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Scientologists, protesters keep their distance

By DEBORAH O'NEIL

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Members of the Church of Scientology stayed out of sight Saturday during a daylong demonstration downtown by church critics.

By noon, about 30 protesters had gathered across the street from the church's Fort Harrison Hotel with anti-Scientology T-shirts, camcorders and picket signs with messages critical of the church.

The protesters say they hold the demonstration this time of year to commemorate Lisa McPherson, the 36-year-old Scientologist who died Dec. 5, 1995, after a 17-day stay at the Fort Harrison Hotel. The demonstration, the sixth, will continue today from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

It was largely a subdued event with sporadic moments of loud noise when protesters roused passers-by to honk their car horns and one critic brought a boom box with Queen's We Will Rock You blasting. Clearwater police officers were stationed along Fort Harrison Avenue and near the entrance of the Fort Harrison Hotel, an area that a Thursday injunction designated as off-limits to picketers. Authorities reported no trouble at the demonstration.

"It's all been very peaceful, very quiet," said Lt. Don Hall, commander of the downtown officers. "We've not had to seriously reprimand anyone on either side."

The one drama of the afternoon happened around 12:20 p.m. when police arrested a man who was yelling in front of the Fort Harrison Hotel. Police said the man was not associated with the protest or the church. Details of the arrest were not available Saturday night.

Church members, who normally fill the streets around Scientology's downtown facilities, stayed away, except for a handful of staff members who stood at the hotel entrance.

A banner hanging on the hotel read, "The Church of Scientology wishes you a happy holiday season!" Rather than react to the protest, church members instead focused on their holiday events, such as the all-day bazaar on Cleveland Street, said spokesman Ben Shaw.

"We have nothing to gain by interacting with these guys," Shaw said. "There is 15 or 20 of them who are hard core and cannot accept they are existing in a world of lies."

He questioned the point of the protest, and noted that each year it appears to shrink.

"Normally, you have a protest to communicate to the public a message, but their intention is to try and annoy our church members," Shaw said. "Our church members want to be here, so it's kind of a pointless game."

Protesters, who came from around the country and Europe, had different reasons for being there.

Mark Dallara, 29, of Tampa, said he participates because he is a "free speech advocate."

Tory Bezazian, 53, of California said she left the church only four months ago after 30 years as a member. She stood on the sidewalk wearing red devil horns and carrying a cardboard megaphone.

"When you get out and you get the whole thing, you're like, "What was I thinking?' " Bezazian said. "I know the people inside are brainwashed and they're laughing at me. But to me, the truth is, I'm free. I can do what I want. I can say what I want."

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