Lara Korte and Hannah Wiley
Los Angeles Times
State lawmakers attended what was supposed to be a routine Capitol budget hearing last week assessing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s spending plans for next year. But when the time came for public comment, things took a dark turn.
“If you want to vaccinate everyone in California, you guys are not thinking,” one speaker, who did not identify herself, said. “And there’s one more note: 17 million guns were purchased in the United States … what do you think they’re going to do with that?”
The following speaker, who also did not identify herself, made the message clear:
“Keep threatening us. Keep taking our s—- away. Keep telling us we can’t do anything about it and see how much longer we’re going to sit here and wait to give public comment,” she said. “We didn’t buy guns for nothing.”
California lawmakers are well-acquainted with harsh comments from anti-vaccine activists. Groups affiliated with them have held large demonstrations over the past several years and at times shut down proceedings during votes.
But the comments made in the halls of California government come barely a week after a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol at a time when officials and law enforcement are bracing for the possibility of civil unrest and armed conflict at state capitols across the country.
On Thursday, while the anti-vaccine speakers threatened gun violence from the gallery of the state Senate, workers outside were encircling the Capitol building with a 6-foot high fence in anticipation of weekend protests. The same day, Newsom announced he had activated the National Guard to deploy 1,000 troops to Sacramento.
With the growing tensions and increased calls to action from radical political groups, some worry that political threats may manifest into something more serious.
“There have always been people with conspiratorial beliefs and at least some potential for violence lurking,” said Eric Schickler, co-director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at Berkeley. “But I do think what we’re seeing now is becoming a lot more prominent and people seem to feel more comfortable expressing, in some cases unfortunately acting, on these views.”
“I do think it’s a sign of the higher political temperature that’s in the air,” he added.
Over the last year, with the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic consequences, Californians have had plenty to be angry about. Some of it has manifested in the form of a growing effort to recall the Democratic governor.
But it’s not just California-specific resentment that is fueling the threats, Schickler said.
“Normally, you wouldn’t expect this kind of thing to veer into something like violence,” he said. “Think about when Gray Davis was recalled, I don’t think people were worried about the violence in the Capitol, even when people were angry at the government and angry at his administration.
“Whereas now, with the combination of COVID turning everything upside down and causing so much dislocation, and then the kind of political environment in Washington, makes it a little more explosive,” he added.
Legislative leaders on Friday took additional steps to protect Capitol staff. They directed Capitol employees to stay out of the building until Tuesday.
The state Senate also closed its gallery to the public on Friday. It’s unclear how or when it might reopen.
“It’s unfortunate that we had to make the decision to close the gallery today, but it was a necessary step to keep members and staff safe, and we were still able to allow for members of the public who wished to participate to observe Senate session from a committee room,” Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins said in a statement on Friday. “I would hope that these kinds of thinly-veiled threats stop—there is a distinct difference between making an argument and threatening violence.”
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon’s office said additional security measures have been implemented for the lower chamber, though they are not discussing those security measures publicly.
The activists who issued threatening comments during the hearing this week specifically named Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who for years has been the target of anti-vaccine groups because he’s sponsored laws that compel children to receive vaccines before attending school.
He viewed the remarks at the budget hearing as an escalation of violent rhetoric he’s observed online. He fears it will continue if people threatening lawmakers do not suffer consequences.
“Especially in light of what happened in the U.S. Capitol, this has been a steady escalation over the years … and I think, ‘what’s the end point to this?’ Because right now, there’s threatening, at what point do we actually have an attempt to kill?,” he said.
Thursday was not the first time anti-vaccination advocates disrupted the Capitol or targeted him.
In 2015, they showed up en masse to protest Senate Bill 277, which eliminated religious and personal beliefs from the list of reasons families could skip immunizations for their school children. Pan, who is also a pediatrician, wrote the law in response to a Disneyland measles outbreak that began at the end of 2014 and led to more than 100 new infections.
In 2019, Pan followed up with another proposal to close what he called an unintentional loophole in the law that he said allowed too many families in geographic pockets of California to find doctors who would issue bogus medical exemptions.
On the final night of the 2019 session, one woman halted Senate floor proceedings for hours when she threw her menstrual cup full of blood over the public observation balcony and onto lawmakers at their desks.
Sacramento and state law enforcement officials are bracing for any conflict over the weekend, as national officials and intelligence experts warn that some could be plotting attacks at centers of government ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration. The California Highway Patrol revoked a permit for a planned pro-Trump event on Sunday, and the agency said it’s on “high alert” for arrest.
Whether such threats against politicians continue in the coming weeks could depend on how politicians react to them.
“I think there’s some within the Republican party who want to turn the page on Trump in a clear way, and I think part of that would involved a shift in tone, a shift in approach, but there are other folks who see this as something that works in elections. And a lot of politicians now… believe a lot of this stuff,” Schickler at Berkeley said. “I wouldn’t be confident that it just goes away, but its certainly the hope that we’ll see a gradual lowering of the temperature, but it’s hard to know.”