By Jessica Parral and James Clark
Anonymous demonstrators assembled in front of the Church of Scientology on Seabright Avenue: two wore masks — one surgical, one with the face of the Burger King mascot — while another partially obscured her face with a scarf. They held signs that read “Stop Scientology” and “Free Cult Test.”
Though the scene in Santa Cruz was restricted to five relatively peaceful protesters, members of an Internet group that calls itself “Anonymous” took to the streets in cities across the world Feb. 10 to protest the Church of Scientology.
The group accused the religion of being oppressive, cultish, fraudulent and harmful to its members. In total, thousands of people protested. Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, London and Sydney all had crowds in the hundreds.
Anonymous is composed of a group of people banded together by the Internet, through sites such as SlashDot and YouTube.
According to demonstrators, members of the church approached them in the early hours of the day and proceeded to photograph them. A short time later the police came by and greeted the assembled picketers. After convincing officers that they had violated no laws and posed no threat, the cops drove off.
After the police had gone, the church’s landlords came by in an SUV armed with a camcorder. After the demonstrators explained their intent to protest the Church of Scientology, the landlords left.
“This is about informing people. It’s not a hostile protest,” one demonstrator said.
The protest that day was part of a larger campaign that began in January when a Scientology promotional video starring Tom Cruise leaked on YouTube, prompting the Church of Scientology to demand removal of the video.
The Church of Scientology is no stranger to criticism. Started in 1952 by L. Ron Hubbard, the religion advocates using Dianetics, a process of reading the connections between spirit, mind and body. Scientology followers include Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but even the endorsement of celebrities cannot remove its stigmatic reputation. The governments of Germany and France have classified Scientology as a cult.
Members of various Web sites and forums such as Ebaumsworld.com, 4chan.org and 711chan.org, were angered by the Church’s move, calling it censorship. However, the Church of Scientology says that the video was copyrighted material. Within days, the anger escalated into a full-out declaration of war on the church by those Web sites, which Anonymous calls “Project Chanology.”
The name “Anonymous” comes from the message board-type Web sites where users can post images and comments anonymously. It is more of a blanket term than a monolithic group for members of the Internet culture.
“We’re not OK with the fact that [the Church of Scientology seems] to enjoy scamming people out of thousands and thousands of dollars,” one protester said Sunday.
Some of the more serious allegations Anonymous has lodged against Scientology include responsibility for the deaths of several members. The protest was held on the birthday of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who died under mysterious circumstances while in the care of Scientology doctors.
Karin Pouw, a Scientology spokesperson, denies that the Church holds any fault in her death. “Lisa McPherson is a Scientologist who passed away and the authorities confirmed that she died of an accidental death,” she said.
Pouw condemned Anonymous’s use of McPherson’s name, saying, “It’s actually hurtful to people who knew her.”
The Church of Scientology has responded with a press release, which accuses Anonymous of religious bigotry and harassment.
The press release calls Anonymous “cyber-terrorists” and claims that Scientology centers have received threatening phone calls and e-mails, as well as envelopes of a white powdery substance in the mail.
“The statement is pretty much our position. We’re not offering interviews,” Scientology spokesperson Lisa Peters said. Her sentiment was echoed by other spokespeople for the church, who referred back to the press release when asked for a response to the protests. However, some Scientology officials gave their own views on the matter.
“I think you could say that this was a hate crime, calculated to stir up emotions against the Church of Scientology,” said Mark Warlick, committee affairs director. “It is simply bigotry … Anonymous started their campaign as sort of a prank and then got themselves into breaking the law.”
“Anonymous is just a label,” one protester, a self-proclaimed “ambassador for Anonymous” said. “We are everyone and we are no one.”
Because Anonymous is decentralized and has no governing body, the actions of its members are beyond the group’s control. One press release from Anonymous reflected this disorganization. “We are the faces of chaos…We ruin the lives of other people simply because we can… Hundreds die in a plane crash. We laugh.”
The press release goes on to depict Anonymous in an unfavorable light, but the demonstrators who read it couldn’t hold back laughs. “This isn’t what we’re about at all!” their unnamed leader said, identifiable only by a surgical mask and a black leather trench coat.
“The people who say this kind of stuff are fringe members. They don’t speak for us,” echoed another.
The protesters also responded to accusations of cyber-terrorism from the Church of Scientology. “I can’t even hack a computer, I just watch videos and check e-mail,” one said.
The dispute between the two groups draws attention to the limits of personal freedoms when they conflict with one another. Anonymous espouses freedom of speech, while the Church of Scientology defends its freedom to practice religion.
“I think that the protections that we enjoy for freedom of worship exist so long as we don’t step over the line,” said Robert Goff, UCSC professor emeritus of philosophy. He added, “When religious worship and belief cross over into things like fraud, victimization of others and the disruption of the political arena, that protection is no longer appropriate.”