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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."
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