By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“They sign a billion-year contract,” Ebner says. That’s billion with a “B,” all clearly spelled out and signed. “You’ve got to cover those afterlives.”
Ebner is not a member of the growing masked movement but his salvo in mid-January, when he released a secret videotape of Tom Cruise bizarrely and fervently extolling Scientology, helped to draw the computer nerds in.
Scientology, apparently believing the video was an embarrassment, fought to yank it from Web sites — and temporarily succeeded in getting it pulled from YouTube.
It would be an understatement to say this rubbed the Internet community the wrong way. As protester Kone puts it, “My interest wasn’t the Cruise video itself. It was that Scientology got so freaked out about the video leaking out. I thought, ‘What are they trying to hide?’
“We all started ... looking at secret documents that had been leaked” online, Kone continues. “It was quite scary — things you wouldn’t even see in horror movies.”
One of “the atrocities,” he says, was the much-reported story of Florida church member Lisa McPherson, who, despite signs of a mental breakdown, was kept from treatment. After a minor traffic accident, she began taking off her clothes, telling a paramedic, “I need help,” according to published media accounts. But she was whisked away from the hospital and nursed by Scientologists for 17 days, rarely sleeping, defecating on herself, and ultimately dying. A wrongful-death suit was settled in 2004.
Despite what it might claim, Anonymous had never taken on a serious issue. A loose collection of Web aficionados that banded together five or six years ago, the group shared photos online and staged pranks mainly for laughs. At least a few among its ranks committed illegal acts, members now concede.
Last summer, Fox News aired a report saying that Anonymous’ members “attack innocent people like an Internet hate machine,” and that “those who fight back face death threats.” Anonymous responded by posting a rather menacing video online in which a faceless figure intones, “We do not forgive. We do not forget.”
After zeroing in on Scientology, Anonymous immediately electronically assaulted the church’s Web site. Then the group found a social conscience. He is Mark Bunker, a 51-year-old TV newsman from San Diego who has operated an anti-Scientology site since 1996. In a video posted online, Bunker urged Anonymous to take the high road by doing something important.
“Scientology doesn’t need to be a martyr,” he says. “[Our attacks don’t] do anything to shut down their Web sites. That’s the kind of thing Scientology does to us. People should be able to see both sides and make up their own minds.” Bunker admits he thought his argument would cause the net heads to “lash out at me. [But] they almost immediately reformed.”
Although Anonymous has no official leadership and some of its members, according to several accounts, almost certainly pursue malicious mischief, Bunker’s video became a rallying point for those wanting to accomplish something positive. Members got the same do-good message from Tory Christman, a 60-year-old ex-Scientologist from Burbank who says she spent 30 years inside before escaping in 2000.
At Saturday’s Sunset Boulevard protest, she wore a multicolored Dr. Seuss–style hat, shaking hands and meeting people among a throng that swelled to 600 — including the crowd on Sunset, a second group protesting at Scientology’s back-entrance gate, and a third group at Hubbard’s “birthday” bash at the Shrine Auditorium.
Far above Sunset, in bright sunshine, an airplane trailed a banner: “Honk if you think Scientology is a cult.”
Christman says it is. She had to leave her husband and all of her friends to escape it. “On a scale of 1 to 10, if 10 is the worst, it’s a 15,” she says. “It’s off the charts.”