In the federal criminal complaint against David DePape, the 42-year-old conspiracist who in October beat Paul Pelosi with a hammer, there’s a passage seemingly lifted from an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
It’s 2:31 a.m., and the door of Chez Pelosi is opened to the police. Within, DePape and pajamas-clad Pelosi are dancing an awkward pas-de-deux of sorts, each with his hand on a menacing claw hammer. Per the complaint, “Pelosi greeted the officers. The officers asked them what was going on. DePape responded that everything was good.” (emphasis mine).
If you can imagine Jeff Garlin and Larry David in such a situation, it’s funny. But, on Friday, the police body-cam footage of the attack was made public and disseminated worldwide. And with DePape and Pelosi portraying themselves, it’s not. DePape, listed at 6-foot-2 in his booking documents, has the appearance of a rugby player gone to seed. Pelosi is 82. It is a brutal video; even the cop who quickly responds to the violence yells, “oh, shit!”
Numerous local and national media outlets ran the footage with variations of a carnival barker-like headline: Watch the dramatic attack! After observing Pelosi get his head bashed in, viewers were treated to web advertisements (a lady doing yoga and using skin lotion; a kid hiding in a box in a commercial hawking app software. The sponsors must be thrilled with the ad placement).
Sadly, we haven’t yet really achieved the cool and uplifting elements of classic science fiction novels — but the monetization and public consumption of real violence and insatiable demand for stimulation foreseen by Ray Bradbury and others has long since come to pass.
All in all, the Pelosi video is just another brick in the wall. In fact, it was not even the most awful video released on Friday: That would be footage of five Memphis police officers beating and Tasing Tyre Nichols to death.
Perhaps it’s worth taking a step back and noting that a regular person who merely wants to stay on top of the news finds themself regularly besieged with videos of real people being harmed or killed.
But there are also plenty of irregular people who love that kind of stuff. And they will especially enjoy this video of Nancy Pelosi’s husband being beaten with a hammer.
Following DePape’s Oct. 28 arrest, we talked to Abner Hauge, the founder of Left Coast Right Watch, a website that monitors far-right extremism. It was clear that police body-cam footage of the attack would find its way into the public domain, and Hauge was clear on how violent right-wingers would react: They “are gonna love it. These are people who get off on violence. They love watching people they deem ‘evil’ being hurt or killed.”
This attack footage would be fetishized and meme-ified and used for both recruitment purposes and just for shits and giggles. It would be spread throughout the right-wing web and serve as “chum in the water.” It is proof positive that “you can do this.”
At a hearing last week, DePape’s defense attorney argued against the release of this footage. Among his concerns was that its dissemination would add fuel to the dopey and homophobic conspiracy theories like the one that DePape was, in effect, a rent boy and this was a lover’s dispute between him and Pelosi (a news outlet that earlier reported Hillary Clinton was dead and had been replaced by a doppelgänger wrote up a story about this, which was dutifully retweeted by that Ben Carson of tech, Elon Musk).
The attack video has been released; clearly, these were not compelling arguments. Because, truth be told, the most pressing concern isn’t about people who don’t think this happened. These are people who will never be convinced by clear, factual evidence anyway — and who would’ve certainly read something sinister and conspiratorial into the government moving to suppress the footage.
The real danger is among viewers who know this attack happened. And think it’s great.
“As we saw with the shootings over the weekend, there are a lot of people who are ready to explode, and it’s just a matter of when they come in contact with a lighted match,” said Michael Boorman, an extremism researcher at Left Coast Right Watch.
“My worry would not be about something else happening to a national-level politician. My big worry would be that the same kind of thing will happen to some local official who does not have security and isn’t prepared for that. The worst-case scenario is someone is watching this who already has a bunch of political grievances they want to act on and is going to go find a guy on the school board or a health official he blames for the covid lockdown.”
And, adds Hauge, “they won’t just think ‘yeah, this motivates me to do this.’ They’ll think, ‘That guy did it and made it look easy.’”
This video will be put in front of untold numbers of viewers who think thoughts like that. It will reverberate up, down and sideways around the right-wing web infrastructure, pushed along by pseudonymous people or weirdos who only seem to be a big deal on social media platforms and eventually be amplified by more serious right-wing figures; the kinds of guys who wear Brooks Brothers jackets and regimental ties when fulminating about racist conspiracies more closely associated with people marching with tiki torches.
So, the video will get out there. It always does. Jonathan Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, notes that violent zealots often bypass the middleman to ensure this happens.
“We’ve seen right-wing extremists who undertook some of the most horrific acts of violence — the shootings in Christchurch at the mosque; the shootings in Buffalo at the Tops supermarket — intentionally live-stream,” he says. “They put on a body-cam and recorded themselves engaging in this act of violence because they wanted to show the world what they were doing.”
When ostensibly responsible media outlets glibly broadcast real instances of mayhem and death — Watch the dramatic attack! — they are, in essence, doing the assailant’s work for him.
So, this is something that merits introspection.
“The fact is,” warns Lewis, “you have a not-insignificant subset of people who will look at this and say, ‘This is good.’”
The situation only grows more complex, because the legal argument to reveal this footage to the public is so uncomplicated.
Attorney Thomas R. Burke handled the matter for a consortium of media outlets who demanded access to the materials. Burke pretty much won his case in a walkover, because the footage in question was all presented in open court, making it prima facie fair game for the public.
“If the videos are going to be used by white nationalists to celebrate the moment, that’s a possibility,” he acknowledged. But it would be a greater problem “to not allow the public to know what’s going on in a courtroom.”
David Loy, the legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, emphasized this point. “When a party introduces evidence in open court, the public has the right to view and access that evidence. We don’t have secret courts and secret justice in this country.”
Could this material be weaponized? Of course. But “you do not want the government or a court deciding whether or not something should be made public, depending on the expected use of the information,” says James Wheaton, the founder of the First Amendment Project.
“The public right to know specific information vs. perceived misuse of said information is nothing the court, or any branch of government, can or should do anything about.”
These are winning arguments; we are, after all, viewing the footage. To have the government intervene would, in Loy’s words, be “a cure worse than the disease.” To expect amoral social media outfits and web platforms to adequately police the use of this material is naive — and, as noted earlier, even much of legacy media has chosen to blithely amplify the lurid content.
In the end, we stand and fall based upon the better angels of our nature. This is, and always has been, a dodgy proposition.
David DePape may yet be found innocent. He may be found guilty. But he was definitely wrong about one thing: Everything is not good.
This article originally published on Jan. 27.