Black Lives Matter to protest at State Fair despite backlash

Black Lives Matter St. Paul is sticking to its plans to disrupt business at the Minnesota State Fair Saturday despite social media backlash that erupted just hours after going public with the protest.

The group plans to march from Hamline Park in St. Paul north on Snelling Avenue to the State Fairgrounds.

As of Monday evening, over 600 people have said on the event's Facebook page that they plan to attend. Hundreds of others left negative comments on the page saying that disrupting the State Fair would hurt the group's cause. Organizers say they have no plans to enter the fairgrounds, but intend to disrupt traffic and inconvenience fairgoers.

"We're taking a lot of heat, a lot of pushback," Black Lives Matter St. Paul lead organizer Rashad Turner said. "But if we're really fighting for justice, we have to just execute our plan and not be distracted by all of the other comments and other people's opinions."

The event, dubbed #BlackFair, alleges State Fair officials deny minorities equal opportunity to participate as vendors. Turner cited anecdotal references of people of color trying to get booths but were unable to do so. He said the black elders of the community have shared their frustration about income disparities and racial injustices.

"It really goes to the bigger picture and how the economic injustices that this country was built off still plague the black community today," Turner said.

State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer is irked by the statements Black Lives Matter St. Paul has made. As he gears up for the 12-day event, he said the organizers' claims lack concrete data.

"The process we have here is completely color blind," he said. "To be accused of racism and part of some white supremacy thing is so over the top, it's incredible."

It's not clear if the State Fair will have a different security plan on Saturday. The fair has its own police force of 350 public safety personnel and additional help from St. Paul and Minneapolis police.

St. Paul Police spokesperson Sgt. Paul Paulos said officers will do what they've always done in the past.

"We'll protect the city from damage and continue working with the neighborhoods and the community during this process," he said.

The Minnesota State Fair has had a rule against large groups of people congregating in one spot since the 1980s. The restriction was affirmed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that banned the International Society for Krishna Consciousness from distributing material and sharing its mission all over the fairgrounds. The intent is to manage the flow of traffic and ensure public safety.

Hammer said political groups, nonprofits and several causes share their messages by reserving booth space.

But Turner said getting a booth at the fair will not yield the same outcome as marching and protesting. Black Lives Matter wants to reach as many people as possible and a public protest is the best way to do so, he said.

"People who aren't interested aren't going to stop at a booth," he said. "When we're fighting for something, if it was just as easy as getting a booth, these problems would've been fixed a long time ago."

Turner said despite negative reactions, the event has helped the group get its message out.

State Fair officials on the other hand emphasize that minorities are well-represented at the State Fair, including Hmong Day on Labor Day and exhibitors at Midtown Global Market.

"I've spent an awful lot of time answering questions about a protest," Hammer said. "The fair is a big event, it's a huge event and from its very beginnings, people have one way or another attached themselves to it in order to get attention."

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