IT’S FREAKIN’ RARE THAT A GANG of purported Internet hackers can take on an established church and look like the good guys — but, after all, this is Hollywood, and the humongous blue shrine and headquarters on Sunset Boulevard belong to the Church of Scientology.
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Protesters asked motorists, who honked and cheered in support, to check out the phrase “Operation Snow White” on Google to learn more about Scientology.
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The estimated price, according to critics, of buying enough of a peek into your soul to escape your past lives: $380,000. Also the current median price of a house in some California cities.
Nearly 300 demonstrators jammed the sidewalks out front on March 15, many of them young computer geeks in plastic Guy Fawkes masks honoring the 16th-century British subversive. Some hid behind party masks and bandanas. They hoisted signs: “Religion is free, Scientology is not,” “They want your money and your sanity,” and, in a reference to a string of mysterious tragedies involving members of Scientology, “How many more must die?”
Most were members or supporters of the secretive online phenomenon Anonymous, erstwhile pranksters once branded as “domestic terrorists” and an “Internet hate machine” by a television news program because of their disruption of Web sites and MySpace pages.
Since then, the geeks have found religion. Or, more precisely, Scientology, an organization they see as more secretive and dangerous than their own — and worthy of being brought down.
“The church has a policy called ‘fair game,’ where people who are against the church … can be lied to, tricked, sued and harmed in any way,” says 22-year-old Gareth Cales, a.k.a. David Mudkip, an organizer. He defends members of Anonymous for their clandestine ways, saying Scientology’s own widely documented harassment of critics makes Anonymous’ tactics necessary.
“If they knew our identities, they would come after us,” says a 20-year-old who goes by the online alias Kone, who drove from the San Luis Obispo area to protest in Hollywood on March 15. “Yesterday, one of our people, his cat was killed. He never lets his cats out — they’re his whole life. The cat was missing. There was blood and vomit all over inside his house. He thinks they poisoned it.”
The incident occurred immediately after Scientology posted his friend’s identity online, Kone alleges.
Scientology, surely the only major religion dreamed up by a science-fiction writer, owes its convoluted theology to the late L. Ron Hubbard, the author of such literary masterpieces as Death Quest and Villainy Victorious.
Hubbard would be 97 this month. Official celebrations at Scientology facilities included an event at the big, blue headquarters on Sunset that attracted sparse attendance — security guards seemed to outnumber Scientologists arriving in cars. The organization that Hubbard founded in Los Angeles in 1954 has expanded worldwide, drawing criticism for its bizarre beliefs and its antipathy toward the prying media and former members.
When asked by L.A. Weekly about Anonymous’ emerging movement targeting Scientology, a spokeswoman for the church insisted that questions be e-mailed. We asked, by e-mail: Can someone at the center comment on Anonymous and the protest? How does Scientology respond to claims that some members have been separated from their families due to mind control? What special events are being held to mark Hubbard’s birthday? No one from Scientology replied.
Investigative reporters have been chipping away at Scientology’s Kremlin-like façade for years. One of the more notable of those reporters is 48-year-old author Mark Ebner, who was at the March 15 demonstration, sans mask, riding among the Sunset Boulevard protesters on a motor scooter. Since 1995, Ebner has made a cottage industry of exposing Scientology, even going undercover to join up and write a first-person account for Spy magazine.
“They still follow me around L.A.,” Ebner says of Scientology’s web of member-agents. “It’s almost a joke — they take pictures of me on my street when I come out to get the paper. So I keep writing about them.”
Ebner describes Hubbard as “a fraud” who stole the tenets of his godless philosophy, Dianetics, from Freud, Jung and others, creating “a monster self-help program” that in turn attacks conventional psychology and psychiatry.
In addition to “fair-game” tactics that allegedly allow the church to harm its critics, Ebner says the church practices “disconnection” — severing ties between followers and outsiders who dare to trash it, including spouses, children and parents. One of the saddest sights last Saturday was a middle-aged man standing in the protest crowd, without any mask, holding up a big color poster of a young man who looked much like him. Beneath the photo, this plea was written: “Have you seen Zack?”
Under the church’s practice, the process of purifying the mind can last for years. Scientology embraces a reincarnation theory in which negative subconscious thoughts and memories are said to be rooted in far distant events — even events supposedly experienced by a practicing Scientologist in a life that unfolded eons ago. The tedious task of plucking out all that bad stuff can cost acolytes enough to fill a Brinks truck — hundreds of thousands of dollars, Ebner says. Rather than fork it over, many parishioners choose to work for the organization.
“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.”
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