“Our nonsense is free.”
If any single sign best described the spirit of the protesters parked in front of the Church of Scientology’s Time Square headquarters on Saturday it was that sentiment, referencing not only the Church’s notorious “pay-as-you-go” brand of religious instruction but the upbeat, sometimes goofy demeanor of the loose-knit band of activists that make up the scourge of Scientology, “Anonymous.”
“Operation Party Hard” celebrated the birthday of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard with protests at Church outposts across the world. In New York close to 300 people did their best to hide their faces from Scientology’s cameras to air their grievances with the Church, though Anons assured the handful of reporters in attendance that “over 9,000” of their compatriots were attending similar events in other cities.
Given the Church of Scientology’s history of harassing its critics, a policy outlined in Hubbard’s “fair game” memo of the mid-1960’s, no member of the assembled throng would offer their names to the media, stating instead that they were just “Anonymous.” Anonymous #1 wore a black suit and tie and covered his face with a paper surgical mask. He said he was there to oppose Scientology’s treatment of its own parishioners. Critics have accused the Church of cutting members off from their families, controlling every aspect of their lives and even, as in the case of Lisa McPherson, having a hand in a member’s death.
“What brings me personally here is how disgusted I am with their practices against their own patrons,” said Anonymous #1. “They charge thousands and thousands of dollars and they have been known to commit egregious crimes against members of their own church…Simply look up Lisa McPherson. Her name will reveal enough.”
Anonymous #2 wore a top hat and sunglasses, and said his personal mission was to alert onlookers of the “unfair” tax exempt status enjoyed by the Church of Scientology. At least 80 percent of all fees for “religious training and services” paid to the Church of Scientology are tax deductible, a privilege enjoyed by no other religion and a fact that does not sit well with Church critics. “They actually have a better tax exempt status than any other religion of all the established religions,” said Anonymous #2. While we spoke, he noted the presence of a very obvious camera in a third floor window of the Church across the street. That’s why he needs his sunglasses, he said. “They’re taking pictures of us right now, as we speak.”
Though masks at such protests are verboten by New York State law most protesters wore some kind of disguise, be it a pair of sunglasses or a scarf or even a wig. When a passerby would make the spontaneous decision to join the protest more than one “Anonymous” member would quickly offer them a paper mask. “You don’t want them to see your face, to take your picture,” said one protester to a young couple that decided to join the protest as he handed them their surgical disguise. The masks worked well enough to shield one’s face from Scientology’s prying eyes, but they were not without their own pitfalls. One protester asked anyone he could find if they had a pen to poke a hole in the surgical mask, as his friend was having a hard time breathing through it. Covering one’s mouth also makes it harder to speak clearly, as evident in the number of times “what did you say?” was uttered between “Anons.”
But those masks and other facial coverings are vital, said Anonymous #3, who wore a blue trench coat and a glasses-nose-mustache disguise, ala Groucho Marx. Though “Anonymous” has no leaders he had the task of acting as a liaison between protesters, police and the New York Civil Liberties Union, who had a representative on hand to observe the event. The first protests, held on February 10 to honor McPherson’s birthday, were basically thrown together on a whim, he said. This time around things were much more organized because they had to be. All week rumors were swirling on “Anonymous” message boards that the Church might throw several plants into the protests to make “Anonymous” look bad while also painting the Church as a victim. At least one suspected plant was thrown out of the New York protest, and a protocol for dealing with possible staged violence within the protest was even put forward: “if shit goes down, sit down.”
“They use their money, their connections, and basically their bullshit to have people who are speaking out against them silenced,” said Anonymous #3. Scientology, he said, engages in forms of “extreme harassment” to quiet its critics. “If they put someone in here with us who chants stupid shit, or racist shit, they can use it to make us all look bad. We can’t have that, so we have to be vigilant.”
While Scientology plants needed to be sniffed out other unlikely participants were greeted to the protest with open arms. Numerous vehicles passing by, including more than a few taxis and several postal service vehicles, responded in the affirmative to signs urging them to honk if they thought Scientology was a cult, and each time loud cheering sounded from the crowd. One father brought his two young children to the protest, both of whom carried signs denouncing the Church. “Did you see those kids? The little girl can’t be older than six,” said one “Anon” to another in glee. “That’s fucking awesome!”
As the midtown protest wound down various “Anons” made their plans to head uptown together, to Scientology’s Celebrity Center on East 82nd Street. “We have a sound permit for up there,” said one Anon to another. “It’s gonna be fantastic.” Anonymous #3 said that members of the Church have contacted various “Anons” covertly to discuss leaving the Church. In the past Scientology only faced a handful of critics, but today they face the full wrath of the Internet. As the numbers grow more Scientologists will be willing to escape, he said. “That’s the sort of stuff that keeps us coming back,” he said.
“Anons” had special balloons printed to celebrate Hubbard’s birthday, and many brought donuts and snack cakes to share with one another. Some waved chuckle-worthy signs like “Honk if you are driving.” They sang “Happy Birthday” to L. Ron, and mixed chants of “Battlefield Earth sucks!” in with their more serious statements against the Church. They danced, laughed, and even tried to “Rickroll.” And while handing out literature to tourists and theatergoers walking past the pen police had built to hold “Anonymous,” one compared information to food.
“Taste the delicious bacon sandwich of truth about Scientology!” he shouted.
Read about Anonymous vs. Scientology on the left coast in LA Weekly.