Protesters crash Eritrean culture festival in Oakland

By Matt O’Brien
Contra Costa Times

OAKLAND — Activists crashed the West Coast’s largest Eritrean festival this weekend, turning an event meant to promote Eritrea into a heated debate about the East African nation’s government and future.

As Eritrean-American children played a soccer tournament on a field outside Oakland Technical High School, adults clashed verbally and waved flags and signs at one another at the Saturday segment of the 3-day event. The megaphone-amplified arguments attracted the attention of Oakland police. Officers monitored the scene on foot until several dozen protesters marched their demonstration from the center of the festival to a sidewalk outside the school.

The festival organizers support the government of Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, who has ruled the small country since it gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The protesters, also Eritrean-Americans, shouted that Afewerki is a dictator.

“We’re trying to show them we have guts, that people in Oakland can do this instead of being silent,” said protester Medhanie Berke of Oakland. “This festival, they collect the money and send it to Eritrea.”

Several festival goers said they were upset that the rally disrupted a family event.

“We believe that Eritrea is on the right track,” said Tsegereda Embaye of Walnut Creek. “They’re doing the right thing. They are building infrastructure, hospitals. Illiteracy is gone, almost. So the government is doing a really good job. They think Isaias is a dictator,but he’s not.”

The festival, held in Oakland in the daytime and Richmond at night, featured food, music, art, traditional handicrafts and sports but was also a regional conference for the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, Afewerki’s ruling party.

An Eritrean diplomat and a prominent pro-government activist, Sophia Tesfamariam, were among the listed speakers. Topics on the agenda included how to end the United Nations arms embargo imposed on the country.

Clutching an Eritrean flag, Embaye was among several festival goers who had strong words for the protesters.

“Most of us are professionals,” said Embaye, a scientist at NASA. “These people are nobody. They are nobody in Eritrea, they are nobody here.”

Across the fence, however, protester Asghedet Mehreteab, a civil engineer from Vacaville, said that “deep in their heart,” she believed many of the festival goers were actually on her side but afraid to speak up.

“Even the people who are at the festival, some of them, a couple of them, said, `We support you,’ but openly they cannot support us,” Mehreteab said. “Most of them, except for the ones who were insulting us and calling us names, most of them know the facts now.”

The facts about Eritrea’s government and human rights record have been disputed for years between various factions in the Bay Area’s Eritrean community.

A United Nations report released last month claims Eritrea broke international arms sanctions against it by planning a bomb attack in Ethiopia earlier this year, bankrolling armed militants throughout East Africa and running an underground economy that raises tens of millions of dollars from Eritreans living in the United States and elsewhere through an extraterritorial income tax, fundraising events and other means. The report identified Oakland, home to a large Eritrean immigrant community, as a major source of cash for the ruling party. Eritrea has blasted the report as unfair, inaccurate and motivated by the West’s bias in favor of its rival, Ethiopia.

“It is sad that it repeats accusations (from suspicious sources, including individuals with personal agendas) without providing any evidence that insinuate that Eritrean community members and business people are involved in illegal activities,” said a written statement from the Eritrean government in response to the U.N. report. “These allegations are simply defamatory and tarnish the reputations of these individuals.”

Signs displayed at the festival included messages such as “America, hands off Eritrea” and “We are the government.”

“Any money that goes back to Eritrea is an individual’s own decision,” said Temesgen Fekadu of Santa Rosa, who ran a festival booth for the Young People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. “If you don’t want to send it, you don’t have to.”

Had the protesters not been so disruptive, they might have been invited to take part in the festival, said Berhane Kassa, director of North Oakland’s Eritrean Community Cultural Civic Center, which helped organize the event.

“Even those people who are outside, if they stay quiet, they can come in here,” he said. “Every Eritrean is welcome, provided they behave like an Eritrean.”

Kassa and another man walked over to the fence separating the festival from the protesters, and hung a large sign directed at the anti-government rally. “We never kneel down,” the sign said. The protesters booed him and pulled it down. After a few hours, they dispersed.

To read the United Nations Monitoring Group report on Eritrea, visit


source :


Short URL:

Posted by on Aug 16 2011 Filed under News, Resistance. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

Leave a Reply

Photo Gallery

Log in |2011