getting a street, but will that lead to an awareness of what he before his passing called the Dutch recolonization of the islands? How will these streets contribute to the emancipation of the communities of color in the city who are still subjected to lower life expectancy, higher poverty rates, housing discrimination and racist work impediments? My hope is that collectively we prick through the facade of these superficial attempts to jump on the bandwagon of decolonization and push those in power to get on with the actual process of it. Street names and recognition are good, but reparations are better.