Early on the morning of Oct. 28, David DePape, 42, allegedly broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home in San Francisco, and bludgeoned her husband Paul with a hammer. Pelosi received care for his injuries, including a fractured skull, at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, and returned home on Nov. 3. He is expected to make a full recovery.
The nature of the attack against Pelosi is political. CNN reported that during the intrusion, the assailant asked Pelosi where the house speaker was, implying that she was the intended target of the attack. The attempted murder of Nancy Pelosi — who is second in line to the presidency after the vice president — is reminiscent of the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, when far-right extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. According to AP News, on Jan. 6, rioters “roamed the halls and shouted menacingly, demanding ‘Where’s Nancy?’”
The parallel between the attack on Pelosi and the insurrection at the capitol is a disturbing reminder of how extremism has ballooned over the past year. A report from the Atlantic Council found that some far-right extremists have sought support by pushing into mainstream conservative politics, reaching new, susceptible audiences.
DePape was subject to the rise of right-wing extremism online. NBC Bay Area interviewed DePape’s boss, Frank Ciccarelli, about his employee’s extremist attitudes. Ciccarelli has known DePape for six years, and said that his involvement with extremist groups was “a gradual process,” and that DePape spoke about “Hillary Clinton, Pizzagate, MAGA, the election was stolen — all of it.” Along with speaking to people in his personal life about his theories, USA Today reported that DePape ran a now-deleted blog with right-wing conspiracy theories and slander targeting Black people and Jews.
Conservative social circles and sites with similar rhetoric have had an unsettling reaction to the brutality that Pelosi faced. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that multiple conspiracy theories about the attack have circulated, such as the theory that Pelosi and DePape knew each other before the attack and were involved in a romantic relationship, or that DePape was a male prostitute who Pelosi was soliciting. These theories have turned an attempted murder against a major political figure into a homophobic and classist joke.
DePape’s recollection of the attempted murder disprove these theories. Details of an interview of DePape conducted by the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) are included as evidence in the criminal complaint submitted to the U.S. District Court by FBI Special Agent Stephanie Minor. During the interview, DePape told SFPD that his goal for the morning of Oct. 28 was to “hold Nancy hostage and talk to her,” and break her kneecaps if she lied during their conversation. He also reported viewing Nancy as the “leader of the pack” of the Democratic Party. DePape disclosed that after breaking Nancy’s knees, he wanted to wheel her into Congress to show other members of Congress what the consequences of their actions were.
The claim that DePape was sexually involved with Pelosi also reinforces the harmful stereotype that gay men are predatory. This stereotype is rooted in homophobia and is pervasive enough to have dug its roots into the U.S. legal system in the form of the “gay panic defense.” According to the LGBTQ+ Bar, this defense is a strategy which asks a jury to excuse violent crimes, up to and including murder, because of the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. The conspiracy shifts the blame from DePape to Pelosi: if Pelosi is gay and was having an affair, then he was in the wrong. It removes political extremism from the context of the attack by suggesting that DePape was motivated by a personal vendetta instead of political values.
By removing politics from the situation, conservative leaders and public figures are free to pass off the attack as a personal issue of Pelosi’s instead of acknowledging the systematic issues that have contributed to the rise of political extremism and resulting violence. For example, in a now deleted tweet, Elon Musk, the new CEO of Twitter, sent out a link to an article from the Santa Monica Observer that reported Pelosi and DePape meeting and going to the Pelosi home together after spending the night at a gay bar. The author of the article said, “Here’s what really happened early Friday morning in San Francisco. IMHO (in my humble opinion).”
Musk has 114.4 million Twitter followers, which gives him an enormous reach. His decision to tweet false information about the attack on Pelosi was entirely irresponsible. Many people lack the media literacy abilities to tell false information from fact, and don’t go out of their way to fact check sources. According to Brookings, Twitter is “perfectly tailored for the spread of misinformation” because its algorithm promotes tweets with high instances of engagement. When figures like Musk post misinformation, the high level of engagement that their tweets garner means that more people will engage with and end up believing misinformation.
Regardless of the homophobia associated with the conspiracy theories about the attack, Paul Pelosi is an 82-year-old man who was just assaulted in his own home and has traumatic injuries. If he wasn’t married to a highly influential political figure, it would be out of the question to insult him by speculating about the circumstances of the attack.
By focusing on conspiracy theories and excusing extremism, we’ve lost sight of what truly matters in the face of threats to the people who are the foundation of our country’s democracy. In order to maintain the integrity of news and renew the sense of empathy that should be afforded to all people, it should be of the highest priority for those in power not to spread false information, and to encourage their audiences to think critically about the information they take in every day.