An anti-vaccine activist was cited for assault after pushing a California lawmaker who's been at the forefront of tightening vaccine requirements for school children.
Kenneth Austin Bennett, an anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist who previously ran a write-in campaign for California State Senate, was livestreaming on Facebook around noon on Wednesday while walking near the state capitol in Sacramento. After about 8 minutes of rambling about corruption and the devil, he ran into state Sen. Dr. Richard Pan on a sidewalk.
Pan, a pediatrician and lawmaker, led the California legislature's response to a 2015 measles outbreak that started in Disneyland, ultimately ending the ability of parents to opt out of vaccinating their kindergartners based on religion or personal beliefs. Pan is now working on a bill that would create further oversight on medical exemptions against vaccination, a move that he said is necessary for children's safety in public schools. Anti-vaccine activists have packed hearings to voice opposition, in some cases screaming at or threatening Pan.
On Wednesday, Bennett confronted Pan about his previous statements that vaccines are safe. Bennett walked alongside Pan, peppering him with discredited anti-vaccine arguments about mercury and aluminum.
"I'm a constituent," he said. "I want to know."
In response, Pan maintained a smile, suggested Bennett study public health, and disputed that vaccines contain dangerous levels of metals.
Bennett then pushed Pan from behind.
"Yeah, I pushed you," he said. "I pushed you. I pushed you. Adios."
Pan and another man called Sacramento police. When officers arrived, they found that Pan was not injured, Officer Marcus Basquez told BuzzFeed News. Bennett was cited and released from the scene on a charge of misdemeanor assault, Basquez said.
In a statement Thursday, Pan called on Facebook to remove the video, expressing concern that it may incite "a future assailant who seeks to up the ante with a weapon."
"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," said Pan, who has received death threats for his efforts to tighten vaccine requirements. "Social media companies also need to accept responsibility for giving a platform for this violence and hate."
A spokesperson for Facebook told BuzzFeed News the company will not be taking down the video after determining it did not violate its policies on violence and coordinating harm.
"We want everyone using Facebook to feel safe — that’s why we have Community Standards and remove anything that violates them, including violent content," the spokesperson said. "In this instance, after a thorough investigation, we determined there was no basis to remove the video as it does not violate our policies."
In his video, Bennett said he was outraged by Pan's attempt to keep the confrontation positive.
"I probably shouldn't have done that, but to laugh...," he said.
In the hours after the incident, Bennett continued to livestream on Facebook, where he said he stood by what he had done.
"I was charged with assaulting Richard Pan, but also had the chance to further expose the corrupt politician," he captioned one video.
Bennett spoke about a number of conspiracy theories, saying that he was being censored and "shadow-banned" by Facebook. He accused Pan of treason, then moved on to criticizing the "deep state," fluoride in drinking water, and "chemtrails."
"We are being moved to a New World Order," he said.
Pan's legislation on vaccines has proven successful in raising immunization rates among California children and prompted similar action in other states that have also struggled to quell measles outbreaks, including New York.
But after California ended religious and personal belief exemptions to vaccines, the state saw a jump in medical exemptions. Some children, including those who have cancer or organ transplants, for example, cannot be safely vaccinated. But with some schools reporting that 10% of their students have medical exemptions, Pan said there are doctors and anti-vaccine parents who are abusing the system — putting kids with actual medical issues at risk as herd immunity drops and disease outbreaks become more likely.
“We want to be sure that children who genuinely need a medical exemption get one. They need them,” Pan told BuzzFeed News earlier this year. “That means we can’t have a bunch of other kids, whose parents basically bought the medical exemption, who don’t really need them.”