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St. Louis County Health Director Details Physical, Racist Abuse At Council Meeting

St. Louis County Health Director Faisal Khan [center] declares a public health emergency due to the opioid crisis at a press conference in June 2018 in Berkeley.
File photo / Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Faisal Khan, acting director of the St. Louis County Health Department, has described facing racist abuse and physical assaults at a County Council meeting on Tuesday.

Updated at 4:25 p.m. July 29 with comments from Khan and council members

The acting director of St. Louis County’s health department says he was subjected to “racist, xenophobic and threatening behavior” during Tuesday night’s county council meeting that focused on a renewed mask mandate.

Dr. Faisal Khan shared the latest scientific data and public health advice with council members at the meeting. On Wednesday, he addressed a letter to council Chairwoman Rita Days describing his experience during and after the presentation, including hearing people “doing their impersonation of Apu, a caricature character from The Simpsons television show that mocks people from South Asia such as myself.”

Others outside the council chambers yelled racist slurs at him, calling him a “fat brown c***” and a “brown bastard,” Khan wrote.

“On more than one occasion, I was shoulder-bumped and pushed” while attempting to leave the council chambers, he wrote.

Khan said being physically assaulted by a group that used racial slurs is among the worst behavior he’s been subjected to in his 25-year career in public health.

He accused Councilman Tim Fitch of being a ringleader of the crowd that included many who chanted “Trump 2024.” He also accused Fitch of working with U.S. Senate candidate Mark McCloksey “to stoke xenophobia” against him. Khan said both are well known among supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Fitch rejected accusations that he asked racist and dog whistle questions and said he was only repeating the answer Khan gave during his confirmation hearing earlier this year when Khan said he wasn’t a practicing licensed physician in the U.S.

Fitch said he did hear the jeers from the crowd during the public comments session.

“I've seen crowds like that before, I've seen people react that way before,” Fitch said. “Where I draw the line, where the chair drew the line, is when they would interrupt him.”

Fitch said security should handle commenters who use racist language or physically assault someone. Fitch said he didn’t see the assaults or hear language Khan described.

“I never heard anything other than boos and jeers that was inappropriate, and I'm not saying it didn't happen, what I'm saying is I didn't hear it,” Fitch said.

The abuse continued outside the chambers, prompting Khan to gesture his middle finger “toward an individual who had physically threatened me and called me racist slurs,” Khan wrote.

“I would like to think that I would not react like that because it risks creating a distraction from what should be a consensus around masking and vaccines. I have to say, however, that when faced with the racist vitriol that Councilman Fitch has been privately and publicly stoking against me since my appointment, I cannot say I am sorry,” he wrote.

Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, who attended the meeting in person, said she had had a chance to speak to Khan about what had happened.

“My reaction is, we’re human first,” she said. “We can have differences of opinions, but we must be respectful of each other and keep a decorum. No matter what the disagreement is, it’s never an excuse to mistreat, disrespect and put anyone in harm's way. Even though we are to keep our composure through it all, we are still human.”

She declined to lay the blame at the feet of a single member of the council. She called Fitch’s comments “firm questions” rather than an attack.

“But at the same time, if you do anything to put someone else in bodily harm or to throw gasoline on the fire, you have to be accountable for it,” she said.

Webb opposed the new mask mandate, saying in a statement on Facebookshe believed a new mandate would cause chaos and confusion about the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines. She called the vitriol of the debate a spillover from the previous presidential administration.

Councilwoman Lisa Clancy attended Tuesday’s meeting virtually. She said more should have been done to quash the behavior during the meeting.

“No one who comes to talk to the St. Louis County Council should be treated with the disrespect that Dr. Khan had to endure on Tuesday night,” Clancy said. “It was completely unacceptable, especially when it was directed towards our public servants.”

Clancy said public commenters who jeered Khan should have been escorted out of the chambers by security guards. She said Khan should have been allowed to continue his comments regarding the county’s mask mandate without disturbances from the crowd. Clancy said that she disagrees with the council members who said County Executive Sam Page didn’t have the authority to issue a mandate but that she plans to introduce a mask mandate at the county council meeting next Tuesday.

“I think the biggest way that we can bring some change in that chamber right now and bring back some respect, is to take seriously what Dr. Khan was telling the council members and the public, and that is that we need a mask mandate in St. Louis County,” Clancy said. “I do hope that some of our council members who were not on the right side earlier this week will change their hearts and minds.”

In the letter, Khan accuses McCloskey and Paul Berry, who has run unsuccessfully as a GOP candidate for various elected posts in St. Louis County, of trying to distract him during his presentation before the council. Khan says he was lectured by Days when he asked her to intervene. “Such demeaning treatment was surprising to me, as I had heard that you were sensitive to issues of race and treating people equitably,” he wrote. Khan is calling on Days to investigate and take steps to prevent similar situations.

Khan was not the only one criticizing Days for the way she handled the meeting.

“I'm disappointed in the leadership that we saw on Tuesday night,” Clancy said. “The chairperson has lots of tools at their ready in order to address the kind of chaos and disrespect we saw. There's a gavel, they have the opportunity to use their words to say that this behavior is not acceptable. I saw some of that towards the end of the meeting, but it was too little too late. And there’s security. It sounds to me like there are people that should have been escorted out of the chamber early on.”

Clancy served as chair in 2020 and for a few disputed meetings in 2021.

Days on Thursday said that she did not hear the worst of the comments directed at Khan, but that she was taking his claims seriously.

“As a Black woman in St. Louis, and working in St. Louis County, I know what this feels like,” she said. “I’m old enough to know when I was not appreciated, or wanted, or my views are not accepted for the reason of my race, as well as my sex. Any kind of racial discrimination, I just don’t tolerate it.”

Days pledged to do a thorough investigation, including reviewing footage from cameras in the county building in Clayton. But she dismissed the claims by Khan and Clancy that she did not do enough to restore order at the meeting.

“When you are in this position, you have to do what is best,“ she said. “My sentiment at that time was it was best to let people have their say, so they could not ever say we went to the council meeting, they represent us, and we were not heard.”

The worst of the abuse came as he was leaving the chamber, Khan said.

“As far as who heard what, I can only account what I experienced and heard and saw, I will leave it to others to put blinkers and earplugs on at their convenience,” he said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, members of the public have made health officials the targetof violent threats as they attempt to put public health measures in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Khan said.

But, he added, he has never in his decades of working in public health experienced the “vile abuse” and “toxic political theater” that he experienced Tuesday night.

Mostly he is concerned that important public health information about the dangerous delta variant was lost in the chaos, and that the council's allowing such behavior has further eroded public trust needed to put necessary health measures in place.

“This is akin to our house being on fire, and all of us in St. Louis standing in front of our house arguing about what particular fire hydrant in front of our house we should connect our fire hoses to,” Khan said. “That is insane. We need to work together to put this fire out before it wreaks havoc and piles on more misery on everyone around us.”

In a statement, Page called the behavior “shameful” and said his office was investigating the incident.

Tensions have been running high among many connected to the county council after Page renewed a mask mandate this week.

The council voted 5-2 Tuesday to overturn Page's mask mandate. Some council members said he should have consulted with them first, following the passage this year of a new state law to limit an official’s power over restrictions during a public health crisis.

Page contends the mask order does not violate that law because it does not stop businesses from opening or closing.

The Missouri Attorney General’s office has filed a lawsuitto overturn the order.

Read Khan's full letter to Council Chairwoman Days below:

Wayne Pratt is the Broadcast Operations Manager and former morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.
Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.