Minnesota State Fair officials and St. Paul police are bracing for a Black Lives Matter protest that could disrupt the fair's opening weekend.

The St. Paul-based group is planning a rally and march to protest St. Paul police shootings and alleged racial disparities at the fair. As of Friday evening, 285 people had accepted the group's Facebook invitation to meet at Hamline Park at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug., 29, for a march down busy Snelling Avenue toward the fairgrounds, disrupting traffic along the way.

"The Minnesota State Fair profits millions of dollars every year, and every year continues to deny black and other minority business owners the opportunity of being a vendor at the fair," the group said in a released statement Thursday.

Protest organizer and St. Paul resident Rashad Turner said Friday the goal of the disruption is to bring attention to the issues that continue to plague black communities, both in St. Paul and beyond.

"We're trying to get people to think deeper about how those economic injustices lead to what we see in the social injustices" such as education, police brutality and employment, Turner said, adding that he sees few vendors who look like him during his annual fair visits.

The protest is "valid," said fair vendor Sharon Richards-Noel, who has run the West Indies Soul Food booth at the fair for the past 11 years.

"It took me a long time before I was able to get into the fair, and when I did get into the fair, every year it was kind of like walking on eggshells," said Richards-Noel, whose booth sits in the fair's International Bazaar.

Once, she said, a white fairgoer slapped one of her workers because the young woman wouldn't give up her seat on a bench to his family. Another time, she said she was reduced to tears when fairgrounds police accused her of forging the vendor pass that gives her access to fairground parking.

"Some years it's been real pleasant, some years it's been kind of rough," she said.

It took years for Jason Giandalia to earn a spot at the fair. But that, he said, had nothing to do with his race and everything to do with his business plan.

"When I got selected into the fair, they didn't even know what I looked like," said Giandalia, one of the fair's newest vendors, who identifies as biracial. "They didn't ask me, 'Are you black? Are you white? ... They select businesses to go into the fairgrounds based on their product, based on their experience."

Giandalia got his start working at the Lebanese-owned Taco King fair booth before striking out to set up his own business. It took years of applying, being rejected, and reapplying with a stronger business plan and more experience before he was selected to exhibit at the fair.

This year, he made the cut and will be setting up his MinneSnowii Shave Ice stand in the new West End Market. There wasn't even a box to check for race on his application, he said. The fair was more interested in his experience handling large events, and the contents of his stand, which specializes in Hawaiian-style shave ice: light and fluffy and boasting flavors like passion fruit and guava.

Minnesota State Fair Director Jerry Hammer said that while the fair does not keep tabs on the race, gender or orientation of its vendors, he does know for a fact that three of the six new food vendors at this year's fair are minority-owned businesses.

"The process [of selecting vendors] here is completely blind," Hammer said. "There's nowhere to indicate race, religion, marital status, height … All of that doesn't really matter. What we're looking for is exhibits to provide the best experience possible for fair visitors."

If protest organizers would like to reach out to him, Hammer said, he would be happy to find space for a Black Lives Matter booth at the fair. Instead of crossing the path of a few thousand irate commuters Saturday morning, they could have access to the nearly 2 million visitors expected to walk through the fair gates this year.

"If this particular group were to apply for space, I guarantee I would find them a spot," he said, noting that more than a dozen political parties and elected officials have booths this year. "One thing that's really cool about the fair is, you can hear from everybody here. It's this huge forum for ideas and knowledge and opinion."

Turner considers the fair's offer an attempt at pacification. The group would prefer to work out some sort of policy with the fair to allow for more vendors of color, but those discussions would be in addition to their rally, not in place of it.

"When we see the makeup of the vendors of the fair — even if it's not intentional — there's a disparity that's there and the State Fair should be … interested in working with the community and figuring out what's best," Turner said. "We're not asking for handouts.

"How do we work together to make sure that next year it's more equitable?"

Black Lives Matter has staged a series of public protests around the Twin Cities over the past year — including marches that have blocked streets and highways and disrupted Christmas shoppers at the Mall of America.

Saturday's rally will feature the aunt of Marcus Golden, who was fatally shot by St. Paul police in January. A grand jury cleared the two officers involved in the shooting of all wrongdoing in May.

St. Paul police spokesman Steve Linders said the department is aware of the group's plans and is making preparations of its own.

"We'll take the same approach we take to the numerous rallies and marches that occur in the city every year," he said. "That's to, first and foremost, maintain a safe environment and second, protect the right of those expressing their feelings."

The Minnesota State Fair has its own police force, but it's never been called upon to respond to a fairground protest before. To Hammer's knowledge, there's never been a protest at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

Tensions have run high since the group announced its intentions to demonstrate at the fair, sparking hundreds of angry comments on social media. Turner said he and his family have received multiple death threats that he intends to report to police.

The 12-day fair begins Aug. 27 and concludes on Labor Day, Sept. 7. Saturdays often see the highest foot traffic and last year's fair set an attendance record.

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648

Jennifer Brooks • 612-673-4008