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Anonymous vs. Scientology

This past Saturday, March 15, thousands of people around the world gathered under the name “Anonymous” in front of their local Scientology centers to protest the organization’s tax-exempt status as well as their tactic of using strong-arm tactics to silence critics.

It’s those strong-arm tactics that forced the vast majority of protesters to don masks lest they become “Fair Game,” L. Ron Hubbard’s term for out-spoken critics who should be stopped at all costs. Here’s what he had to say about the punishment those critics invite: “Fair game. May be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.” Scientologists say the Fair Game Law was canceled shortly after it was enacted, but opponents maintain that only the use of phrase itself was stopped, to avoid bad PR. The opponents certainly make a good case — see The Un-Funny Truth About Scientology for a gruesome overview.

For all their energy and noise, the protests went mostly unnoticed by major media outlets. I searched the Boston Globe for the slightest mention, and nada. They covered the first Anonymous protest back in February, so why not this bigger, more focused event? The New York Times was similarly empty of any mention of the 500+ masked protesters in the city.

What’s going on? Were there not enough protesters to get attention? Were the protesters too young? Was the event’s Internet-origin tough to take seriously? Is the issue not an important one? Or, not to foster any unnecessary conspiracy theories, is the media reticent to criticize Scientology?

Also, the idea of thousands of people protesting in Guy Fawkes masks under a code name of “Anonymous” is appealing and exciting, and it sends a very strong message about Scientology’s tactics. But, would it be a stronger statement to take off the masks and show a lack of fear? The Scientologists send photographers to the protests to try to identify people — what would they do with an overabundance of information? How could they possibly track down and harass thousands of people with no identifiable leaders? I’m reminded of the uproar caused by the Danish cartoons of Mohammad. One media outlet printing the pictures is a target for ignorant hoards, but hundreds of media outlets would send a statement of solidarity and strength.

Anyway, the next planned Anonymous event appears to be April 12 and is called Operation: Reconnect. From Anonymous:

Scheduled to take place during April, Operation Reconnect will shine a spotlight on families torn apart by the Church of Scientology. The aim is to bring these families together, with a number of the “disconnected” giving detailed accounts of their experience with Scientology and making public pleas to their families to “reconnect” with them.

The name of this operation stems from the Church of Scientology’s notorious ‘disconnection policy’, under which individuals within the Church are forbidden contact with those whom the Church deems to be a threat to its security. This policy is used frequently by the Church of Scientology to separate families, creating a rift between those outside the Church and those trapped within it. This also serves the purpose of removing any social supports an individual has outside the Church, making it more difficult for them to end their affiliation with this organization.

Since Anonymous set out on a campaign against the Church of Scientology, a number of individuals have stepped forth with accounts of their personal experiences within the Church. Many of these people described the negative influence exerted by the Church of Scientology on their families. On April 12th some of these individuals will be relating their experiences to the public as speakers at peaceful demonstrations.

Mark your calendars. Here’s hoping the major media outlets are doing the same.

For your viewing pleasure, here’s video of Saturday’s protests in NYC:

[youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UcUXeum1Eqg]
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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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17 Comments

  1. Is that what that was? I was walking through the DuPont Circle area with a new friend and was wondering what all the anarchists (I assumed due to the black-clad folks wearing bandanas over their faces) were doing in front of the Scientology church building.

  2. I think that the secrecy is also making it harder to organize. I searched for info about the protest in my town (Columbus, OH), and it took me a while to find the details, buried in a wiki. No news on blogs or anything like that. Keeping faces and plans under wraps makes it seem like they’re scared of Scientology’s power.

  3. I dunno, I really think the masks themselves really make a statement. One of the reasons that Scientology invites criticism is their long history of trying to silence those who oppose them or attempt to leave the cult, and the masks call attention to that.

    The media ignoring the protests is a shame, but what protests don’t they ignore? Over 10,000 people in the UK marched against the Iraq War, but I bet that wasn’t covered either. The protests in Tibet are getting coverage, but I think that’s mainly because a) the Dalai Lama has been speaking about them and b) it’s automagically newsier when people are protesting a Communist dictatorship like China.

    That said, I’m not sure it matters whether the media cover the protests. Sure, it’d be nice, but frankly old media, and especially old news media can rot in Hell. If they deigned to cover the protests, all they’d do is quote the one most extreme and offensive protester they could find, then give the Scientologists the last word. That’s how “news” works these days. So, fuck ’em.

    The whole point of the Anonymous protests is to create a grassroots movement and to educate people. They don’t have access to mass media, but maybe they don’t need it. It might take longer to reach people by waving signs and handing out fliers, but if the media don’t want to cover the story (and they emphatically don’t, because they’re allergic to controversy), then what other option is there?

  4. Oh, I guess I’ll also add that one thing Anonymous should work on in the future is getting word about the protests to non-internet people in advance. You know, so they can join. I saw a flier posted about it on the day of, but really they need to be going up all over the city at least two weeks in advance. Advertise the protest like a concert, in other words.

    And maybe call it a “party” rather than a protest. Framing! “Party outside the Church of Scientology, April 12! Noon – ??? Bring a mask!”

  5. What stands out most to me is that the Anonymous protests stem from the newfound Internet culture arising from sites like 4-Chan, Encyclopedia Dramatica, and Something Awful. The Church of Scientology is a serious problem, plainly and simply, and while the Anonymous protests have the best of intentions, what I’ve read about their execution (at least so far) has me doubting that anything will come of it in terms of a wider public recognition of the issues. Specifically, I’ve read that at least some of these events in various cities turned into massive parties almost celebrating Internet memes more than protesting the organization. For example, the most incendiary aspect of any one protest I have read so far is the reaction that one observer (I think it might have been a news outlet, but I can’t remember) had: “How do you respond to someone who demands that you ‘ do a barrell roll?'”

    The Anonymous protests are a great idea, but I’m not so sure about the way they are going about it.

  6. Josh, of course I agree that mainstream media is growing old and useless, but that doesn’t change the fact that the majority of people still look to those outlets to get their news. As Jen pointed out, it’s very difficult to find the necessary information.

    My point on unmasking the protesters fits in with this — more transparency would let more bloggers who post under their real names (ahem) to support the cause.

  7. Well, if someone protesting as Anonymous wants to reveal their participation later, I think it’s up to them in the end. It’s not like there’s an Anonymous Membership Card to be revoked. I still think the masks are useful as a symbol, even if at some point they’re no longer used for their original purpose.

    I saw some pictures of an unmasked ex-Scientologist who showed up at the Boston protest, for example. And I believe the whole point of Operation Reconnect in April is to have identified ex-Scientologists speak out against the disconnection policy. So there’s room for non-anonymous people at the protests.

  8. Josh, I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. Of course, anyone can simply attend a protest without wearing a mask. My point is that if one person among 500 doesn’t wear a mask, that person is a target. If all 500 are unmasked, they’re a solid force because no one person is targeted.

  9. Anonymous here, I was at the Boston protests.

    A few things, first we wear masks not only to protect ourselves from fair game but also maintain the idea that we are all anonymous and have no leaders or hierarchy. Also, it looks more striking in pictures and videos. Fair Game has already proven to be a problem with the sci’s sending out a few photographers to roam through the crowd taking pictures of everyone trying to catch them without their mask. One of them who we have dubbed “stoop kid” followed 30 or so anons back to Wendy’s after the protest and attempted to get upstairs to photograph them unmasked. Luckily a quick-thinking anon saw him and blocked the stairs to prevent this.

    We’ve already had a problem with them fair gaming a specific anon. Permits to protest are public record in Boston, so the Sci’s got the name of the anon who filed for the permit and harassed him on 3-15. They found out he was on probation and taunted him with things like “How’s your probation going? Wait for next week!” and the like.

    The Sci’s are even trying to fair game Anon as a whole. They’ve been handing out DVDs claiming that Anon has sent them death threats and bomb threats (not true). They’ve even made youtube videos “outting” the few anons they’ve managed to discover the names of. In LA they went out and followed one anon around with a sign saying “Anonymous No More” with his picture on it.
    You can check out the Sci’s Anon slandering video at http://www.anonymous-exposed.org. The death threat and bomb threat videos themselves were most likely created by the Sci’s themselves. The quality of the vids are much higher than their youtube counterparts, meaning that the Sci’s must have had the original vid, which is obviously impossible unless they made it.

    In Clearwater the Sci’s tried 3 times to get a restraining order against Anonymous and general and 25 people who they claimed were members of anonymous. it was thrown out since they could not prove any of the people were Anonymous or connect them to any of the supposed threats.

    As for the mainstream media, FOX25 News did show up at the protest with cameras and interviewed people. Inexplicably, none of that aired. We did receive TV covered in LA, Kansas City, and probably a few other places that slip my mind. One Anon called the Boston branch of the AP who said they were aware of the protest but too busy to come out for a story. We’ve obviously gotten really good coverage in the blog world, but the MSM in Boston is proving to be a tough nut to crack. Operation Reconnect is most likely going to be run slightly differently with ex-sci’s speaking about their experience being disconnected. This will change things up a little and hopefully attract more attention.

    -Anonymous

  10. Enturbulation.org forums have all the info on how to get involved.

    Thanks for the feedback, it’s useful. What kind of necessary info would be good on a flyer? If you guys give feedback (here or at enturbulation.org), we’ll work on a new flyer.

    As you said, there’s another protest on April 15: Operation Reconnect. This protest will focus on the CoS practice of “disconnection”- cutting off any family or friends who are critical or skeptical of scientology. It would be awesome to have more people get involved.

    Anonymous is right- we wear masks because it’s harder for them to identify us that way. This is pretty much not negotiable for most Anons. Anyway, it looks cool. :D

    Rebecca, you hinted at the problems journalists (and even bloggers) have in covering the CoS: they get harassed and intimidated. You might wanna get in touch with Dawn at Glosslip: she’s been covering the Anon story and could probably give you some pro tips.

    Thank you so much for covering the story and helping to expose CoS.

  11. I don’t know. I saw some people and posters there that were against the Church of Scientology just because they were a different religion. So their argument was: “CoS is a sin, only because it is not our church.” I see these actions more of a conflict between religions, which are all bad in my book…

    I think that soon enough some mainstream religious leader will try to hijack Anonymous’ cause and claim their actions are for the good of all people believing in (the real) God, so i am not too excited about all this.

  12. I am concerned that the media fails to cover hardly ANYTHING that appears to be religiously divisive. It appears that they don’t want the “controversy”. Like, why weren’t Huckabee’s atrocious comments about changing the Constitution more widely denounced? The general media is an utter failure these days in my opinion – they decide what should be news and dress it in a way that benefits large corporate sponsors. The blogosphere contains both first-hand truth and so-called truthiness, so you hardly know what to think.

    It also seems to be VERY difficult to get the jaded, lazy American population to get riled up about anything important. They generally stick to ogling over celebrity babies and avoiding any hard question that requires deep thought. It makes me pretty nervous about our future. We’re in such a hell of a mess right now.

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