August 22, 2019 / 2:55 AM / a month ago

Anti-vaccine activist charged for assault of California senator

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - The man behind a petition drive to recall a California state senator and physician pushing for tougher vaccine requirements was charged on Wednesday with assault after livestreaming himself shoving the lawmaker in a sidewalk confrontation in Sacramento.

Kenneth Austin Bennett, 54, known for presenting his anti-vaccine views and various conspiracy theories on social media, posted self-recorded video on his own Facebook page showing him accosting Senator Richard Pan during what appears as a chance encounter on the street.

Bennett is seen immediately unleashing a tirade against Pan as he walks beside the politician, who tries to ignore, then laugh off his antagonist. Bennett then thrusts his hand into the lawmaker’s back and pushes him sharply from behind, sending Pan stumbling forward.

The lawmaker whips around to briefly face Bennett, pointing his fingers at him, shouting “Hey, hey,” then turns back around abruptly and walks away as he and a companion take out their cell phones, presumably to report the incident.

Pan, a Sacramento Democrat and medical doctor, is then seen ducking into a nearby restaurant. Bennett continues the livestream, filming himself as he acknowledges out loud, “I probably shouldn’t have done that.”

He goes on to accuse Pan of “poisoning our children,” adding, “If he got what he deserved, he would be hanged for treason, for assaulting children, for misrepresenting the truth.”

Bennett mounted an unsuccessful primary election challenge to Pan in 2018 and failed to qualify for the general election. In May, he launched a recall campaign against Pan, filing a petition accusing him of “high treason” for authoring legislation to restrict vaccine exemptions for school children.

Sacramento police called to investigate Wednesday’s confrontation, which occurred blocks away from the state Capitol, cited Bennett with misdemeanor assault, and he was released, police spokesman Marcus Basquez said.

Pan was not hurt, Basquez said.

State Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins later decried the incident in a statement saying fellow legislators would assist in investigating the matter.

“There is absolutely no reason for resorting to violence,” she said. “This is a place where laws are meant to be made, not broken.”

Pan’s spokeswoman, Shannan Velayas, was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying her boss has routinely been targeted by anti-vaccine activists since he introduced a bill in 2015 creating strict vaccine requirements for school children.

She said his more recent bill to further tighten vaccine laws has prompted a new round of threats.

“This is moving from a peculiar fringe curiosity to a violent extremist movement,” Velayas told the newspaper.

Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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