Growing up in St. Paul, Rashad Turner knew all about the Minnesota State Fair. He sometimes attended the “Great Minnesota Get-Together,” and one summer, as a teenager, even pulled shifts working at a spaghetti stand there.

But when Turner, now 30, returns this weekend, it will be with a much different perspective and for a much different purpose.

As a lead organizer for Black Lives Matter St. Paul, Turner plans to lead a march and rally outside the fair at 11 a.m. Saturday to raise awareness about issues that plague black communities in St. Paul and elsewhere. He also hopes to call attention to alleged disparity issues at the fair, which he and others contend has not been welcoming to minority vendors or patrons. And he’ll do so despite intense social media backlash and death threats he has received since announcing the group’s intentions a week ago.

“What’s more important, your cheese curds, your mini doughnuts, your pork chop on a stick or trying to help change the climate in the country?” said Turner, whose newly formed organization is a subset of the larger Black Lives Matter movement nationwide.

Fair officials declined to be interviewed Thursday about the planned protest. However, in an interview earlier this week, State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer said that the fair does not keep tabs on the race, gender or orientation of its vendors and that the process of vendor selection is “completely blind.”

Saturday’s scheduled demonstration is the latest in a series of Black Lives rallies and protests, which have largely centered on police brutality in the aftermath of police killings of black men and women across the country. Local protesters are scheduled to meet at Hamline Park, then march up Snelling Avenue in St. Paul and gather outside the fairgrounds. Turner said the group doesn’t plan to enter, but added, “If we have to adapt, we will adapt.”

The rally will be the first major protest by Black Lives Matter St. Paul. The Minneapolis chapter has staged several marches and demonstrations throughout the Twin Cities, including one down Interstate 35W and another at the Mall of America. Though the St. Paul and Minneapolis groups share the Black Lives Matter affiliation, they are different entities with different organizers. Both, however, rely heavily on social media such as Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about their events to potential participants.

“We can’t allow ourselves to be put in a box and say that Black Lives Matter is only about police brutality,” Turner said. “… The economic issues lead to the social injustice.”

Found his calling

Growing up, Turner wanted to be a police officer.

“My thoughts back then were, ‘I want to catch the bad guys,’ ” he said.

But his ideals changed after he graduated from Hamline University with a degree in criminal justice and started skills training. Disillusioned by what he saw and heard, he entered graduate school and most recently worked as a Scholars Program coordinator at Century College.

But it wasn’t until a trip earlier this year to Selma, Ala., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march along the Edmund Pettus Bridge that Turner said he found his calling.

After returning to Minnesota, Turner formed Black Lives Matter St. Paul. The group began planning for what it calls the “BlackFair” three months ago, but it wasn’t until last week that it announced its plan to rally outside the fairgrounds.

That announcement led to hundreds of angry comments on social media. Turner, who said he has received death threats, admitted that the intense reaction has even scared some participants.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, law professor and president of the Minneapolis NAACP, said the reaction by some on social media didn’t shock her.

“A lot of those racial negative attitudes … they’ve been hidden behind the facade of Minnesota Nice,” Levy-Pounds said. “The reality is that many of us enjoy the State Fair but at the same time we want to see equitable policy and justice for our community.”

Plans for safety

State Fair officials said in a written statement Thursday that fair police and staff “are working diligently to ensure the safety of all” Saturday.

To reinforce that thought, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Police Chief Tom Smith and Fire Chief Tim Butler plan to hold a news conference Friday morning to “discuss efforts to preserve public safety” in light of the protest.

Despite concerns by some about Black Lives’ tactics and the potential of the protest to disrupt traffic along Snelling Avenue on what promises to be a busy day at the fair, Tyrone Terrill, chairman of the African-American Leadership Council, commended Turner for what he is doing.

“The State Fair has not been a welcoming thing for us economically,” he said.

As the former director of the city’s Department of Human Rights, Terrill said he has heard complaints about the fair’s disparity issues. He said he hopes the protest will prompt fair officials to sit down with minority leaders and talk about ways to make the fair more inclusive.

Lena Gardner, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, said her chapter supports the St. Paul group’s efforts.

“I think that the diversity of black voices speaking up and speaking out is beautiful,” she said.

To Turner, the event, while still hours away, is already a success because it has spread awareness about the group’s mission.

“Demonstrating and protesting is powerful, but it’s even more powerful when you can collaborate and bring people together,” he said.


Twitter: @nicolenorfleet