Anthony Shahid strode through the Barnes-Jewish Hospital lobby, his steps as hard and sure as the marble floor. Maneuvering around the moving obstacle course of gurneys and white coats, he made his way toward the sobbing woman.
Rena Johnson had never heard of Shahid, but when he came to her side that day, she felt his strength shore up her spirit. Her son Jerome was locked up somewhere in the hospital, shot seven times by undercover narcotics officers who claimed he'd fired first. She'd hired two of St. Louis' best-known, feistiest defense attorneys, Brad Kessler and Dan Diemer -- but even they couldn't get to Jerome.
Kessler jammed a useless court order back into his pocket and watched Shahid with narrowed eyes. Who was this guy, crashing in with his own agenda?
Shahid didn't take the time to explain. He organized a protest march outside the hospital. A hangman's noose around his neck, he led chants, gestured for TV cameras and watched with satisfaction as cops flooded the scene. Then he made a phone call.
"Joe Mokwa [then chief of homicide, now chief of police] called him back as we were standing at the Barnes information desk," Kessler recalls. "Within ten minutes, we were in."
When they were led to the elevator, Shahid and his friend John Bordeaux came, too. Both men have led civil-rights protests, but Shahid's a professional agitator, an agitator who makes even his allies reach for water. Bordeaux usually comes off as the reasonable one, shrugging indulgently at his friend's excesses. An ousted president of the St. Louis NAACP chapter, Bordeaux is also better known. Shahid plays his own game, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks of him.
"We're going up with the sister," Kessler remembers Shahid telling the Barnes security guard.
"He made me feel personally uncomfortable," admits the attorney, "because even after we were getting what we wanted, he kept escalating, whipping it up. I never did figure out what his agenda was. But I can't say anything bad -- thanks to his provocation, we got a report from Jerome's doctors, we got to photograph his gunshot wounds and all the gashes [caused, Jerome claimed, by police beatings] and his mother got to visit him as often as she wanted.
"Few people have Shahid's ability to provoke," Kessler adds. "I can be confrontational when it suits me to be confrontational, but it's usually within the confines -- the safety, really -- of a courtroom."
Anthony Shahid's only courtroom is the street.
On the street, you don't measure your words or wait for just the right moment.
When Shahid visits somebody he trusts, such as Oval Miller, founder of a substance-abuse program for blacks, or civil-rights activist Norman Seay -- whom he embarrasses by bowing to him, purely awed by the older man's accomplishments -- he's a different person. His friends marvel at the quiet depth of his conversation, describing him as "calm and gentlemanly and thoughtful."
On the street, he's screaming, "The real Osama bin Laden is in there!" and pointing toward the mayor's office, the wind lashing a white Ku Klux Klan sheet around his six-foot-one frame. Or he's leading a march, his strong, even features concealed by a bullhorn as he yells, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, St. Louis, like Cincinnati, is ready to blow! Stop the killer cops! ... You've got real racist white boys here ... Summer's coming, and we're tired of losing our black babies!"
Shahid wears KKK robes to aldermanic and police board meetings, dangles a noose from his neck, carries empty caskets, heavy with ghosts. By St. Louis standards, he's an attention-seeker who shoves aside the boundaries other people have set for themselves, inflaming situations that should be handled with civilized restraint.
Except that, from his perspective, civilized restraint leads nowhere.
Shahid's mind never relaxes, never lets injustices fade with time or disputes soften into compromise. He is keenly aware that -- as the latest census report confirms -- St. Louis is one of the most segregated cities in the nation, that more than half of the city's population is African-American and that poverty, and therefore crime, concentrates in black neighborhoods at a rate four times the regional average. He walks the streets of these neighborhoods and sees liquor stores on every corner, owned by people of other races. He looks for the African-American-owned businesses, like the market his bold and sensible mother ran, and sees only a handful.
He knows St. Louis is a timid city, one that preaches patience and avoids confrontation.
He plans his media events accordingly.
Determined to shake loose some action in a city paralyzed by old racist ways, Shahid throws out the most shocking rhetoric he can invent. Some say the performance is self-serving. Others say he's a true leader.
"If he wanted the limelight, he could get it," remarks James Clark, community-outreach director for Better Family Life. "If Anthony Shahid called [TV] channels 2, 4, 5, 11 and 30 every time he did something that would make good news, he'd have his own TV show. He's always confronting gang members, taking guns from gang members. Some of these pastors, if they visit a school, they're not going to open their mouth until the camera rolls. Shahid does have something to say when a camera is rolling, but 99 percent of what he does is excellent sensationalism that gets no exposure, because he doesn't want it to. He does it as naturally as he breathes."
He's walked the streets at night, trying to close crackhouses. Walked the grid of the city's African-American neighborhoods, calling on business owners who weren't African-American with suggestions -- some say ultimatums -- that left them silent and subdued. Marched publicly on the Arab-owned liquor stores around Cass Avenue, trying to push them and their products out of the African-American community. Walked swaggering young gang members into union offices to get them jobs. Threatened boycotts and pickets. Taken young people in hand when no one else would.
His methods can be read as dedicated activism or heavy-handed pressure tactics; his props can seem like thought-provoking symbols or crude, thoughtless gimmicks. He calls racism when no one else dares -- and he sees racism everywhere. Habitually suspicious, he refused to be interviewed or to provide information for this story, and he warned those close to him not to cooperate, convinced the story would be a racist attack. At the entrance to his inner sanctum, silence dropped like a guillotine blade.
But Shahid is far too public, and too loud, to silence everyone -- and he strikes a different chord in each person he meets. He's been called, in varying tones, St. Louis's Malcolm X. His dedication to young people has been compared to Sidney Poitier's in To Sir With Love.
He makes some people proud and others ashamed.
He makes everybody nervous.
Beige, with narrow arched windows, Masjid al Tauheed stands on San Francisco Avenue just west of Kingshighway, its name painted in the bright clear green of Islam. Someday a dome will rise above those letters, just as Shahid rose above the script of his youth.
Born Anthony Ray Jones, he grew up on St. Louis's North Side and turned ten in 1965, the year Malcolm X was shot and Martin Luther King Jr. led the Selma march. Young Anthony acted out the frustration burning all around him, and he took his share of corporal punishment from his teachers at Williams Middle School -- among them the Reverend Earl Nance Jr.'s late mother.
Anthony later thanked Mrs. Nance for the discipline.
But it wasn't enough to keep him out of trouble.
At eighteen, Anthony Ray Jones was convicted of robbery in Evergreen, Illinois. Ten years later, in 1983, he was convicted of illegal use of a firearm in St. Louis. Then he was drawn into the American Muslim movement, and it transformed him.
He changed his name to Anthony Fatiha Shahid, and he traded the restless openness of his youth for fierce conviction. Friends say he was drawn first to the gentler, more mainstream branch and only later to Minister Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam. But whatever the journey, by the late '80s he was known as a minister, exhorting young people to the Islamic precepts he believed could give his race dignity, responsibility and real freedom.
He was also driving the city cops crazy, showing up when they were trying to make an arrest and automatically haranguing the officers for unfairness. It's said that on at least one occasion, he goaded onlookers to take the suspect back from the police, nearly starting a neighborhood riot.
"Shit-disturber," the higher-ups decided, and put the word out to be wary. But even the chance of getting arrested didn't faze Shahid. He cruised the streets, vigilant for any sign of a brother getting hassled. Then he started showing up at police-board meetings, calling particular officers and policies racist.
In 1991, Clarence Harmon became chief of the St. Louis Police Department. He set up a police-chaplaincy program, putting one of his captains in charge of finding trustworthy clergy willing to counsel officers, their families and the families of victims in times of tragedy.
In the summer of 1994, word flew through police headquarters: Their favorite troublemaker, Anthony Shahid, was walking the streets in a blue jacket with CHAPLAIN stenciled on the back, flashing a chaplaincy badge and continuing his harangue of police methods.
Harmon was furious.
Shahid claimed the fury was personal: He'd recently mentioned the chief on the radio, criticizing him harshly for marrying a white woman.
Harmon said there was nothing personal about it: Shahid had two felony convictions on his record.
In July 1994, the chief issued a written order to all officers, saying, in essence, don't go get him, but the minute he shows up someplace, get that badge back. The next time Shahid showed up at a police-board meeting, he was stopped and stripped of all official accoutrements before being allowed to proceed.
Six months later, he filed suit against Harmon in U.S. District Court, saying the chief had violated his civil rights and seeking $50,000 in redress. He didn't win his suit, but he did get under the skin of his reserved, by-the-book enemy. Now a private citizen, Harmon contents himself with a terse, "I know Anthony Shahid. I have nothing good to say about him."
In one observer's opinion, "Anthony might have cited a white wife, but in his heart, he hated Clarence because he wouldn't give in to him the way others have."
For whatever reason, Harmon grated on Shahid's already raw nerves. By contrast, Shahid found inspiration in the political platform and easygoing style of Freeman Bosley Jr. Back in the '80s, as Shahid's religious convictions deepened, he'd decided to start the Tauheed Youth Group to work with young black men in the city's roughest neighborhoods. Bosley had come to some of their meetings. When he campaigned for mayor, Shahid provided extra security, and after Bosley won the election in 1993, Shahid went to work for the city, helping defuse gang problems in parks and recreation centers.
When Bosley realized how many homicides were taking place in a single tight area around the intersection of West Florissant and Robin avenues -- the turf of the Five Four Gang -- he called Shahid: "We spent several hours over there just talking, and they [neighborhood youth] said, 'We just don't have anything to do.'"
The mayor and his staff extended recreation-center hours, opened up Northwest High School until 11 p.m., looked for job opportunities. Later Shahid came up with a plan for quarterly youth-gang summits, and the corporations he invited to job fairs wound up hiring hundreds of young men.
"The homicide rate plummeted," says Bosley. "I can honestly say that Anthony Shahid did more to help reduce gang violence and homicide during the time I was in office than any other single individual."
Clark, who worked as Bosley's administrative assistant, remembers "being out with Anthony, prepping an area for one of Freeman's visits, and having shots fired at us. We were talking to some guys and a car drove by; the guys kind of looked at it, and the car made a U-turn and shots rang out. Anthony wasn't rocked by it at all; he wasn't shaken. He was born for this.
"A lot of people can fake it -- until they meet someone who is real," Clark adds. "You see African-American men and women who have been placed in leadership roles, but they are not really in touch with the grassroots. They can articulate what they think is the problem. But Anthony is out there every day. That's why a lot of leaders don't want to stand next to him, because when you look at his résumé compared to theirs, it's clear who is the real leader."
Clark remembers Shahid raging, at Bosley's gang summits and job fairs, about all the African-Americans in corporate America who were in positions to make hiring decisions but wouldn't show up at one of those events. "If we were having a banquet or a chicken dinner, they'd show up," adds Clark, "but Shahid was always challenging people to come to the front lines."
It kept him busy -- but it didn't stop him from running, along with his brother, a cousin and another associate, Best Painting and Decorating Company. They'd registered the business in 1991, renting a little building on San Francisco Avenue as an office. By the mid-'90s, they were getting city contracts; they were even included in a $46.7 million Darst-Webbe proposal that later fell through. Best Painting and Decorating painted the Gateway school complex for $346,565 and won a $310,200 subcontract through the St. Louis Housing Authority to paint the Carr Square Village Apartments. Working through the city's development agency as a minority contractor, Shahid took out a $95,000 loan to buy supplies. Then the company ran into problems on the job and defaulted on the loan.
Meanwhile, Shahid had begun working with the city's new Midnite Basketball program, designed to get kids off the streets late at night. In November 1996, when a financial scandal caused the program to implode, he was bounced back to his former job. In March 1997, he testified about Midnite Basketball to a grand jury.
That April, Harmon, the former police chief and Shahid's nemesis, succeeded Bosley as mayor. And in May, the city was obliged to pay off the $95,000 loan it had guaranteed for Best Painting and Decorating, supposedly without realizing that Shahid was a city employee.
When Harmon learned that Shahid, who by then was making $47,502 a year on the city payroll, had gotten a loan from a city agency for a private business, he didn't muffle his displeasure. Later that year, he ended the funding for Shahid's job and restructured the gang-abatement effort, saying he'd never seen any documentation that Shahid was accomplishing anything.
African-American aldermen protested Shahid's layoff so vehemently that in January 1998, mayoral aide Toby Paone got flustered and did something that was, by the kindest interpretation, stupid. He distributed a packet of news articles critical of Shahid to all the white South Side aldermen and Harmon's single African-American supporter, Sharon Tyus. Paone insisted that his mailing list wasn't racially motivated, just "the path of least resistance" to maintain support for Harmon's decision.
Various fragments of hell broke loose, but Shahid was not restored to the city payroll. Instead, he moved from the Cochran complex, his base when he worked with the city's gang-abatement program, to 5010 San Francisco, the office of Best Painting and Decorating.
Then the building's owner donated the building so Shahid could turn it into a mosque, and the young men in the Tauheed Youth Group hiked up their baggy pants and started the hard work of renovating it.
Wednesday and Saturday evenings at Cochran Community Center, Shahid's voice drowns out the thumping basketball and the wild, angry, uncertain yells. Now that 5010 San Francisco has become sacred space, he again convenes his Tauheed Youth Group here. His vision of their future gets the kids' hearts beating faster than any game, and his classes in history, justice and civil rights give their raw energy a purpose.
Some say he's drumming the history of racist oppression into their heads, convincing them that white people are their enemy.
Others say he's just telling the truth.
"He doesn't sugarcoat anything," says Von Nebbitt, a doctoral student in social work at Washington University who works at Cochran Community Center. "I can't say he's the kindest, gentlest person talking to young people about their mistakes, but I like his approach, because it's confrontational and very real. His message is: Being young and poor and black in America has already put you at a big disadvantage. You are considered a surplus, throwaway population. Knowing that, you need to get involved in some things in your own life to make sure you are not treated the way you are perceived. Don't underestimate our society's willingness to decimate or imprison or destroy you. Live your life from that frame.
"It's almost a conspiracy theory," concedes Nebbitt. "At first they become very quiet, like they're in shock. They kind of knew it in the back of their mind, but nobody ever brought it to the forefront like that. But they keep coming back."
People watch the Tauheed kids do drumming and dance, sit quietly for hours at a stretch, march against drugs and gang violence. Adults admire their discipline, their respectfulness, their knowledge of black history.
Some youth workers say Shahid, extreme by temperament, teaches extreme positions to the kids who hero-worship him. But Tim Person, a political consultant who met Shahid during the Bosley administration, says what Shahid offers is structure: "For most of these kids, there is no support. Nobody's teaching them the necessary skills to exist. Anthony works with them when nobody else will, and he does not write them off."
Now that he's not working for the city, Shahid spends his time consulting, organizing protests and leading his youth group. His critics want to know how he supports his wife and his kids; how he keeps up their modest two-story brick house on Natural Bridge Avenue with its lacy white wrought iron and shingled awnings. They say he's an activist because it profits him -- a notion that makes his friend Oval Miller snort.
"How do you see it manifesting itself? He's hardly rich," Miller says. "He's very charismatic; he could probably raise himself a lot higher than this. But he's found his purpose."
On its 2000 tax return -- the most recent available from an independent source that tracks nonprofit groups -- the Tauheed Youth Development Life Skills Corp. had income of $61,675 and assets of $7,770. Anthony Shahid, as president, wrote that he dedicated 25 hours a week to his position, aided by vice president Sultan Muhammad (the executive director of the mosque), secretary Mellve Shahid and treasurer Russell Houston, with books kept at the mosque in care of Anthony Houston. Officers were listed as receiving zero compensation. Neither Houston nor anyone else at the mosque returned calls asking the source of the revenue, which was exactly the same amount the previous year.
Shahid is adept at street theater but too stubborn for self-promotion. He could easily trot out some kid periodically, even script him and use the testimony to fundraise. Instead, he just keeps taking on new kids. Testimonials to his work are spotty but fervent; many public defenders and deputy juvenile officers have never heard of him, but Sarah Barnes, a caseworker with Lutheran Family Services, says she has a thick file of glowing reports on Shahid, and state Representative Betty Thompson (D-University City) presented a resolution praising him for reaching kids who would listen to no one else.
His detractors raise an eyebrow, ask for specifics: Where, after all these years, are his successes?
He doesn't bother to answer.
Yet Shahid could easily point to men such as Ronald Goodman, who was in his early teens when he first joined the Tauheed Youth Group. He's now 27 and working with Redditt Hudson, a former police officer, on Project Peace, a program offered through the city's juvenile-court system to get kids out of gangs. "In the spiritual sense, I will always continue to be a member of the Tauheed Youth Group," says Goodman. "Anthony Shahid touched my life profoundly. He motivated me to another level."
The change didn't take place right away, notes Goodman: "Some of us did good things, some did bad things, some went back to the graveyard of ignorance. Gangs are families, and it's hard to get out, hard to take your name back once it's out there. I went through the prison system, but Tauheed is where I got the inspiration to do what I'm doing now.
"Anthony came straight to the streets to pick us up. He came late on Friday and Saturday nights, and he spoke in our language. My speaking techniques now came from observing him. 'Popping the whip,' we call it -- when a brother is throwing down. He's a motivator, ain't no doubt about it. What he uses is the hardcore truth, nothing more.
"He takes a no-compromising position," adds Goodman. "If it's a wicked law, he's gonna expose it. If his help is needed, he's there. He'll do anything in his power to make life better for a black person. And the people who wouldn't get in public with him politically are the same people who call him when they are in trouble.
"He's not misunderstood; he's intentionally misrepresented."
Last September, Malik White, a towering young basketball star from Vashon, was shot to death in a case of mistaken identity. When public attention threatened to shift from the tragedy to the politics of high-school basketball, Shahid helped his radio co-host, Michael Trent Johnson, and St. Louis American columnist Demetrious Johnson try to restore perspective with a rally at McCluer High School.
"There were whites who came and showed their support," recalls Johnson, "and Anthony told them he appreciated it, but when it came time to do the actual work, the prayer vigil, he asked them, if they wanted to remain, to simply separate from us, to let him organize the families without their physical involvement. So they just stepped back.
"Whites can help us, but they cannot join us."
Nebbitt calls Shahid "a pan-African black nationalist separatist," meaning that "he sees all people from the black diaspora as part of one struggle. He believes in establishing a black nation within this country. And he's separatist, in the way I hear even educated middle-class people in the suburbs speak of it, saying that desegregation might have damaged the black community and it's time to go back to the inner city and revitalize it."
Clark says Shahid has held the same basic position for twenty years: "His philosophy has always been 'We have got to do for ourselves. Our destiny is in our own hands.'"
The Reverend B.T. Rice, pastor of New Horizon Church, hears Shahid's name and murmurs, "Oh boy." Then he recovers. "We've agreed about issues that needed to be addressed. Where we disagree is, I think he generally has a view where he just doesn't like white people. There's a disdain there."
Miller says Shahid may be instinctively suspicious of whites -- "cultural survival skills" -- but his true disdain is for hypocrisy: "He has just as much problem with blacks who act like they're doing good and aren't. I've also heard people say he hates black people; well, surely that is not true. But he's against anybody who does damage to the community."
Shahid's friend John Bordeaux, recently ousted from the NAACP for a laundry list of reasons that boiled down to perceived insubordination, chuckles at the notion that Shahid refuses to ally himself with whites: "Whoever said that don't know Anthony. There's certain white people he don't talk to."
Bernie Hayes, media instructor at Webster University and columnist for the St. Louis American, remembers standing with Shahid and another activist, talking to a white lawyer in front of City Hall. "Anthony immediately said, 'I don't talk to white folks.' This person was more deeply embedded in the civil-rights movement than he is!" Hayes sighs. "Anthony was not like that at first. He was pretty liberal, back when he was learning the ropes. Now -- he's congenial, likable, if you're a friend. If you don't like him, he could be a devil."
Carrying a white coffin, Shahid headed for the office of Francis Slay, mayor since 2001. "It represents all the dead people on his hands," he told the crowd clumped behind him. "He didn't come to none of the funerals.... Life means nothing to our racist mayor."
A supporter of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, which organized this rally in October 2002, winced when he saw Shahid interrupt the scheduled speaker. "It was reported in the paper as part of our activities, but we had nothing to do with it," he says, thinking the mayor's office and police might hold the coalition responsible for Shahid's antics.
In September, Shahid had led a protest after the shooting of seventeen-year-old Stanley Parker, shouting, "Bring that little racist mayor on, front and center. We don't have to worry about what's going on in Afghanistan. We got problems right here in the United Snakes of America.... Saddam Hussein ain't shooting us. Saddam Hussein ain't doing racial profiling. Black people's problem is not Saddam Hussein."
That day, Shahid called the police "damn cowards" and "yellowbellies." In the St. Louis American, Ishmael-Lateef Ahmad quoted him saying, "It's always when you shoot somebody black it's justifiable. All they got to say is 'I fear for my life.' Ain't 'nan one of these Negroes will shoot a white boy. They know how far to go. They've been trained."
Just a few weeks earlier, he'd drawn the battle line a little differently. Shahid organized a press conference for Operation SUFYR -- Stand up for Your Rights-- uniting African-American police officers, firefighters and other public-safety workers.
"White police officers shoot black police officers," he charged. "We are family. We are united. We stand together. To attack any of us is to attack all of us." He was joined by an old cohort, attorney Anthony D. Gray, who, as SUFYR's advisor, called for a full-scale investigation into alleged violations of SUFYR members' rights.
For years, Shahid has involved himself in virtually every controversial city police shooting and court decision affecting African-Americans. Yet his presence at a demonstration can be so disruptive, some frustrated activists have wondered whether he's deliberately trying to derail their efforts, pushing them to the margin by associating them with his own extreme tactics, thereby making it easier for the police to discredit them.
"It's probably just our own paranoia," say one activist with a shrug, acknowledging that the theory's far-fetched. It's true that Shahid is close to Dennis Shireff, a city police officer who is president of the Missouri chapter of the National Black Police Association, but Shireff's almost as harsh a critic of the St. Louis Police Department as Shahid. Much is made of the fact that Joe Mokwa, now chief of police, listens with patient respect to Shahid's opinions. But when the chief is asked to comment, his voice is far too tense for conspiracy theories:
"Anthony Shahid is ... extreme. He makes me uncomfortable at times, but he's got opinions and a certain entourage of people who react emotionally to his viewpoints, so I allow him to have exposure so that I can hear those viewpoints." Mokwa sighs, knowing his own cops aren't always thrilled with this stance.
"My job is to hear all the viewpoints in the community. My job is to be sensitive to what everybody has to say."
In November, photographer Tamara S. Walker turned on her favorite gospel radio station and heard her own name, spoken in rage.
She knew there'd been some fuss about a photo she'd taken for the University City calendar, a sweet hand-tinted black-and-white photo of kids' feet pointing into a circle to choose "it" in a game of tag. Pleased with the carefree innocence the photo captured, she'd titled it "Eeny-meeny-miny-moe" without thought to the rhyme's racist history.
"At first I didn't really trip on it," says Walker. "Then I heard the radio show [co-hosted by Michael Trent Johnson and Anthony Shahid on KSLG (1380 AM)] and they were saying the white tennis shoe symbolized the white man's oppression over the bare black foot. It was a picture of my own kids' feet, along with two little very fair-skinned biracial children who happened to be in the park that day, and for lack of artist's supplies and artist's prerogative, I'd colored the bare foot brown. I would have thought Mr. Shahid would have contacted me and asked what was my intent, instead of taking something I felt was totally innocent and turning it into something ugly."
When Walker went to a meeting with University City Mayor Joe Adams, Shahid had already been there -- dressed in his Klan robe, demanding the resignation of the U. City public-relations director and her staff. Walker thought this patently unfair: "She wasn't even the one who chose the picture!" Meanwhile, a friend forwarded something from the Internet saying Walker should have known better and what 'hood did she grow up in, anyway? "To that I say, there is no universal black experience," Walker snaps.
The situation was, as Shahid's situations usually are, uncomfortable, leaving many people tense, embarrassed, furious, exasperated. University City reprinted the calendar, doubling its costs and deleting Walker's photo. So much pressure and blame was placed on the PR manager, Eileen Duggan, that she recently resigned. Johnson did a radio show on the history of the phrase, explaining that "it was used to give blacks a head start before a lynch mob. Eeny-meeny-miny-moe -- and then they'd let the dogs loose.
"People felt uncomfortable," says Johnson. "And uncomfortable is how African-Americans have felt for years."
Last April, after people complained about Shahid's controversial show on WGNU (920 AM), Johnson invited him to co-host The Looking Glass, Sunday mornings on KSLG. "Our ratings have gone through the roof," notes Johnson. "Anthony and I have two different frames of reference; we're there to balance each other out. But we basically agree that there is injustice.
"We are so used to the movement of Martin Luther King Jr.," he adds, "but that takes much longer. Anthony will bring attention to an injustice immediately. He will put the fire on you and make you look within yourself."
The question is whether Shahid unifies or divides, whether he pushes the community toward a painful justice or merely reinforces old hatreds.
St. Louis isn't a seamless garment; it's a net knotted with cliques and factions. In minority communities, those knots pull even tighter because they're weighted by heavier issues. The leaders of various African-American groups work hard to keep their opinions about Shahid from ripping the delicate mesh that connects them. Mention his name and they groan, then try for a diplomatic escape: "Let me just say this about the brother...." or "I respect him, but I don't always agree with him...."
Those most troubled by Shahid insist not only that their names be concealed but that none of their criticisms be printed. They say they've made hard choices to disassociate themselves from him, but nothing will be gained by negativity, and no one can read another man's heart.
Even the police and other authorities tiptoe, knowing that if they investigate Shahid publicly or try to restrain his behavior, he automatically becomes a hero.
"He depends on that," notes an African-American who's watched him for years. "Anthony Shahid is the kind of guy gets talked about at the barbershop. I've heard it at my barbershop; I've heard other people say they've heard it at theirs. But they wouldn't say it to a white person." The speaker sighs. "We are often victimized by our failure to deal with the errant behavior that is among us."
Elders in the community urge, "Keep it clear that he's under a shadow."
Others hedge, both praising and damning the man. Shahid starts out sincere, they say, but then sometimes ego comes into play and it turns self-serving. His heart's in the right place, but his methods sometimes reinforce racism.
"When you say, 'You racist, you motherfucker,' you're racist, too," says St. Louis activist Tiahmo Ra-uf, field director for Al Sharpton's National Action Network and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Africans Unite Against AIDS Globally. "I think to invoke racism as the primary factor for our disagreements is feeding into racism. We cut ourselves out of true partnerships."
Ra-uf says Shahid's style is "to provoke people to think. Then one would say, well, 'I heard that big message, but what is the conclusion?' You can agitate, and, yeah, you can get people all worked up -- but can you point to a victory after the agitation? I never had to wear a Klan outfit to get nothin' done, and I don't think I would wear one. First of all, the Klansmen have graduated; they don't wear those outfits openly anymore. If you want to wear a Klan outfit to prove a point, you're entitled to be descriptive, but what did you achieve? It's no different than the eeny-meeny-miny-moe: You look at it and you see racism."
That's Shahid's point. And some say St. Louis is so far behind, it needs the jolt.
"I consider Anthony an asset," says Norman Seay, an original member of the Committee on Racial Equality. "When CORE started, we were called communists, we were called irresponsible. But in 1947, we as African-Americans could not eat in the downtown restaurants; we could not register in a hotel.
"Anthony is not respected by those who have achieved, or by those on the path toward achievement," Seay continues, "but he draws attention to issues that still need to be resolved. Some of his approaches might be considered crude, and they would not be my way, but they are pointing toward real problems. If we could resolve those problems, he would not need to demonstrate."
Community activist Jeanette Mott Oxford just wishes he'd demonstrate more thoughtfully. "It's not that I think wearing a Klan robe to label a politician racist is always inappropriate," she says, "it's that no groundwork has been laid to make that symbol make sense in the context of Francis Slay and his administration. That's the kind of symbol you have to escalate toward; if you start there, it limits where you can go in the future. Has the Slay administration made choices that demonstrate institutionalized racism and white privilege? Yes. Is the average citizen able to see that? No. Institutionalized racism and white privilege are so devious and capable of mutation that showing them to the public is almost an impossibility."
Oxford predicts that her words "will be labeled racist by some, including white folks who are in that "bending over blackward" phase of never criticizing a person of color -- which is one covert form of racism."
So, say others, is making race the start and end of everything. "In a meeting, Shahid will override anyone's statements, jump on any comment that gives him an excuse to talk about race and say, 'I'm nobody's ... N-word,'" notes one activist. "He'll go there very fast and then just escalate."
Nebbitt met Shahid five years ago, when they worked together on the Safe Futures project. "He's quick to tell you, 'I'm not scared of white people; I say what needs to be said.' He doesn't bite his tongue. And yeah, he makes people nervous. It's spotlight anxiety -- like when black people are together and one does something we don't want people to think black people do. He'll talk black in a situation where people want to pretend the issue's not race."
Diplomatic types cringe. "In terms of his work on police issues, he definitely does more harm than good," says one activist. "The only good is that we can say to the chief, 'Look, you have to deal with the Coalition Against Police Crimes -- or you'll have Anthony to deal with.'"
Another observer dismisses Shahid as reactionary: "The minute something comes up, he's on the forefront saying stupid things -- with a bullhorn. If you notice, he doesn't start movements. He's good for headlines, and he's good for adding muscle, recognition, presence. But he offers no input into the community, no leadership, nothing substantial."
Clark says that on the contrary, Shahid offers the information and connections that are missing from most public discussions. "Early in his administration, Mayor Slay convened a task force on gang violence. He invited me, and my first statement was 'We cannot approach this situation without Anthony Shahid being here.' Of course, all of the quote-unquote African-American leaders at the table said, 'We don't need Anthony Shahid.' But we did. I have a certain reach to young people, but his reach is deeper than mine. The problem is, he says things that people know are true but they don't want to discuss."
Nance, former president of the St. Louis Board of Education and head of the St. Louis Clergy Coalition, heard his mom's stories about young Anthony, and he's been watching the adult Shahid for 35 years. He swears the man is mellowing: "He started off as the shaky one that got people ticked off, and then the rest of us would go in after him and negotiate. But he's maturing into being a player; he's learning how to be a part of the process. You are more effective if you not only raise hell, but you can define what the hell is and how to deal with it." Nance was especially proud of Shahid during the University City calendar crisis because instead of taking it to the street, Shahid negotiated directly with the U. City mayor.
Miller says Shahid has always understood the difference between his own freewheeling role and the compromises those in established positions must make. "Many a time he's called and said, "Brother Oval, I want you to come to this [march, rally], but I understand if you can't." Usually Miller couldn't; he'd built an organization with credibility in the larger community, and he had relationships to protect. So he watched from his office, sometimes disagreeing with Shahid's rhetoric but envying him the chance to fight without inhibition.
"I believe Anthony does what everybody wants to do but is afraid to do," Miller says suddenly. "Anthony's a self-made man."
The observation taps into the fiercest part of Shahid, the part determined since childhood to be a black man, pure and strong, unaffected by white people, white power or white systems. That's the part of him that even people of gentler temperaments respect. That's also what's makes him a natural provocateur, shit-disturber and separatist. And when you strip away the rhetoric and hype, that's what remains to be reckoned with.
Late last month, defense attorneys Kessler and Diemer found themselves back at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, fighting for access to another client, who was in police custody on the eighth floor. Alleged gang member Larry Lewis had run a red light in a stolen car, causing a traffic accident that left him in critical condition.
This time, the lawyers called Shahid themselves.
He was there in fifteen minutes.