New foe emerges against Scientology
The youth-oriented group has organized protests, including one in downtown Clearwater.
By JONATHAN ABEL, Times Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2008
CLEARWATER - A new Scientology opponent has arisen in the last few weeks, composed of computer-savvy young people who accuse the church of stifling free speech.
The group calls itself Anonymous. Its shadowy presence is so far mostly manifest on the Internet in video addresses and endless message board correspondence.
The group's stated goal, according to an introductory video that has been viewed 2-million times on YouTube: "To expel you Scientology from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form."
The group plans a wave of protests at Scientology buildings around the world, including one Sunday in downtown Clearwater, the home of Scientology's spiritual headquarters.
The protests come on the heels of a pressure campaign that used hacking attacks on Scientology computer servers, prank calls and faxes to Scientology numbers and even fake anthrax mailings to intimidate the church.
Because of the amorphous nature of Anonymous, it's hard to say to what extent the group was involved in the harassment. But what's clear is a major, coordinated day of protesting is planned for Sunday.
And church officials are taking it very seriously.
"We are dealing with a worldwide threat," said Pat Harney, spokeswoman for the church in Clearwater. "This is not a light matter."
The church has hired 10 off-duty police officers for security Sunday at a cost of $4,500. City officials are on notice, too, prepared to deal with any vandalism or violence that erupts from the protest.
The big question, however, is whether the Internet furor will translate into actual protesters.
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Scientology is no stranger to enemies, but Anonymous has emerged suddenly.
The group's animus toward Scientology began last month when an unauthorized video of Tom Cruise speaking about Scientology was leaked to YouTube. Scientology attorneys pressured the Web site and others to remove the video, citing copyright law. Anonymous members viewed that as an intrusion on the openness and freedom of the Internet.
Church properties in cities such as Orlando were picketed and 19 church buildings in California received fake anthrax mailings, causing 60 people to be evacuated from the buildings.
In a message to Scientology, the group says it is acting "for the good of your followers, for the good of mankind and for our own enjoyment." The message is delivered through a flat, computer voice against a backdrop of ominous clouds.
It's threatening, to be sure, unless it's all tongue-in-cheek.
"There were always people protesting Scientology," said Joshua Nussbaum, 19, an organizer of the Clearwater rally. "But the Tom Cruise video being leaked and then subsequently being pulled off for a copyright violation within 24 hours, that made a lot of people angry."
Nussbaum said he expects between 50 and 100 to gather with him in downtown Clearwater on Sunday.
He found out about the group on the Internet. He said he wasn't involved in forming the group's philosophy or any of its more militant acts. But when he saw that no one was leading the Clearwater protest, he decided to take the lead.
"We're not trying to scare people," he said. "We're just trying to make our message known."
Nussbaum said the protesters will split into three groups Sunday. Their identities will be concealed with sunglasses, hats and other accessories.
Critics of Scientology say the church engages in harassment and intimidation of its critics, which is why anonymity is important.
The protesters plan to picket and hand out fliers with the ultimate goal of convincing some Scientology members to leave.
Between the protesters and the Scientologists will be the Clearwater Police Department. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Daly-Watts said an unspecified number of officers will be assigned to the downtown area.
The 10 off-duty officers hired by the church will be in place to make sure protesters don't trespass on private property or violate laws, Daly-Watts said, but they will at all times answer to police supervisors - not Scientology officials.
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Among the mottos of Anonymous is the declaration: "We are legion."
So who are they and how many strong?
In broad strokes, the participants are in their late teens and early 20s. They've found each other through videos and message boards - all online. They estimate almost 4,000 people will be involved in protests around the world.
The event is particularly well-timed, organizers say, because it is the birthday of Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old Scientologist who died in 1995 while in the care of church staffers.
Sunday's protest follows in a tradition of demonstrations against Scientology in Clearwater. One of the staunchest anti-Scientology groups, the Lisa McPherson Trust, raised such ire with its demonstrations that a judge issued an injunction specifying on which parts of the street the protests could be held.
The church has held its own protests, mustering some 3,000 people to march through downtown Clearwater past the Police Department and the St. Petersburg Times office, protesting what it said was discrimination against the church.
Old guard members of the anti-Scientology movement such as Arnie Lerma say they're impressed by the potential the new blood brings.
"I think they're going to get a fairly big picket," said Lerma, 57, who runs an anti-Scientology Web site and was impressed by a video of the picket in Orlando. "I've never seen anything like that before. This is incredible. I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see it on a Web cam."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.