On a personal note: Paul Pelosi, my own hammer attack, and thoughts on stopping political violence

The scene outside the Pelosi home in San Francisico. (Photo: AP)

Oct. 30, 2022 by David Silverberg

In the early morning hours of Friday, Oct. 28, Paul Pelosi, husband of the Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.), was attacked with a hammer in his San Francisco, Calif., home by an assailant screaming, “Where’s Nancy?”

As of this writing, Mr. Pelosi is in the hospital recovering with a fractured skull and other wounds. The assailant, David DePape, is in custody. No doubt many more details will be revealed in the days to come. Mr. Pelosi certainly has all the thoughts, prayers, best wishes and good will I can send him.

As horrifying as an act of political violence can be, when I heard of it, I felt a special chill run up my spine.

I know exactly how it feels to be attacked with a hammer.

Spoiler alert: It hurts. A lot.

In 1981, a mugger tried to kill me with a hammer and nearly succeeded.

Actually, being hit with the hammer didn’t hurt me at all. That’s because the blow that slammed the back of my skull knocked me unconscious.

Even after I woke up on my back on a sidewalk in a pool of blood with police, emergency medical technicians and blue flashing emergency lights all around me it didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt in the ambulance or at the hospital when I gave a statement to police and drew a picture of my assailant.

Only when the excitement died down and people left my side and I was on a gurney awaiting X-rays and further examination, did it start to hurt. And then the pain built, intensified, became overwhelming and obliterated all else. It bore like a twisting corkscrew into the center of my brain. And when you have a head wound you get no pain relievers because the doctors don’t know how you’ve been affected so you just have to tough it out, fully conscious and awake.

Technicians came and asked the date (in my case, Nov. 19, 1981). They asked the name of the sitting president (Ronald Reagan). They asked for my name. Fortunately, for me, I had it together and could answer the questions.

I hope Mr. Pelosi similarly has it together. Speaker Pelosi asked for privacy and she and her husband deserve it, so some details will be withheld.

It’s clear, however, that Speaker Pelosi was the target of this assailant—and this is hardly the first time she’s been targeted for violence.

Both Pelosis are victims of a rise in violence and violent rhetoric in American political life. That trend has a single, recent and obvious point of origin. It’s a bad trend. Even if it can’t be stopped cold, there are nonetheless ways it can be confronted. Indeed, one small measure has just come out in—of all places—Southwest Florida.

And for the record, nobody—nobody—should ever be hit with a hammer.

A Maryland mugging

To fill in the rest of this story: What happened to me was an attempted robbery on a street in Silver Spring, Md., a suburb of Washington, DC.

On the night in question, I passed two young men on a deserted street at about 10 pm. My assailants never spoke to me or asked for money. After one hit me on the back of my head with his fist, the other attacked with a ball peen hammer. After a brief defense with a bag holding books (I was returning home from the National Press Club book fair), I fled. The hammer-wielder caught up with me, knocked me unconscious and then, when I was down, hit me again on the back of the head.

Police had been watching and were on the scene almost instantaneously. But the hammer-wielder wasn’t done yet. The first plainclothes policeman to arrive was only carrying a radio. The hammer-wielder hit him full force in the face, smashing his jaw. Then the assailant turned and charged the rest of the team coming up the street. One detective told me he had his gun drawn and the assailant in his sights but another policeman ran into the field of fire. Otherwise that would have been the end.

A police car raced up the street and rammed the hammer-wielder just as the rest of the team grabbed him. All of them went tumbling over the car’s hood but the hammer-wielder was finally apprehended. The other mugger ran in the other direction and was arrested with less drama. He was carrying a big fire hydrant wrench that he unsuccessfully tried to use as a weapon.

As the police told me later, when would-be robbers use blunt instruments, their intention is to kill. A robber armed with a gun or knife usually just wants to scare people into giving up money or valuables. But people using clubs or hammers fully intend to do bodily harm or kill to get what they want.

Both muggers had commuted to Silver Spring by Metro from inner city Washington, specifically to commit crimes. The hammer-wielder was named Paul Edward Sykes. He was charged with my attempted murder and assaulting a police officer. Sixteen years old, he was tried as an adult because of the capital nature of his crime and sentenced to 19 years for the attempted murder and 19 for hitting the officer, to be served consecutively. It was later commuted to just 19 years.

I was lucky: I made a full recovery. I believe I lost some hearing and I can’t sleep on my left side anymore because when I fell, I fell on my face and it may have injured nasal passages. But one of the worst effects of a hammer injury to the head is the uncertainty of its effects. Just exactly what brain functions had been affected? A victim is left wondering, sometimes for years.

(Murder with blunt objects takes place regularly in the United States. According to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics, 243 people were killed with blunt objects in 2021. Southwest Florida had its own such experience in 2015 when Dr. Teresa Sievers was killed with 17 blows from a hammer in her Bonita Springs home. Her husband, Mark, is currently awaiting execution for arranging the murder.)

In my case, when it was all finished, I felt that justice had been done. I was able to make a victim impact statement before sentencing and received restitution. In fact, so unusual was it to see the system work the way it was intended that I wrote an essay about it that was published in the “Periscope” section of Newsweek. In those days that was a big deal.

The accomplice, Lawrence Hardy, was 15 years and 9 months old and tried as a juvenile, receiving a much lighter sentence. I still have an apologetic greeting card he sent me. It’s titled “Sorry about your accident.”

The history of violence

The attack on Pelosi—and the attempt on the Speaker—is part of a dark side of American history.

Political violence has marred American politics in the past. In 1804 Vice President Aaron Burr killed former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel. In 1856 Rep. Preston Brooks (D-SC) savagely beat Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) with a cane at his desk on the floor of the Senate. There have been other duels and fights among politicians as well, most before the Civil War.

Since then politicians have carefully refrained from advocating or threatening actual physical violence. They’ve known that nowhere is the Golden Rule applied more forcefully than in politics: what you do unto others will most certainly be done unto you. It largely kept violent language out of the public arena, no matter how impassioned the issues or debates.

That applied until 2015. It’s not hard to find the starting point for rise in violence and violent rhetoric in recent American political life. It starts with Donald Trump. As a candidate, Trump broke the taboo against invoking or encouraging violence. At his 2016 campaign rallies, Trump said things like, “I’d like to punch him in the face,” of a protester and “part of the problem is no one wants to hurt each other anymore.” Speaking of behavior at his rallies, at one point he said “the audience hit back. That’s what we need a little bit more of.” And in reflecting on a protest the previous day, “I’ll beat the crap out of you.”

Illustration by Jesse Duquette.

Trump didn’t slow down when he was elected president, infamously equating violent neo-Nazis and racists in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 as “good people on both sides.”

He made other statements too. But, of course, his most infamous act was inciting the crowd at his Jan. 6, 2021 rally on the Ellipse to physically attack the United States Capitol and members of Congress and lynch his vice president. In a presidential vehicle, he himself violently grabbed the throat of a Secret Service officer who wouldn’t take him to the Capitol.

What is most striking about Donald Trump is that he’s physically a coward. He’s never put himself in harm’s way as a member of the armed forces. He’s always been protected and never been physically attacked. He has no idea what it’s like to be on the receiving end of violence. To him, urging violence is a game, a show of machismo, an abstraction, a catharsis, something he can get away with without consequences. As he infamously put it: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?”

The closest he ever came to feeling what it’s like to be attacked was when an eagle he was using in a Time magazine photo shoot tried to bite him. Clearly, the eagle wasn’t impressed with his tweets, his wealth or his fame.

Candidate Donald Trump flees the wrath of a bald eagle named Sam during a Time magazine photo shoot in 2015. (Photo: Time)

At the grassroots

Trump’s acceptance and encouragement of violence has leached down to grassroots America and the attack on Paul Pelosi is one example of it.

But even Southwest Florida has reflected Trump’s attitudes. In the 2020 congressional campaign in the 19th Congressional District along the Paradise Coast, the multitude of Republican candidates promoted their rage and especially their affinity for firearms in their campaigns. Candidates insulted each other and fired weapons on screen, at times directly threatening each other.

Then-state Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen takes aim in a 2020 campaign ad for state Senate in which she warned her opponent to stop lying about her record. (Image: Campaign)

Nor has the violent rhetoric eased. For example, on June 16 of this year extreme conservative farmer and grocer Alfie Oakes called for the public execution of federal judge Christopher Cooper of the District of Columbia, for sentencing anti-vaccine doctor Simone Gold for her role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“Simone Gold likely saved more Americans than anyone in history… by prescribing millions of doses of ivermectin.. She is a true American hero!” Oakes posted. “The bought and paid for corrupt DC judge that sentenced her to 60 days in jail is a traitor to this country and should be publicly executed!” (The post, originally appearing at https://www.facebook.com/alfieforamerica/posts/pfbid02qcYvDbunLP7JzVdoK5R227rmaKvPnbaHDRT8W3P4GqcaufMGhWxJwQZiPNcuiwxXl, was removed after many days online.)

But as one reader, Matt Fahnestock, posted in reply: “We need a plan of action.”

Deterring violence

The use of violence for political ends is a bad road that leads to a bad end. In their classic 2018 book How Democracies Die, authors Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky write: “We should worry when a politician 1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game, 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, 3) tolerates or encourages violence or 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.”

They also list four criteria for judging incipient use of anti-democratic violence in politics: “Do [authoritarian politicians] have any ties to armed gangs, paramilitary forces, militias, guerrillas, or other organizations that engage in illicit violence? Have they or their partisan allies sponsored or encouraged mob attacks on opponents? Have they tacitly endorsed violence by their supporters by refusing to unambiguously condemn it and punish it? Have they praised (or refused to condemn) other significant acts of political violence, either in the past or elsewhere in the world?”

Remember, that was written in 2017.

People do not have to feel helpless in the face of incipient violence. The use of violence is illegal, it’s still punished under the law. Honest, impartial law enforcement can and must crack down on the criminals who engage in it, as is happening in the Paul Pelosi case and in the prosecution of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. Opponents of violence have the law on their side.

It’s also important that existing authorities and governments express their condemnation of political violence. Here, Southwest Florida is leading the way.

On Tuesday, Oct. 25, the Collier County Board of Commissioners issued a proclamation condemning bigotry, anti-Semitism and hate crimes. (Full disclosure: This author conceived and drafted the text.)

That proclamation “condemns any call to violence or use of violence for any purpose at any time; and resolves to actively and vigorously oppose, investigate, and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law any advocacy of violence, acts of violence, or crimes manifesting hatred against any person, property, or institution based on faith, race, gender, creed, sexual orientation.”

A government proclamation won’t end or stop violence. But it puts the government, the legitimate elected local authority, on the record against it and makes clear that there’s no acceptance or tolerance of it in the jurisdiction. It means that local authorities are committed to enforcing the law.

If every town, city and county in the country adopted the Collier County proclamation, it would at least put them on the record opposing political violence and deny its legitimacy. It would help ensure that political violence is neither condoned, accepted nor excused. What is more, getting localities to issue the proclamations is something that activists and everyday citizens can do at the local level in their own home towns.

Beyond the larger concepts of violence and politics and democracy, violence is horrible at any level. It maims. It kills. It ruins lives. It leaves widows and orphans and families bereft and devastated. It weakens communities. It destroys social unity. It can bring down democracies.

And on a personal level, this author can authoritatively attest that it hurts like hell. It doesn’t take a hammer to drive that point home.

Here’s blessings and luck to Paul Pelosi. May he swiftly recover and be made whole. And may we all, with the help of God, protect these United States.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

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4 thoughts on “On a personal note: Paul Pelosi, my own hammer attack, and thoughts on stopping political violence

  1. Beautifully and poignantly stated, David. So sorry for your past violent experience. Fortunately, it did not damage your intellect and writing talent. On a related note, I did not know Oakes made those recent violent statements. How could he get away with that unscathed? I reported him and his band of merry insurrectionists to the FBI just after January 6, but so far no repercussions that I am aware of. I would like to get the Department of Agriculture to stop giving him money, but do not know where to start within the bureaucracy.

    Mary Wilson

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

  2. Sorry you had to experience such a wretched and painful injury, David. But I’m glad you recovered as well as you have. (I, too, once was accosted, though on the streets of Washington, not Silver Springs, by two thugs seeking to rob me. But I was lucky. They did not attack me. This was about the same time you were assaulted and injured. You are certainly right that the level of violent rhetoric is totally because of Trump. And he is a complete coward. It’s still amazing and incomprehensible that people, especially religious people, continue to support him.

    Like

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