Austin Bennett takes the violent rhetoric of the antivaccine movement a step closer to real violence

Just under four years ago, I started noticing something about the antivaccine movement. Specifically, in the wake of the passage in California of SB 277, the law that eliminated nonmedical “personal belief exemptions” from school vaccine mandates, I noticed a disturbing uptick in the amount and level of rhetoric from the antivaccine movement that could be considered violent and threatening. I noticed it again after the release of Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree‘s antivaccine propaganda movie disguised as a “documentary” VAXXED. I noticed again when threats were made against journalists. I noticed it when Del Bigtree asked rhetorically what all those antivaxers with guns are waiting for. I noticed when a 50 or 60 antivaxers showed up at San Diego Comic-Con cosplaying the fictional violent terrorist V, a choice of mask that was quite worrisome, even though no doubt the antivaxers . And I noticed when an antivaxer named Austin Bennett did this:

From the Sacramento Bee:

An anti-vaxxer who airs conspiracy theories on social media was cited for a misdemeanor Wednesday afternoon after he shoved state Sen. Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat touting a vaccine crack down bill, as the lawmaker was walking to a restaurant near the Capitol. In a video that he posted to Facebook, Austin Bennett filmed himself following Pan as he walks to an Asian Pacific Islander Caucus event at Frank Fat’s, a favorite political restaurant in Sacramento. Bennett approached Pan, who was walking with Assemblyman Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, and urged him to defend his stance on vaccine safety. The two bantered back and forth about vaccine ingredients. As Pan neared the entrance to the restaurant, Bennett shoved Pan in the back.

And he posted it on Facebook Live:

Bennett happens to encounter Sen. Pan around the 9 minute mark, and he shoves him around the 9:50 mark. The rest of the video reveals a profoundly scary guy going on and on about chemtrails, toxins, and taking action about them and vaccines. I have to give Sen. Pan a lot of credit. I’m not sure I could have remained as calm as he did if someone like Austin Bennet came up alongside me and started ranting about aluminum, toxins, and water. (Apparently, Dr. Pan had made a remark about water being the most dangerous ingredient in vaccines.) Before Bennett encountered Sen. Pan, he spent nearly a solid nine minutes haranguing his audience about chemtrails, the wickedness of the world, and a variety of disturbing religious views.

Fortunately, the police are involved:

A lobbyist attending the event and who witnessed the incident called the police. Officers with the Sacramento Police Department then cited Bennett for a misdemeanor, the police report shows. “… yes, I pushed Richard Pan for lying, laughing at us and for treason,” Bennett wrote. Pan, who is also a pediatrician, wrote legislation this year that would crack down on vaccine medical exemptions in California by increasing oversight of doctors that issue the passes. The proposal, Senate Bill 276, ignited a fierce debate in the Capitol’s corridors, where hundreds of vaccine skeptics and anti-vaxxers lined up in opposition of the proposal, saying that it compromised the patient-doctor relationship and would add to “vaccine injury.” But supporters say the bill is a necessary attempt to end “fraudulent” medical exemptions that compromise the health of sick children and babies who can’t get the shots.

Meanwhile, last night Bennett was posting videos to his Facebook page trying to justify himself. I’m including them in this post more for completeness’ sake because, man, this dude just can’t seem to shut up. Also, watching him is not easy. His thoughts are pretty disordered. So I’m not saying that you should watch all these videos. (Certainly I haven’t watched all of them.) However, sampling them is a worthwhile exercise, just to see what we as vaccine advocates have to be aware of and potentially fear. Here Mr. Bennett is, looking a bit disheveled and apparently sitting in his office:

Interestingly, Austin Bennett ran against Richard Pan for the California Democratic nomination for his Senate seat last year. Unsurprisingly, he lost. Big time.

Of course, “respectable” antivax-sympathetic people are predictably pulling the “he’s just a crackpot” and “he doesn’t represent us” gambit:

Yes, it’s our old friend Dr. Jay Gordon. Of course, Dr. Vincent Ianelli is more than ready with a response:

And, of cource, if you visit Bennett’s Facebook page where, as of my bedtime, he had posted four videos since his assault on Dr. Pan, two of them fairly long. There, you will find comments like:

God bless you we are with you.

And:

I think alot of us have done alot of talking and I feel like we get no where sometimes any type of press is good press I feel like what you did was a sacrifice and I thank you for it.

And:

Love you Austin, thank you for standing for truth!!!!

And:

We are the vaccine educated party…..we all support truth & these Pan, poison pushing criminals need to be imprisoned….they will ALL be dealt with…..

And:

Why doesn’t Pan get charged for trying to take away basic human rights? He’s a pig of the most upmost evil of incarnations, and you can’t blame people for getting wound up around him, when the damage he inflicts on humanity bears no consequences.

You get the idea.

I can guess what you’re thinking (well, some of you at least). You’re thinking: WTF? This is just a nutcase. You’re not wrong there. Austin Bennett is clearly as nutty as he can be. Think about it, though. Del Bigtree has become one of the most famous faces of the antivaccine movement, and he regularly lays down rhetoric along the lines of “What are you waiting for, you antivaxers with guns?” and “We’ll lay down our lives for freedom!

Then, of course, there are the conspiracy theories:

Obviously, I don’t believe for a minute that, for example, Del Bigtree is going to take up arms to stop school vaccine mandates or that he’s going to stalk Sen. Pan or Paul Offit and gun him down in the street. With his histrionic rhetoric Bigtree is in essence doing no more than just preening for his audience and firing up his followers, all to stroke his own enormous ego. However, it’s not at all difficult to imagine someone like Austin Bennett taking someone like Del Bigtree seriously. As minor as this assault might seem, Bennett did shove Sen. Pan. Then first he said he shouldn’t have done it, after which he rambled on and on in videos justifying it, and his fans egged him on. Is it so difficult to imagine that rhetoric like that of Del Bigtree could provoke someone like Austin Bennett to do violence? After all, it hasn’t been the pastors and politicians likening abortion to murder who have killed physicians who do abortions. It’s people like Bennett inspired by such rhetoric. Del Bigtree is playing with fire, whether he knows it or not, whether he acknowledges it or not.

Hilariously, antivaxers are trying to disavow Austin Bennett. For instance, Josh Coleman:

Meanwhile, Coleman is planning something for August 28 in Sacramento, before the final vote on SB 276, the bill being considered by the California legislature that would close a major loophole in SB 277:

Personally, I think they’ll probably cosplay V or something like that. V, as you recall, is the fictional violent terrorist dressed in black wearing a Guy Fawkes mask who fought against a totalitarian government in a dystopian version of the UK. Recall that 50 or 60 antivaxers dressed up as V and paraded around the streets near the San Diego Convention Center in July during Comic-Con waving signs with easily refuted antivax tropes.

The bottom line is simple. Antivaxers have become increasingly violent in their rhetoric. One of them has attacked Dr. Pan. Even though the assault was minor and Dr Pan wasn’t injured, I view this as a disturbing turn of events, not so much for what it was, but much more for what it could portend in the future. As I’ve said before, I’m a bit worried for the A-list vaccine advocates, such as Dr. Richard Pan, Dr. Paul Offit, Dorit Reiss, Dr. Peter Hotez, and many others. I’m even a little bit worried for myself, although fortunately I’m just not big enough of a fish to attract that much attention.