Minnesota State Fair officials and St. Paul Police are bracing for a Black Lives Matter protest that could disrupt the fair’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 group’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.

“The 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,” the group said in a released statement Thursday. “Both 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.”

The “white supremacy” 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 year’s fair are minority-owned businesses.

“There’s no truth to any of it,” Hammer said. “The process [of selecting vendors] here is completely blind … There’s nowhere to indicate race, religion, marital status, height, I don’t know. All of that doesn’t really matter. What we’re looking for is exhibits to provide the best experience possible for fair visitors.”

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.

“If this particular group were to apply for space, I guarantee I would find them a spot,” he said. “One thing that’s really cool about the fair is, you can hear from everybody here. It’s this huge forum for ideas and knowledge and opinion.”

More than a dozen different political parties and elected officials have booths at the fair this year, he said.

“It’s a great place to make your case to folks and really make a statement,” Hammer said.

Black Lives Matter has staged a series of public protests around the Twin Cities over the past year — 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 group’s plans and is making preparations of its own.

“We’ll take the same approach we take to the numerous rallies and marches that occur in the city every year,” he said. “That’s to, first and foremost, maintain a safe environment and second, protect the right of those expressing their feelings.”

The Minnesota State Fair has its own police force, but it’s never been called upon to respond to a fairground protest before. To Hammer’s knowledge, there’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 year’s fair set an attendance record.

“It’s the fair,” Hammer said, sounding baffled. “Why would you protest here? Why do that? The reaction we’re getting [to news of the planned protest] so far has been 100 percent — I don’t know how to spell it — ‘Whaaaat?’”

 

LIZ SAWYER and Jennifer Brooks