“I am afraid to tell my father where I am today. I am afraid to tell him what I am doing.”
A member of “Anonymous,” who uses the online handle “PokeAnon,” spoke those words on Saturday before a crowd of fellow anti-Scientology activists who have gathered at the East Meadow of Central Park for “Operation Reconnect.” Organizers said they orchestrated the event to draw attention to the Church of Scientology’s practice of “disconnection,” a practice by which Church members are forced to distance themselves from critics of Scientology, even family members. Though the Church states that the practice is rare, critics say that is a lie: Scientologists are forced to disassociate from anyone who speaks out against the Church. PokeAnon’s dad is a Scientologist, and he is afraid that his actions as part of Anonymous will cost him his father forever.
“This is not some fanatical Scientology sect which has perverted the church’s doctrine. This vile policy, known as the disconnection policy, is inherent in their dogma,” he said. “And now, because I demand action against a criminal organization, I am afraid to speak to my father. So a disconnection of sorts has already begun.”
PokeAnon’s comments weighed heavily on the crowd on an otherwise lighthearted day. Only a few presumed Scientology defenders have shown up to monitor the event, and when they are spotted, Anons wave to them and offer pizza. Just outside of the park on Fifth Avenue, a few Anons hand out literature to those walking by, and most of the response is positive. One woman is hesitant until she is informed that the flyer is anti-Scientology.
“Oh, OK,” she said, accepting the flyer. “I don’t like Scientology.”
In fact, most of the negative response to Anonymous does not come from the Church’s defenders but from Central Park patrons who are annoyed that a bunch of kids have taken over the East Meadow and are making too much noise. “Scientology kills!” yells an enthusiastic protester using the name Jersey Mudkip to an elderly woman in a brown track suit. She stops and turns around, middle finger raised. “You probably can’t even get it up!” she replies.
But “Operation Reconnect” had a decidedly celebratory tone: Anons shared pizza and cake and danced as a deejay played on a spring day. Fanatical about wearing their masks at previous protests in front of Scientology centers, most Anons dispensed with them on Saturday. “It’s a lot more social,” said Jersey Mudkip. “It’s like people just wanted to blow off some steam together.”
And those masks don’t ensure anonymity anyway. At the “Operation Party Hard” protest in March, one Anon, wearing a Groucho Marx disguise and a blue trench coat, was identified in an article as “Anonymous #3.” He said he has since been outed by the Church of Scientology as Michael Vitale, and no longer feels the need to wear a mask with his identity now public.
Vitale said it became clear that Scientology knew his real name during a spontaneous visit to the Church’s midtown headquarters two weeks ago. While he and a few other Anons handed out literature and offered free hugs to those walking near the church, several Scientologists came out of the building to observe them, and one began yelling Vitale’s name, he said.
He is not terribly concerned that anything will happen to him but Vitale said he has become extra cautious about his surroundings, and is even convinced he was followed home the day before the Central Park event.
“Unless they’re going to run me off the road, I don’t care. They can waste all the money on [private investigators] that they want,” said Vitale, who added that the Church’s public outing of himself helps prove Anonymous’ point regarding the harsh treatment the Church reserves for its critics. “I’m not worried, but I’ll be cautious. I know how these people operate. I know that we’re putting them through a lot right now.”
Vitale said he smiled when his name was publicly revealed and shot back by asking the Scientology staffer if this meant he would be subject to the Church’s policy of “fair game,” through which Church officers harass and intimidate critics in an effort to shut them up. The Church of Scientology maintains that “fair game” is no longer in use. Vitale said the staff member who shouted his name repeated that claim to him when he asked. Vitale’s not buying it.
“If you say you don’t practice ‘fair game’ anymore,” said Vitale, “how the fuck do you know my name?”