Activism or Terrorism? Anti-vaccine movement must use facts, not violence, to argue

Enough is enough.

This week, an anti-vaccine activist filmed himself physically assaulting Dr. Richard Pan, a Democratic state senator from Sacramento. The reason? Dr. Pan has crusaded for years to protect California’s children from harm by advocating for California to strengthen its mandatory vaccine laws.

In 2015, Pan authored a law to abolish the “personal belief” exemption allowing parents to enroll their children in public schools without proper immunization, thus making sure they don’t expose everyone else’s children to potentially deadly diseases.

When the anti-vaccine movement shifted its tactics, relying on unscrupulous doctors to write bogus medical exemptions, Dr. Pan took note. This year, he introduced Senate Bill 276, which cracks down on doctors writing unnecessary medical exemptions for parents who don’t want to vaccinate their children.

He was already a target of the anti-vaccine movement’s wrath, but his persistence in pursuing good public health policy intensified the rage they hurled against him. He’s been demonized, targeted by recall campaigns and threatened with death. Now he’s been physically assaulted — violently shoved from behind by a man named Austin Bennett while walking to an event in downtown Sacramento.


“Bennett approached Pan, who was walking with Assemblyman Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, and urged him to defend his stance on vaccine safety,” according to a story by The Sacramento Bee’s Hannah Wiley. “The two bantered back and forth about vaccine ingredients. As Pan neared the entrance to the restaurant, Bennett shoved Pan in the back.”

Bennett — “an anti-vaxxer known for airing conspiracy theories on social media” — received a misdemeanor citation from Sacramento police.

“... yes, I pushed Richard Pan for lying, laughing at us, and for treason,” wrote Bennett, unrepentant, after the incident.

Unfortunately, this violent incident is shocking but not surprising. As SB 276 has moved through the Legislature toward Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, state legislators have experienced an uptick in disturbing and threatening behavior from anti-vaccine activists.

“Lawmakers sponsoring the bill say they’ve been receiving death threats for months,” wrote Wiley earlier this month. “Someone in June mailed Assembly members dozens of bricks etched with appeals to kill the measure. On Twitter, celebrities heckle vaccine proponents and each side warns of deadly consequences.”

Anti-vaccine activists also hired a consultant who ramped up the paranoia about vaccinations to a fever pitch. He accused legislators of attempting to “sacrifice children” and said, “Any lawmaker who votes yes on SB 276 will have blood on their hands.”

With such overheated language, is it any wonder that some in the anti-vaccine movement have resorted to threats and violence?

As we have written before, there is no scientific debate about whether vaccines are safe. Vaccines save lives, and the anti-vaccine movement is based on deliberate falsehoods meant to sow confusion and prey on some people’s distrust of government.

Upon close inspection, the anti-vaccination movement is not about vaccines. It’s an anti-government conspiracy theory. In order to believe the anti-vaccination line, you have to believe the government is working proactively to harm your children (by protecting them from deadly and debilitating diseases). It’s paranoid thinking, and a very small but vocal minority of Americans fervently embrace the irrational fear of immunization.

It’s no wonder that Bennett, Pan’s attacker, also espouses conspiracy theories about mass shootings and chemtrails.

Anti-vaccine activists are surely frustrated that SB 276 appears headed for passage by the Legislature. But in a democratic society, you must work peacefully and persuasively to make the case for your cause. When you resort to threats or violence, it means you’ve lost the argument.

It takes courage to face down death threats and do the right thing. Legislators must stay the course and refuse to allow these kinds of tactics to affect their actions. SB 276 is smart and moral public health policy backed by science. It deserves swift passage in the Assembly, and the governor has already indicated his readiness to sign it.

Anti-vaccine groups must also do some soul searching about what kind of movement they’ve become. The campaign of threats, which peaked this week with the attack on Dr. Pan, seems more like terrorism than activism.

“Mr. Bennett is not a lone actor, but a person who accepted the violent rhetoric of the anti-vax movement and acted upon it by assaulting me on a public street while live streaming the attack on Facebook,” Dr. Pan said in a message released the day after the assault. “I recognize that the coalition opposed to SB 276 have condemned the assault, but they also must condemn and reject the violent rhetoric and imagery their followers employ that previously resulted in harassment and now in physical assault.”

He’s right. If anti-vaccine protesters wish to retain any legitimacy as a political force, they must renounce threatening behavior — and the overheated rhetoric that ignites it — and find rational ways to persuade.

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