With slight clouds and a high of 78 degrees, Saturday looks like a fine day for a protest.
Black Lives Matter will rally in Hamline Park and march on the Minnesota State Fair with plans to stop up traffic along Snelling Avenue. The State Fair seemed like a natural venue for a large-scale disruption.
But when BLM organizers criticized the fair for assigning booths to mostly white vendors while people of color did the grunt work, the public reaction was swift and hostile. Comments left on BLM’s Facebook page demanded data showing that the fair discriminates, while fair officials vehemently denied racism of any sort, since its application process doesn't even track vendor ethnicity.
BLM St. Paul organizer Rashad Turner also received death threats online.
So far, Turner and fair director Jerry Hammer haven’t sat down at the same table. With only the media as the go-between, the two seem to be speaking past each other. Minnesota has about 15 percent people of color. While BLM can't say definitively whether at least 15 percent of businesses at the fair are minority-owned, fair officials haven't provided any figures to prove vendor representation matches the state's demographics.
For BLM, the fair's diverse crowds, focus on business, and heavy police presence seem the perfect platform to talk about economic and social disparities, Turner says. That’s not to accuse the fair itself of being purposely racist – it’s just susceptible to a lot of the same forces that drive wealth and achievement gaps between whites and people of color in all areas of life.
A colorblind application process is the first thing that needs to go, Turner says.
"Although there are elements of racism and white supremacy that are there, a simple policy change would be to start tracking [ethnicity] so we can be more intentional about representing the community," he says. "I don't think that anybody likes to check a box, but that would be a simple step to create an affirmative action process."
It would work the same as those used in government construction projects to help minority, immigrant, and women contractors, Turner says. "Anybody who works around racial equity knows that a colorblind policy is just going to continue to hurt people who are already marginalized."
BLM also wants the fair to be more transparent about its vetting of applications, and to make sure its top organizers include black, Asian and Latino people, says Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP.
"Certain businesses are almost going to be guaranteed a spot if they’ve been there at the fair for a long time, and that’s obviously going to work to the disadvantage of minority-owned businesses and new businesses who weren’t given access to be vendors back when the fair began," Levy-Pounds says. "This is a majority-white state that’s becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, and a colorblind policy is no longer effective at ensuring equal access to opportunity."
With one last internal meeting to go before BLM takes to the streets on Saturday, Turner says initial plans for this protest are unchanged: it'll be a nonviolent march that stays outside fair grounds. And BLM still wants a meeting of minds with fair director Hammer.
"I understand the State Fair can’t be responsible for every person that walks through their gates, what their attitudes and perceptions on life are," Turner says of the potential for misunderstanding between protesters and visitors. "But if the State Fair were to do intentional outreach to all demographics that make up the state, I think you’d get more people at the table and it would be easy to correct."
The BlackFair protest will begin in Hamline Park in St. Paul at 11 a.m. Saturday.
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