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Dr. Faisal Khan: ‘No One Walked A Mile In My Shoes That Evening’

St. Louis County Health Director Faisal Khan [center] declares a public health emergency due to the opioid crisis at a press conference Thursday in Berkley.
File photo / Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
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 July 27.

St. Louis County’s acting director of public health said he stands by claims he was “shoulder bumped and pushed” by a hostile crowd at a County Council meeting last Tuesday — even though video evidence has failed to back up those allegations.

TV news footage of Dr. Faisal Khan leaving the room, as well as a surveillance video obtained by KMOV, shows the crowd making way as Khan left the July 27 meeting. That appears to contradict claims Khan made in a letter to Council Chair Rita Heard Days the next day, in which he alleged being “physically assaulted [and] called racial slurs” while being “surrounded by an angry mob.” Those claims made national headlines. (Read the complete letter here.)

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Khan addressed that discrepancy, saying: “I just want to say that I am not going to comment on an investigation that is ongoing. But I will stand by what I described in that letter as my experience. And with all due respect to anyone out there, no one walked a mile in my shoes that evening, but what transpired in a few unfortunate seconds as I exited the chamber left me shaking. It should never have gotten to that point.

“I completely stand by my assertions,” he continued. “One segment of one video, or whatever it may be, does not capture my experience that evening.”

Read the complete transcript of Khan’s remarks on St. Louis on the Air:

Dr. Faisal Khan speaks on St. Louis on the Air
Listen to the complete interview

Sarah Fenske: With the delta variant spreading across Missouri and the U.S., St. Louis County Executive Sam Page issued a new mask mandate last Monday in collaboration with St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones. Their mandate was ahead of most other government entities in the country, although many have since followed as the CDC altered its guidance to encourage masks even for vaccinated residents in areas with high case counts.

But Tuesday brought bitter pushback from the St. Louis County Council. Public health Director Dr. Faisal Khan ended up in the hot seat and also making national headlines. In a two-page letter to council Chairwoman Rita Heard Days, he said he'd been harassed, shoulder bumped and pushed and subject to racial slurs by the crowd. And he joins us today to explain what happened and discuss the fallout from his allegations.

So, Dr. Faisal Khan, thank you for joining us.

Dr. Faisal Khan: It's a pleasure, Sarah.

Fenske: So many St. Louisans read your letter and were horrified. Let's talk about some of the more incendiary allegations in it. What are some of the remarks you heard while you were making your presentation?

Khan: You know, gosh, I would rather not repeat that language.

Fenske: Sure. And I should say, I'd rather not hear that language either. But what was the tenor of what you heard people saying?

Khan: It was angry, hateful invectives, and I'm sure it came from a very tiny sliver of the crowd. I have had messages of support and disgust even from people who were in that crowd that evening, protesting the mask mandate, saying, “You know, while we disagree with you, with your approach, and we don't want to wear masks, we were appalled at what we saw.”

So it really was a case of a whole crowd of people whose tempers had been stoked and brought to a frenzy and things boiling over into territory that really should not have been breached in the first place.

Fenske: And you blame Councilman Tim Fitch for that. You say he sort of set the tone there. What do you feel like he did that, set, as you say, these couple of individuals over into territory that you found offensive?

Khan: You know, it's not even about personalities. And let me say this very clearly, what people might not know is that I have known and had the pleasure of working with Colonel Fitch — I instinctively still call him Colonel Fitch. When he was police chief, he was just the most friendly, most supportive individual. We work together on a variety of issues, and this was an unfortunate event in which regardless of the position you take, regardless of the way you want to vote, etc., once the temperature of a crowd of people has been ratcheted up all the way to 100, it's not going to come down to <two seconds inaudible> the deliberative body is ready to move on to the next subject.

It's going to spill over, and some individuals are going to lose control of their tempers. And, when the evening has been spent vilifying a public official trying to explain the rationale behind public health policy, things will get said and done that should never have happened. My greatest regret is that the decorum in that almost sacred chamber was allowed to deteriorate to a point that it happened and it should never have gotten to that point. Much has been made of one particular council member. That was never my intention. That was never the issue here. I have the utmost respect for Colonel Fitch, regardless of which side of the policy aisle he may belong to because as a public official, I know he understands that we serve everybody, regardless of their political affiliations or their beliefs about freedom or constitutional amendments, etc. — that is never a consideration for us.

Fenske: So Dr. Khan, I have to say this is just a very different tone than what's in your letter. I mean, in that tone, you do kind of come after Councilman Tim Fitch. The only reason I brought him up is he's kind of front and center in this letter. Have you had a bit of a change of heart about the way you called him out in this letter?

Khan: I stand by the contents of that letter. What happened on Tuesday night was truly unfortunate. The intentions may not have been malicious, but the way it played out was absolutely unacceptable and disgusting — because this is not the only contentious issue that I'm sure the council will ever have to deal with, or for which they will have public officials called forth to explain the rationale for a particular decision or approach. And so when things get out of control, bad things are likely to happen. And it had, I am sure, a bone-chilling effect on a multitude of public servants and public officials in St. Louis County whose job it is to interact with the council and present themselves to explain things.

Fenske: Dr. Khan, we've been talking a bit about what happened inside that meeting. I want to talk about your exit from the meeting. This is in that same letter — you said you stand behind that letter. You write, quote, “I tried to leave the chamber but was confronted by several people who were in the aisle. On more than one occasion, I was shoulder bumped and pushed. As I approached the exit and immediately outside the chambers, I became surrounded by the crowd in close quarters where members of the crowd yelled at me calling me” — and then you detail a few of these racial slurs. You also describe in the next paragraph, quote, “being physically assaulted.”

Now Dr. Khan, there's video of your exit from the room, and I don't see any shoulder bumps or pushes as you allege in this letter, and new video emerged last night of your interactions in the hallway, and nothing matches what you describe in this letter. Why is that?

Khan: So first, I just want to say that I am not going to comment on an investigation that is ongoing. But I will stand by what I described in that letter as my experience. And with all due respect to anyone out there, no one walked a mile in my shoes that evening but me. What transpired in a few unfortunate seconds as I exited the chamber left me shaking. It should never have gotten to that point. I completely stand by my assertions. One segment of one video, or whatever it may be, does not capture my experience that evening.

Fenske: Were there any friends or supporters who were with you when these alleged physical assaults happened or shoulder bumping and pushing that can speak to that and can back you up on this?

Khan: No. It was me, myself, and I thrust into the middle of this situation. I respond to any invitation, any request from the council to present myself and explain policy options. And when I walked into that chamber on Tuesday evening, there was a capacity crowd [and] almost everyone was unmasked. Some individuals had children on their laps, and my heart sank at that sight, thinking, "My goodness, this might be a super spreader event in and of itself."

So no, it was just me by myself in the middle.

Fenske: So in his briefing this morning, Dr. Page, your boss, acknowledged xenophobia and racism at the meeting. He said that intimidation and anger has to stop. He also asked for more videos. It sounds like he's looking for evidence that would support this. Do you believe there are videos, or there is evidence, that could come out that would support your position?

Khan: I have no idea, Sarah. I wasn't paying attention to who had a cellphone and who didn't. And yeah, my emphasis after that jarring experience was to make my way out and just extricate myself and get home. That was it.

Fenske: So in your exit, as you acknowledge, you did flip off a bystander. Can you tell us what led you to that point? And was this directed at one particular bystander?

Khan: You know, I don't even remember that. I remember something being yelled at me that I will point unmentionable, and I instinctively just flipped the middle finger, and it was a reflexive action. It was a momentary loss of composure and control for which my own precocious 15-year-old has admonished me. And I've had time to reflect on that regrettably.

Fenske: So Dr. Khan, when you wrote this letter, you said that you don't regret it because you were faced with the racist vitriol from Councilman Fitch that he'd “privately and publicly stoked” against you since your appointment. Do you now have some regrets after talking to your teen?

Khan: No, what I said in the letter was, I don't apologize for it. I obviously regret losing my composure. That should not have happened, but it was one of those most human of reflexive actions and I will leave it at that. My own family has admonished me about not answering an insult with an insult and simply choosing to walk away, and I've learned that lesson from it.

Fenske: We got a tweet from Suzanne who writes: “With the current divide we're seeing between residents in St. Louis County, how do you think the discovery of the latest video” — this is the surveillance that showed you exiting the room, and that video did not show anyone shoulder bumping you — “how do you think that will affect that divide? Do you believe that the mistrust that residents will feel after seeing that video will affect your position?”

Khan: I hope it does not change people's views about the imminent threat posed by the virus. The individual is nothing. First, it is one segment of one video of one area, and I will leave it at that. The investigation will take its own course. I stand by my assertions. But the important thing to remember is that we are here to serve everybody. The virus does not discriminate. It does not care what your political affiliations are, which segment of which video you believe — it is poised to cause misery and death regardless of your political affiliations or belief systems. That is the only focus of our efforts right now.

Fenske: And you said you were worried going into this meeting that this meeting could become a super-spreader event. We now know that someone at that meeting did have COVID-19, the city health department has come forward and said that their contract tracing has revealed that. Does that hit home for why you believe masks are necessary?

Khan: <deep sigh> I wish, Sarah, I had the luxury of sitting here and saying I told you so, as tempted as I was when I found out. But I am filled with sadness and worry at what might happen to the health and well-being of everybody who was there. Our job as public health is to take care of everyone. And this was my greatest worry. As I mentioned, my heart sank a little as I waited for my turn to be called up and looked over the crowd — everybody was unmasked, everybody was talking to each other. People were angry. Some had children on their laps. Some were clearly even the older age group, and as an epidemiologist and public health official, that was my greatest fear.

Fenske: So now you want everyone who attended that meeting, even people who are fully vaccinated, to complete a 14-day quarantine, which would be the next nine days here. The latest from the CDC, they're not yet saying that vaccinated people have to quarantine unless they have symptoms. Why are you asking that of public officials and other people who were at that meeting, to do that quarantine even if they're vaccinated?

Khan: So the lead agency on that is the City of St. Louis Department of Health, and Dr. Fred Echols, the acting health director there, and his team issued those instructions. They deliberately chose to err on the side of caution and go above and beyond just the bare minimum recommendations the CDC puts out. Keep in mind that the CDC's advice is guidelines and broad recommendations. They leave it up to local health officials to determine their particular situation on ground so as not to stymie their efforts. So I, along with so many others, are quarantining at home essentially following the advice provided by the City of St. Louis.

Fenske: So you're doing this yourself?

Khan: I was advised to, along with other individuals, and that's exactly what I'm doing.

Fenske: Is this in some ways, this advice to stay home, this kind of keeps us from having a similar thing at the next meeting. This basically guarantees that if you testify again it has to be virtual. Do you feel more comfortable with that at this point?

Khan: The advice put out has nothing to do with what happens at county council or whether or not somebody shows up, etc. My own comfort level leads me to believe that if I'm asked to appear or explain something, I would prefer to do it via video link, especially during the course of the quarantine period, but perhaps in the afterwards as well. I regret most of all, as I've already said, the loss of decorum and the loss of control within that chamber on Tuesday night. That should never be allowed to happen. We should be able to have a mutually respectful and controlled conversation and exchange of knowledge rather than an exchange of ignorance. No public servant, no public official who is called upon to testify or explain things, should be subjected to any verbal abuse or the kind of invective that I experienced this past Tuesday.

Fenske: I have to ask, you had had this job previously and you returned to it in the middle of a pandemic, even as there have been all these headlines about public health directors being subject to this kind of abuse. What made you want to come back?

Khan: I have questioned my sanity a couple of times. <chuckle> On that note, but here is what motivated me: First, public service — in particular, public health — is a calling in life. It's not just a job. I moved back to St. Louis leaving a very lucrative job in the private sector with a much higher monetary compensation because this is a mission in life. It's not a job. And I needed to be in the heat of battle, helping my community as a proud St. Louisan and fight this pandemic and to help my colleagues at the Department of Public Health fight this pandemic, period. And I would not do things any differently.

Fenske: So Dr. Khan, you're doing that and you're here and you're implementing things like this mask mandate, but now you find yourself caught up. I mean, this letter seems to have set off some events where now there's going to be an investigation. You asked for an investigation into this and people are calling for videos. People are analyzing these videos like the Zapruder film — are you worried at this point that this is exactly the distraction that you didn't want?

Khan: It is unfortunate that the back and forth, the nonsense that we seem to have inculcated and incorporated into our national discourse is likely to cause some degree of distraction. That was never my intention. I was asking that the events of Tuesday evening be examined and investigated so that it never happens again. And two, that the loss of decorum and control never happens again, period. The part about being distracted is something that is very real and my intention is to keep my team and my focus, frankly, firmly on fighting the pandemic. Things with the investigation will take their own time and have their own course. To everybody listening, our message is: Please set that aside because, guess what, the virus is not going to wait for any investigation to be completed. It continues to infect people in the St. Louis region. It continues to create the potential for more misery and more death. That is what our focus needs to be on.

Fenske: Well, Dr. Faisal Khan, thank you so much for joining us today.

Khan: Thank you, Sarah. As always, it's a pleasure.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.