Image: AP

California State Senator Richard Pan, a physician and sponsor of several pro-vaccine bills, was assaulted Wednesday by an anti-vaccine activist. Kenneth Austin Bennett, who previously attempted to run against Pan as a write-in candidate, livestreamed himself shoving the senator. Pan has been the focus of increasingly heated rhetoric from anti-vaccine activists and conspiracy theorists, some of whom are now suggesting he staged the attack himself.

For years now, Pan has been the target of death threats and racist abuse for sponsoring pro-vaccine bills. He’s currently the co-sponsor of a bill, SB 276, that would bring medical exemptions under closer regulation by the state’s public health department. The video uploaded by Bennett shows him wandering through downtown Sacramento before encountering Pan and another man on a sidewalk.

“What are the chances of this!” he exclaims, before pursuing Pan down the street, making a variety of untrue claims about vaccines. “You’ve got to tell us, please, I beseech you, why do you think water is the most dangerous ingredient in vaccines?” he declares at one point. “Now’s your chance.”

As Pan continued to make his way down the street, Bennett continued yelling, eventually shoving him from behind. As Pan and the other man turn around, exclaiming in surprise, Bennett can be heard yelling, “Yeah, I pushed you! I pushed you. I pushed you. Adios.” As he walks away, he tells the camera, “I probably shouldn’t have done that,” adding, “If he got what he deserved, he would be hanged for treason for assaulting children, for misrepresenting the truth.” The caption of his video reads “... yes, I pushed Richard Pan for lying, laughing at us and for treason.”

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After Pan called the police, Bennett was cited for misdemeanor assault and released; he immediately began streaming on Facebook again.

In a statement, Pan pointed out that this is part of a long pattern of abuse directed at him:

Bullying, threats, and violence should not be acceptable in civil discourse and policy making. Yesterday’s assault was incited by violent rhetoric and imagery employed by anti-vaccine extremists. Anti-vaxxers have attempted to dehumanize me and other public health advocates on social media while making death threats. When rallying here at the Capitol, they displayed posters and wore shirts with my face splattered with blood. Vaxxed producer Del Bigtree, who promoted a doctored video of his attempt to harass me in the Capitol, told his followers, “I don’t know what you were saving that gun for then. I don’t know when you planned on using it….”

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In a follow-up press conference on Thursday afternoon, Pan told reporters:

Being harassed by an anti vaxxer in a public place is, unfortunately, an experience I’ve had frequently so that was no surprise. But I’m certainly disappointed he decided to take a blow to me in the back after I walked past him. You can imagine walking down the street and suddenly being confronted from the back.

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He also said that he’s seen Bennett at previous events “shouting questions based on anti-vaccine memes and mythology,” and said that the assault gained him “the notoriety and adulation of his followers,” many of whom can been seen praising Bennett in the comments of the video.

Actor Rob Schneider—yes, that one—has evolved into a strident anti-vaccine activist, and denounced the attack on Pan in a tweet.

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But the responses to his tweet are full of conspiracy theories and unfounded suspicion from the anti-vaccine crowd. That’s been consistently true; in hashtags like #NOSB276 that are frequently used by the anti-vax lobby, a substantial number of people are accusing Pan of staging the attack himself.

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Pan, meanwhile, told reporters at the press conference that he’s relieved the incident wasn’t worse, though he said it was “more violent” than what can be seen on video. “My first thought is that I’m glad it wasn’t a knife,” he said. In the end, he added, Bennett’s motivations were obvious, at least to him: “He’s hoping to incite someone to take the next step.”