Minnesota State Fair officials and St. Paul Police are bracing for a Black Lives Matter protest that could disrupt the fairâ€™s opening weekend.
Black Lives Matter St. Paul is planning a rally and march to protest St. Paul police shootings and alleged racial disparities at the fair. As of Friday afternoon, 242 people had accepted the groupâ€™s Facebook invitation to meet at Hamline Park at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug., 29, for a march down busy Snelling Avenue toward the fairgrounds, disrupting traffic along the way.
â€œThe Minnesota State Fair profits millions of dollars every year, and every year continues to deny black and other minority business owners the opportunity of being a vendor at the fair,â€ the group said in a released statement Thursday. â€œBoth the Minnesota State Fair and St. Paul Police Department are driven by money over people and white supremacy, which made it easy to choose the location for #BlackFair.â€
The â€œwhite supremacyâ€ line stung Minnesota State Fair Director Jerry Hammer. While the fair does not keep tabs on the race, gender or orientation of its vendors, he said, he does know for a fact that three of the six new food vendors at this yearâ€™s fair are minority-owned businesses.
â€œThereâ€™s no truth to any of it,â€ Hammer said. â€œThe process [of selecting vendors] here is completely blind â€¦ Thereâ€™s nowhere to indicate race, religion, marital status, height, I donâ€™t know. All of that doesnâ€™t really matter. What weâ€™re looking for is exhibits to provide the best experience possible for fair visitors.â€
If protest organizers would like to reach out to him, Hammer said, he would be happy to find space for a Black Lives Matter booth at the fair. Instead of crossing the path of a few thousand irate commuters Saturday morning, they could have access to the nearly 2 million visitors expected to walk through the fair gates this year.
â€œIf this particular group were to apply for space, I guarantee I would find them a spot,â€ he said. â€œOne thing thatâ€™s really cool about the fair is, you can hear from everybody here. Itâ€™s this huge forum for ideas and knowledge and opinion.â€
More than a dozen different political parties and elected officials have booths at the fair this year, he said.
â€œItâ€™s a great place to make your case to folks and really make a statement,â€ Hammer said.
Black Lives Matter has staged a series of public protests around the Twin Cities over the past year â€” including marches that have blocked streets and highways and disrupted Christmas shoppers at the Mall of America. The idea is to push issues of social justice and racial disparity into the public eye.
St. Paul Police spokesman Steve Linders said the department is aware of the groupâ€™s plans and is making preparations of its own.
â€œWeâ€™ll take the same approach we take to the numerous rallies and marches that occur in the city every year,â€ he said. â€œThatâ€™s to, first and foremost, maintain a safe environment and second, protect the right of those expressing their feelings.â€
The Minnesota State Fair has its own police force, but itâ€™s never been called upon to respond to a fairground protest before. To Hammerâ€™s knowledge, thereâ€™s never been a protest at the Great Minnesota Get-Together. The 12-day fair begins Aug. 27 and concludes on Labor Day, Sept. 7. Saturdays often see the highest foot traffic and last yearâ€™s fair set an attendance record.
â€œItâ€™s the fair,â€ Hammer said, sounding baffled. â€œWhy would you protest here? Why do that? The reaction weâ€™re getting [to news of the planned protest] so far has been 100 percent â€” I donâ€™t know how to spell it â€” â€˜Whaaaat?â€™â€
LIZ SAWYER and Jennifer Brooks