Berkeley, Mo. -- Civil rights advocates, religious leaders and others on Friday said they were outraged by St. Louis County Health Director Faisal Khan's claims that he was assaulted and bombarded with racial slurs after defending a new mask mandate. But a county councilman questioned whether Khan was telling the truth.
Khan spoke at the St. Louis County Council meeting on Tuesday, when the council voted 5-2 to end a mask mandate imposed by Democratic County Executive Sam Page. St. Louis city and county simultaneously began requiring masks last week to combat the fast-spreading delta variant of COVID-19. The resurgent virus began its summer assault in under-vaccinated rural areas of Missouri, but has increasingly led to new cases and hospitalizations in St. Louis.
The county meeting was long and boisterous, with several in the crowd opposing the mandate requiring masks in public indoor places. Page has said the mandate stands despite the council's vote. Republican Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed suit to try to stop the mandate.
Khan, a U.S. citizen since 2013 and originally from Pakistan, wrote to a member of the County Council on Wednesday that he was surrounded by an angry mob as he left the meeting. He said he was shoulder-bumped, threatened and called a racial slur, and that his accent was mocked. He also acknowledged that he responded by giving protesters the middle finger.
Speaking at a news conference outside the St. Louis County Health Department, Caroline Fan, president of the Missouri Asian American Youth Foundation, said the slurs aimed at Khan “felt like being stabbed.”
“We're in a pandemic,” Fan said. “He's trying to do his job.”
Dr. Ghazala Hayat, a physician and a representative of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, said the comments directed at Khan were heartbreaking.
“Hearing all those racist remarks and everything reflects poorly on our community, our state,” Hayat said.
Republican County Councilman Tim Fitch said the council was launching an investigation into what happened, but he questioned whether Kahn was telling the truth.
“We already know from available video — because I have it in my hands —- he was never assaulted,” Fitch told The Associated Press by phone on Friday. “He was never shoved. He was never shouldered. That was all in his letter. If he would be untruthful about that, which is easily provable — and he still hasn't made a police report that he was assaulted — what else is untruthful in what he is saying?”
It was Fitch whom Khan, in his letter to County Council Chairwoman Rita Heard Days, accused of helping to incite the angry crowd when he asked what Khan referred to as a “dog whistle” question: “Can you tell us why you're called Dr. Khan? Are you a physician in the United States?”
Khan said he wasn’t a practicing licensed physician in the U.S.
Fitch said the question was meant to familiarize the crowd with Khan’s background.
“I was trying to establish what he told us were his credentials,” he told the AP.
Page, in a statement, called the alleged actions against Khan “troubling” and said his office was launching its own investigation.