12:54 p.m. -L. Ron Hubbard
Suppressive Person Order. 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.
12:54 p.m. -L. Ron Hubbard
-L. Ron Hubbard
I was told to expect five hundred, their identities all hidden. There are twelve at a card table with a cardboard sign, most handing out pamphlets and balloons. Melanie accepts the pamphlet and I, the balloon.
"Scientology breaks up fami-" the one whose nametag reads Little Sister begins.
"We know. We signed up to be here on the website," Melanie interrupts. The Anonymous members look to one another for a moment, then Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" blares from the boombox and everyone begins dancing. Apparently, any worry that we might be infiltrators evaporates when Melanie and I join in, assuring them that we are never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you.
Melanie and I linger around, unmasked and unsure. The website was vehement that the protest permit for Central Park did not eclipse New York City's paranoia over masked mobs. Still the Guy Fawkes masks recently popularized by "V for Vendetta" adorn the backs and tops of head. I feel a little too exposed - I had even asked Melanie if she would have liked me to bring face paint in order to circumvent the prohibition on masks - and am grateful when one of the Anons offers me a surgical mask. I don't bother asking if this might not compromise the ban because bending this rule is better than being photographed by a Scientologist spy, known as Scilons among Anonymous.
The Anons hand out pamphlets entitled "Why Am I Wearing This Mask?" and give Melanie a stack. I am given balloons on sticks with the headless Anonymous figure. (They could not get approval for helium balloons, since helium is a controlled substance now.) The question the pamphlets ask is a good one that people quickly ask when I offer their children balloons. The Church of Scientology has gained a reputation for intimidating those who would speak out against them, sending church members to their houses, calling "suppressive persons" at all hours, threatening lawsuits for defamation and copyright infringement for releasing Scientology documents or even using the name of their organization. One of the Anons in our pack informs us that, at their last protest in front of the Organization Headquarters in New York (just referred to as "The Org"), church members hung out of windows taking pictures of the protesters. Many Anons discovered the Church's intimidation tactics firsthand as Church members came to have "discussions" with the Anons days later, mailed propaganda to their family members, and called their places of business to inform them that they employ a terrorist.
I would like to specify here that I have no issue with Scientology or Scientologists, per se. People are welcome to believe whatever wackiness they choose to. I encourage it. (I personally have a close personal relationship with the goddess of chaos.) However, the moment you start intimidating, threatening, attacking, and actually killing people who do not agree with or try to leave your organization, you've crossed that line by a matter of miles. Much as one cannot and should not blame an individual Catholic for the sins of bishops who cover up sex abuse, one shouldn't fault someone for finding a purpose in Dianetics. There is a spin off sect of Scientology called Free Zoners who try to practice the religion without the trappings and stigma of the Church, who do not require them for e-metering and increasing their Operating Thetan levels. They believe, understandably, that their religion should be free. From what I witnessed, Anon was definitely protesting the abuses of the Church and not against the rights of people to believe in igneous space alien ghosts.
I give out a few balloons, trying to be as affable as I could be. Masked as I am, I understand that I could come off as a bit intimidating. Even though I did not consider myself a member of Anonymous, I might be the only one these people would ever meet and I owed it to everyone concerned to put forward the best impression I possibly could. Melanie did far better at this than I did, given that she is a small, cute girl, even with a surgical mask. Soon, all of her pamphlets and balloons are gone and I give her half of mine. People respond fairly well to our small group. Some even stop to ask what this is all about and give one of the Anon members a chance to explain.
This particular leg of the protest is entitled "Project Reconnect" because there is a tenet in Scientology called the "Disconnection Policy". If a family is in the Church and the mother decides she no longer wishes to be a Scientologist, she is declared a "suppressive person" and is to be considered dead by her family. The husband must divorce her and the Church will make sure that the mother never sees the children again. Should the father then fall out with the Church (which wouldn't be surprising since he was forced to divorce his wife and break up their family), the children are taken from him and moved to a different Org. They will be brainwashed, for want of a more polite and less accurate term, and the parents will be kept from them by any means necessary.
As we approach the rest of the Anonymous protest, at least one hundred strong, there is a man holding a handwritten poster proclaiming "Family is the real way to happiness http://www.exscientologykids.com". I can't see how anyone could disagree with that message.
We are always surrounded by police, whether for our protection or in case we turn feral, I don't know. They are unfailingly nice and professional, though they can't accept any of our balloons, food, or pamphlets while on duty. We frequently thank them for their presence and they otherwise become the background of the event, effectively and silently doing their job (whatever that may actually be). I am grateful to have them there, as they are inclined to act vexed should someone start behaving violently toward the protest. From what I have read, Church members have broached protests carrying guns in the recent past. Given the Fair Game policy quoted at the top of this page, I will take all the protection I can get from a group that wishes to destroy me for posting this entry.
I have a hard time seeing the Anonymous members as particularly threatening. Aside from internet memes, Anonymous's main weapons seem to be free food and freer hugs. Sure, their identities are hidden behind bandanas and wigs for fear of reprisal from the Church, but they are only ever polite to the people passing by. When people take the food and don't care for a pamphlet or discussion, that seems just as fine.
Despite the friendly, almost carnival atmosphere, there is a thin patina of paranoia over all of this. A girl arrived completely masked and covered and starts asking a lot of questions beyond information about Scientology. Some of the Anons ask if she is this IRC member or that, but she says she is in no way involved in Anonymous and just wants to observe and report. As such, she asks her nametag to read JournoAnon. I am suspicious of her, but I am seemingly the only one, so I let it go. Then a middle aged man starts taking pictures of us and is quickly descended upon by members of Anonymous, offering him free food and some conversation about the crimes of the Church of Scientology. He listens to the latter, but refuses the food. I take a quick picture of him over Melanie's shoulder, in case he should prove to be other than a curious party, but he soon goes away and doesn't seem that unusual. (Certainly not as unusual as a protest of people hiding their faces.) However, that doesn't mean our concerns are unfounded. One man sits on a bench for the entire six hours, saying and doing nothing else. An older couple watches us for a while. Then the male of the couple takes a telephoto camera out of his shopping bag and overtly tries getting pictures of Anon members without their faces covered. The organizers approach them and the couple acts as though they are being physically attacked by the questions as to their intentions. Finally they pick up their Dianetics bags and leave. Apparently, the Church of Scientology does not believe in subtlety in their spying. Then again, this is the same group the infiltrated and stole/destroyed information from IRS and other federal agency (an act the Church referred to as "Operation Snow White", which resulted in the arrest and incarceration of L. Ron Hubbard's wife and several other prominent Scientologists). Perhaps they feel they no longer need to be subtle or maybe the obvious plants are there to distract us from the stealthy ones, to test our reactions from within. Later, once the pizza arrives, so too does a different man. He has a huge camera and is baldly trying to take pictures of the protesters when we take off our masks and bandanas to eat. Little Sister gets on the megaphone and announces that the Church has sent someone to spy on us. We all cover our faces and wave in unison. This would be where I would bolt, were I the man taking photos. He does not, nor does he pretend he is taking pictures of anything else.
One of the apparent organizers, Bopp, walks up to him. He wields the lens at her like a laser. Two Anons behind her - we are advised to only travel in packs in the presence of potentially hostile Scilons - take pictures of this man.
"You're neurotic!" he spits at her. "I used to be just like that when I was your age!"
"You used to protest against Scientology?" she reportedly asks.
She tells me that he sputters and is flummoxed by this and yells that he didn't do any such thing, seeming terrified that some invisible force might misconstrue his exclamation or doubt his allegiance. Other Anons follow Bopp's example and have a picnic around this man, preventing him from taking pictures of the Anons who are eating. He does not go away for another half an hour but he is also prevented from taking other pictures by their presence. Effective, friendly nonviolent protest.
I am surprised at the Church not simply because they sent people to spy on this completely peaceful demonstration, but that they sent such poor spies. If they wanted to infiltrate Anonymous and not be seen, they should have send some scruffy haired twenty-something with a digital camera or a moderately attractive young female already hidden behind a surgical mask, large glasses, and a headscarf. So, me or JournoAnon. Doesn't the Church have anyone like this? Or maybe we were infiltrated, maybe one of the pseudonyms around us was an interloper, but I actually doubt it given how obvious the spies had otherwise been. At one point, the Scilons took it upon themselves to grab the balloons we had given to children and popped them, an action both obvious and inclined to convince the general public that they are hateful monsters. These actions more than slightly resemble how they reportedly abuse the courts to silence critics.
I feel totally comfortable around the Anons. I understand the objectives of Anonymous, to reveal of crimes of a dangerous organization and get some epic lulz along the way. Their way of attaining this - Discordian protests centered on internet memes and free candy - succeeds in getting more public and press attention than screaming that they are being oppressed. Yes, there is propaganda against them. Yes, some of it is undoubtedly deserved. I'm sure some would hack MySpace profiles to make them chock full of gay porn and the PedoBear Seal of Approval. I am likewise sure they would not set cyanide bombs in Scientology churches, as was one of the many lies the Church had spread. There are no lulz in that kind of bad press and Anonymous is very specific that they are trying hard to save lives, not end them.
The Scilons set up a booth down the street from where the Anons are giving out pamphlets, apparently able to persuade the city of New York to grant permits instantly that the Anons worked to get for a month. Some Anons, hearing this, decide to march down to the Scientology booth and offer cookies and bottled water. Gosh, but they're fiendish. The Scilons running the booth decline, not politely, and threaten to call the police who were more than aware what this pack of Anons were doing. Offering free food isn't a crime last I checked.
Later, one of the Anons, who looks as if she could just be a woman in her thirties out for a walk with her dog (AnonaDog), goes to the booth on her own. The Scilon offers her a DVD and says that Anonymous is protesting the contents of this disc. The Anon questions this, which makes the Scientologist a bit defensive. When the Anon mentions having a sister in SeaOrg, the Mecca of Scientology in Clearwater, Florida, she reports that the Scientologist goes blank and refuses to say another word to her, as if she has just vanished from sight.
If I joined Anonymous today - and given that there is no leadership or organization, one need do nothing more than decide one has - the Anons would loosely be happily in that they would have no idea who I was. If I quit tomorrow, that would be fine as well. If I loudly spoke out against them and their goals, they would very likely laugh a bit. The members of Anonymous have utter freedom of movement and belief, which discounts the implication put forward by the Church that Anonymous is a cult (a suggestion that barely rises above the schoolyard taunt of "I know you are, but what am I?"). When the Church of Scientology ceases to treat its members as property and stops attacking people for leaving the Church, perhaps fewer will see them as a dangerous organization that is in need of redress.
I leave after five hours, knowing no one's names and having my name likewise unknown, and yet I feel a kinship with these people. I could not recognize the majority of them on the street, yet I feel I know some of them far better. The anonymity protects them not only from the obvious Scilons but allows them to work as a unified force instantly. They know the faces of their friends, because they must be hidden behind masks.
Some sites I recommend you check out for more information about Scientology and Anonymous: