Faisal Khan, a public health doctor in Missouri's St. Louis County, spoke at a council meeting on Tuesday about the importance of enforcing a mask mandate in the area, where more than half of the population is unvaccinated, during a surge of infections from the Delta variant.
But Khan said the unmasked crowd jeered at him, jostled him around, called him racial slurs, and mocked his accent.
Khan, who is the acting director for the St. Louis County Department of Health, said that as he walked out of the meeting, he was shoulder-checked and jostled by some people in the crowd.
Once he was outside the chambers, he said he was surrounded by a hostile group, some of whom called him a "fat brown cunt" and a "brown bastard."
"After being physically assaulted, called racist slurs, and surrounded by an angry mob, I expressed my displeasure by using my middle finger toward an individual who had physically threatened me and called me racist slurs," Khan said in a letter to the council chairperson, Rita Days, on Wednesday.
Khan told BuzzFeed News on Thursday that while he regrets losing his composure momentarily, he had just about had it.
"I was shaking from the whole experience," Khan said. "I've never experienced anything like that in the more than 25 years that I've been in public health service."
His pleas to enforce the mask mandate were not successful.
The St. Louis County Council voted 5–2 to rescind the county mandate on Tuesday, a day after it was introduced, saying that it didn't comply with state laws about public health orders.
A video shared on Twitter showed the crowd break out in cheers after the council's vote.
The incident is indicative of the anger, confusion, and chaos over the renewed push for mask-wearing across the country in light of the highly infectious Delta variant that now makes up more than 80% of cases in the US.
The anger and abuse directed at Khan are also similar to experiences faced by many public health officials in the US as they continue to fight not only a deadly virus, but also an ongoing political and cultural war over masks and vaccinations.
"It is truly unfortunate that the worst public health crisis in 100 years has been politicized from the onset at the national level and on the state and local level across the country," Khan said. "That is the worst possible damage to public health infrastructure in the US."
Khan bemoaned the loss of at least 250 public health officials who have left or have been forced out of their jobs after being vilified while struggling with the mental, physical, and emotional toll of the pandemic.
"I'm just profoundly sad at the state we find ourselves in as public health officials," Khan said. "We have only one job — to serve people and safeguard their health. We should not be dragged into political theater."
Khan said that he was invited to the county council meeting on Tuesday evening to explain the public health rationale behind implementing a mask mandate that had been announced just a day earlier by St. Louis County executive Sam Page and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones.
But the county council disagreed with the executive branch on the mechanism by which the mandate had been rolled out without their permission, Khan said.
A political rally held before Tuesday's council meeting had stoked the crowd into a frenzy with anti-mask speeches and slogans, so Khan said that when he stepped up to the lectern, the anger in the crowd was palpable. He said he could hear the jeers and taunts behind him.
Khan accused one of the Republican council members, Tim Fitch, of questioning him with "xenophobic dogwhistles" that were designed to paint him as "a foreigner, a migrant, and a non-licensed brown physician who was not trained in the US."
Khan, a US citizen since 2013, clarified that while he was not licensed to practice clinical medicine in the US, he was a public health professional by training and had worked as an epidemiologist in numerous countries, including Australia, Vietnam, Pakistan, South Africa, China, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and the US.
After Fitch's line of questioning, Khan said he could hear people in the crowd calling him a "quack," "a jerk," and "not a real doctor."
Some people mocked his accent by impersonating Apu, the racist caricature from The Simpsons, he said.
"I'm saddened not by the racist and vile personal abuse directed at me after I left the meeting or the physical jostling, but by the fact that Tuesday's meeting was a superspreader event," Khan said. "That was the first thing that struck me as I looked across the sea of unmasked faces."
Khan said he does not expect an apology or a response to his letter to the council chairwoman outlining his experience and calling for an investigation into what happened.
Days told BuzzFeed News on Friday that she was going to look into the situation and ask the local police department if Khan had filed a report on his allegations of physical assault.
"What has happened to Dr. Khan is truly regretful," Days said, adding that as a Black woman in Missouri she did not condone racism.
However, Days said she did not think Tuesday's council meeting was out of order. She said that while the crowd was "energetic" and not in favor of masks, only a couple of people behind Khan made comments during his speech and they immediately quieted down when told to.
She added that Khan showing his middle finger to the crowd while walking away was "unprofessional."
Days also did not believe that Fitch's line of questioning was inappropriate. She said that he was trying to make sure everybody knew that Khan was authorized and licensed in Missouri to issue health orders.
Days said the she was against enforcing the mask mandate because it went against a recent state law that said any kind of order on public health issues had to come before the county council.
She also said that it would be impossible to legally enforce a mask mandate and that she didn't want the local police to spend their time "trying to run down people who aren't wearing masks."
Days said she would wait until Khan's "media campaign" was over before potentially having a one-to-one conversation with him about his letter.
A spokesperson for Fitch said he was "tied up on his regular day job until at least 2 p.m. St. Louis time."
Khan has not received any threats after his appearance at the meeting, but he said he had asked for and received an additional security detail.
"This has been a scary and jarring experience for me and my family," he said.
But he said the experience has not deterred him from continuing to serve the public. He said that he was inspired by the commitment of Anthony Fauci, who, as the public face of the country's scientific response to the pandemic, has been subjected to threats against his life and his family.
Khan asked people to think of the CDC's recent revised mask policy in terms of a "battlefield strategy" where public health officials have to constantly adjust their tactics and approaches to counter the enemy's new weapons, i.e., the virus strains.
However, Khan said that "populist point-scoring tactics" that played out during Tuesday's meeting could potentially lead to "more disease, more infections, more misery, and more death."
"We've ended up looking like those people whose house is on fire," he said, "and we're standing in front of it arguing about which particular fire hydrant should we connect our fire hose to."