Capitol Alert

California vaccine activists rally at Capitol in last-ditch appeal

Hundreds of vaccine-skeptical families made a last-ditch appeal on Wednesday to California lawmakers, asking them to kill a proposed law that would restrict vaccine medical exemptions for children attending schools.

The odds are against them.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has already signaled that he’d sign Senate Bill 276, which is intended to protect children from preventable diseases and is backed by California lawmakers who believe “unscrupulous” doctors have been distributing exemptions for dubious reasons.

One rally goer, Jessica Simpson of West Sacramento, said she experienced vaccine injuries when she was younger and now, as a mother herself, is concerned about her child suffering vaccine injuries.

“This bill puts a wall between our kids and the doctors,” Simpson said. “I don’t think politicians should have a right to decide what’s best. I think doctors should have that right.”

The rally came one week after anti-vaccine activist Austin Bennett filmed himself shoving the author of the bill, Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento. Bennett was cited for a misdemeanor.

Pan and another sponsor of the bill, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, have said they received death threats. Other lawmakers have received bricks in the mail carrying messages such as, “Vote No on SB 276.”

Pan on Wednesday connected that kind of threatening activism to the organizer of the Capitol rally, activist Joshua Coleman. Coleman has posted Youtube videos showing himself following and trying to confront Pan at events. Coleman has also created printed signs and t-shirts of Pan with a red “Liar” stamp covering Pan’s face.

Coleman also made the news in 2015 in a dispute over parking at a Roseville elementary school that led neighbors to call the police.

“They allow someone like Josh Coleman, with his history, as the leader and organizer of this,” Pan said. “If you really are changing, then you have to reject Josh Coleman… and say, ‘no more,’ and they haven’t done that yet.”

When asked about his videos of Pan on Wednesday, Coleman said, “I think I do ride the edge just a little bit, but I don’t view them as agitating. I view it as pushing the truth in a creative way, and sometimes a slightly aggressive way, but it’s all peaceful and it’s all legal.”

SB 276 was one of the most-watched bills of the Legislature this year, and it regularly drew hundreds of people to committee hearings. Pan and pro-vaccine families stressed their concern about communities where vaccination rates have declined, while their opponents aired their worries about harmful reactions to vaccines.

Simpson and other people who attended the rally were familiar with Bennett’s altercation with Pan and sought to distance their event from the activist.

Bennett, the man who shoved Pan last week, “is not a part of our movement,” Simpson said.

This story was updated at 9:10 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 29 to correct Austin Bennett’s name.

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Elaine Chen, from the University of Chicago, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in the Bay Area and later in Beijing, China.