Who's Afraid of Anthony Shahid?

He's a hero to some, a pain to others. Either way, he makes people very nervous.

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?

Jay Bevenour
The Masjid al Tauheed building was once the office for Shahid's painting company. His youth group helped transform the building into a mosque -- and a symbol of what he wants for his community.
Jennifer Silverberg
The Masjid al Tauheed building was once the office for Shahid's painting company. His youth group helped transform the building into a mosque -- and a symbol of what he wants for his community.

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.

You front.

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."

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