Anonymous, the new foe of Scientology, stepped out from the shadows of the Internet on Sunday with protests in Clearwater and around the world.
Some 200 marchers, mostly young people wearing sunglasses, hats and sometimes masks, met in downtown Clearwater to shout down Scientology at the church’s spiritual headquarters.
The protesters met at 11 a.m. and split into three groups, winding their way around Scientology buildings.
Their signs were direct: “Scientology kills.” “Religion is free, Scientology is not.” “Don’t tase me L. Ron.”
Disguised with fake beards, face paint, scarves and bandanas, protesters said they hid their identity for fear they would be tracked down and harassed by Scientology.
Organizers – who also held rallies in London, Paris, New York and other cities around the world – chose Sunday’s date because it would have been Lisa McPherson’s 49th birthday. A 36-year-old Scientologist, McPherson died in 1995 while in the care of church staffers in Clearwater.
Anonymous members brought a cake and sang Happy Birthday in her memory. They tried to lay plastic flowers outside the Fort Harrison Hotel where she died but police asked them not to, saying they would be trespassing.
Despite Anonymous’s online promises to “expel” Scientology from the Internet and “systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form,” the march was peaceful, with police reporting no arrests or injuries.
Still, church spokeswoman Pat Harney compared Anonymous to the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
“It’s similar to burning a cross on somebody’s lawn,” she said. “It’s a bunch of yahoos. They get on the Internet and they don’t use real communication.”
Anonymous’s opposition to Scientology has coalesced in the last month after a video of Scientologist Tom Cruise was leaked to YouTube and then promptly removed because of threats from Scientology attorneys.
Members of Anonymous claimed this was an affront to the freedom of the Internet. A video message from Anonymous taunting the leaders of Scientology had received 2.2-million views on YouTube as of Sunday.
In Clearwater, the church has received harassing phone calls and even a threatening package from Anonymous, Harney said. Some church properties in California received fake anthrax mailings.
Anonymous members, however, say the group does not condone illegal acts.
Over the years in Clearwater, there have been a number of intense protests. One of the staunchest Scientology opponents, 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 bitterness from the legal wrangling remains today.
– Justice Anderson, Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia, quoted atWhat judges have to say about Scientology
In the past, the church has held its own protests, in 1997 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.
And some church followers were out Sunday. As protesters made a circuit of downtown Clearwater, they were followed by a beefed-up police detachment and about a dozen photographers working for the church.
Harney said the church would use the pictures to identify the protesters because any of them could be a security risk. Protesters scoffed at that.
“We are here to protest the actions of the Church of Scientology,” said Joshua Nussbaum, 19, a student in Hillsborough County and one of the organizers. “It is not about their beliefs. It’s about their actions.”
The protesters were an amalgamation of opponents to Scientology – some angry at its supposed intrusions on the Internet, others claiming the church is overly controlling, overly secretive or overly rich.
“Everybody came here for a different reason,” said Michael Scherer, 17, of St. Petersburg. “But we all have the same goal.”
Another protest is planned for March 15, two days after the birthday of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986.
Harney said she was disappointed that there was no public outrage to protesters. In fact, the protesters received honk after honk from passing cars sympathetic to the cause. Passengers gave the “thumb’s up” sign and chanted “Cult! Cult! Cult!”
“It’s anti-America – discriminatory,” Harney said, “trying to tell me how to believe.”
One of the Scientology photographers, 20-year-old David Pendery, who stood for hours at Cleveland Street and Fort Harrison Avenue, said he was snapping shots to make sure no protesters “were doing anything unlawful.”
When asked about the rally, Pendery, a church member since he was 4, sighed and said, “Hopefully, they’ll just leave and we can all go back to work.”
Typically, protests are done to draw attention, particularly from the media, but this came off as much more with a strong showing of public support, organizers said.
Still, while Scientology can be a polarizing topic, not everyone on the street had a strong opinion.
Bruce and Robin Wade, a Maryland couple on vacation, encountered the protest as they were waiting for the Stein Mart department store to open.
“We’re just trying to ignore it. We don’t even know what the issue is,” said Bruce Wade, 53, adding they were “taking it in stride.”
A few blocks east, though, Kimberli Guyette, 18, a student at the Central Florida Institute and a Clearwater resident, called the whole thing “ridiculous.”
“Why do these people even care? What did the Scientologists do to them?” Guyette asked. “They’re wasting time.”
But for veterans of earlier skirmishes, like Randy Enerson, who showed up just to observe, the day was momentous.
“I got tears in my eyes,” said Enerson, 53. “All the times we were out here it felt like we were all alone, but to see the way this has gelled with all these young people, it’s astonishing.”
He also said he was encouraged that a younger generation was stepping up to combat the church.
“They’re walking into the belly of the beast here,” Enerson said. “Man, what courage.”