Hundreds of protesters joined Black Lives Matter Saint Paul to march to the Minnesota State Fair on Saturday morning to demand change in the fair’s vendor selection process, as well as protest the St. Paul Police Department, who BLM organizers say have a poor history with minority communities.
Marchers trekked roughly a mile to the fairgrounds from St. Paul’s Hamline Park, shutting down northbound traffic on Snelling Avenue, and briefly closing down both lanes of Como Avenue, where dozens of marchers attempted to enter the fair before St. Paul police closed the gates.
BLM supporters chanted for a half hour as fairgoers watched from behind the fencing. Marchers then moved to the main gate on Snelling before eventually dispersing. The event lasted about two hours.
Like other past BLM events in the Twin Cities, the protest remained peaceful, but garnered heavy criticism online — largely focused on BLM’s claims regarding discrimination in the vendor selection process — and mixed reception from onlookers.
BLM St. Paul organizer Rashad Turner said that, despite the criticism, the protest wasn’t just about making noise, but about bringing attention to real changes they hope to see made. “This ain’t just about the State Fair, it’s about the bigger picture,” Turner said. “But [the fair, and those who run it] represent some of the same disparities we see in our city of St. Paul, some of the same disparities we see across the state. And definitely across this nation.”
At the rally, Turner listed off some demands advocated by BLM St. Paul: body cameras for all St. Paul police officers; revisiting the indictment of the two officers involved in the fatal shooting of St. Paul resident Marcus Golden back in January; and requiring officers to carry personal liability insurance to deter them from acting rashly.
Turner also said the State Fair needs to do a better job proactively including communities of color. “They really need to include us at the table to come up with a plan that’s equitable,” he said. “There’s no way everyone is represented if you have a colorblind policy.”
State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer mostly dismissed the organization’s claims, saying three out of the six new vendors at the fair are minority-run, and that anything but a colorblind system would turn the fair on its head because of tough competition.
“In any given year there are at least 450 registrants for food space,” Hammer said. “If we have three or four [new vendors] a year, it’s actually a lot. That’s why we don’t invite people to participate.”
Turner said that colorblind systems only perpetuate existing disparities between communities of color and their white counterparts. “Anyone who does the research on what [colorblind policies] mean and how that’s been studied, they would know that,” he said.
Programs like Affirmative Action, which seeks to proactively close disparity gaps in workplaces and schools, have been a source of national controversy for decades. But Turner said these kinds of programs are necessary if we expect to see any real economic changes for communities of color.
Marlin McElroy, who works shuttling disabled persons to and from the fair, said he was disappointed by how some onlookers reacted to the protest, but that he supports the movement and was proud to see BLM at the fair.
“What just happened here right now is more important to me than anything,” McElroy said. “[African Americans] aren’t properly represented anywhere.”