Missouri health director says he was assaulted by an "angry" anti-mask mob in St. Louis

Dr. Faisal Khan said angry St. Louis County residents mocked his accent: They "called me racist slurs”

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published July 29, 2021 11:02AM (EDT)

Anti-mask protesters holding placards during a demonstration. (Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Anti-mask protesters holding placards during a demonstration. (Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The acting director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health alleged that he was verbally and physically assaulted at a Tuesday City Council meeting after encouraging the council's members to enact a mask mandate. 

"I have worked to improve public health around the world, working in Australia, Vietnam, Pakistan, South Africa, the People's Republic of China, Zimbabwe, Botswana and the United States (West Virginia, Massachusetts and Missouri)," Dr. Faisal Khan wrote in a Wednesday letter to the council's chairwoman. "In all that time and in all those places," he continued, "I have never been subjected to the racist, xenophobic, and threatening behavior that greeted me in the County Council meeting last night."

In his letter, the health official described being subjected to racist dog whistles by two councilmen after floating a coronavirus mask mandate amid the recent surge of Delta variant cases in Missouri. The Republican councilman "said he wanted to emphasize for the assembled crowd that [Khan] was not from this country," Khan claimed, adding that the crowd "appeared to be from the "MAGA" movement, as evidenced by their 'Trump 2024' chants." After Khan's presentation, a different councilman posted on social media that masks are "un-American," indirectly reminding the council that Khan is not originally from the U.S. 

Later, members of the crowd themselves began to mock Khan, doing impressions of the Simpsons regular Apu – a character whose stereotypical portrayal of Indians was an element of the show that voice actor Hank Azaria recently apologized for

During the commotion, Khan claimed that he asked Council Chairwoman Rita Heard Days to intervene, but she apparently brushed him off despite having expressed sensitivity to issues of race in the past. 

Later, as he was attempting to leave the chamber, Khan said he was "confronted" and "surrounded" by a "crowd in close quarters, where members of the crowd yelled at [him], calling [him] a 'fat brown cunt' and a 'brown bastard.'"

"After being physically assaulted, called racist slurs, and surrounded by an angry mob," he wrote, "I expressed my displeasure by using my middle finger toward an individual who had physically threatened me and called me racist slurs."

He capped off: "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."

One of the councilmen in question, Tim Fitch, called Khan's letter a "desperate attempt at deflection and diversion by Sam Page," the county executive who originally called for the mask mandate. "Dr. Khan knew he was in trouble for (giving the middle finger) and this was an opportunity to put that on someone else," Fitch told the St. Lois Post-Dispatch. 

Days, the council chairwoman, conceded to the Post-Dispatch that the crowd's treatment of Khan was "unfortunate," but added that the Khan "threw in a little threat" of his own toward her for not keeping the peace. 

On Tuesday, the council voted 5-2 against a mask mandate, after which Page held a briefing announcing that the mandate would nevertheless remain in place. 

"There is currently a lawsuit challenging that mandate, until that's resolved, masks are required in all indoor public spaces," he said. "The virus is simply spreading faster than we are getting people vaccinated. Masks slow down the spread while we continue our aggressive efforts to make the vaccine available for everyone."

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, and The New York Daily News.

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Assaulted County Health Director Dr. Faisal Khan Mask St. Louis