MN Fair offers booth to Black Lives Matter; group worries over safety

Large crowds
Black Lives Matter has announced plans for a high-profile protest focused on racial discrimination outside the Minnesota State Fair on Saturday. Here, crowds filled Cooper Street on opening day of the 2012 State Fair.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2012

Updated 1:10 p.m. | Posted 11 a.m.

Minnesota State Fair officials say they've invited Black Lives Matter to have an authorized space inside the Minnesota State Fair even as the group plans a Saturday protest outside.

But a leader of the group says Black Lives Matter may not take the fair's offer and that organizers are still weighing whether to try and move the march into the fairgrounds.

Rashad Turner with Black Lives Matter St. Paul said Tuesday his group has not contacted the fair about getting a booth there and that group leaders are reluctant to be an official presence.

He said their plan to march up Snelling Avenue to the fair's main gate has drawn racist and angry reaction on Facebook and social media, and that organizers have concerns about their security.

"To sit in the fair without having the proper protection around us, to make sure that there's no one looking to sort of provoke anything or paint us in a bad way — safety is a top concern," Turner said. "Even as we're protesting, we want to do things to keep things peaceful and keep everybody safe."

Turner's comments came after State Fair general manager Jerry Hammer told MPR News that he'd spoken to representatives of Black Lives Matter about an official fair space and felt optimistic they would take the offer.

"We talked to them about the process and the procedure" to get a booth," said Hammer, although he did not say who he talked to. "I don't know if they got their registration in last night, or whether it's coming today."

Black Lives Matter has staged a series of high-profile protests focused on racial discrimination, including a controversial holiday season gathering at the Mall of America.

The group says it wants more diversity among businesses at the fair, which opens Thursday. Organizers of the planned protest say they don't think minorities get a fair shot at business opportunities there.

Hammer said the fair doesn't track the racial makeup of applicants and can't differentiate among vendors by race. But he added that he is seeing more diversity as business turns over at the fair, although openings are few every year.

"This year, we had a bit of a break, with six openings for new food vendors. What we learned after the process was complete was that three of them happened to be minorities," he said. "I am not sure how anyone would draw a conclusion that there is any lack of representation by any group, because we don't know ourselves."

Turner said the group plans on staying outside the State Fair gates Saturday but suggested that could change.

"They have been kind of posturing that the State Fair is private property. The way I interpret the law myself, along with other people, doesn't necessarily apply to what we're doing," Turner said.

"We have no plans on going inside," he added, "but the posturing is kind of something that makes us have to pray on that."

Turner said Black Lives Matter may also consider calling for a boycott of the fair.

"That has been in some talks and some discussions and conversations at some tables that we have been sitting at," he said. "We could end up moving toward a boycott, but I know for sure me and my family will not be attending this year."