The so-called Church of Scientology is getting a lot of press lately.
Much of it consists of press releases from the church itself. Posted on free or commercial websites that specialize in the publication of PR material, the church attempts to portray itself as all sweetness and light.
Legitimate press coverage includes newspaper articles on the organization’s real-estate purchases, revelations made by former Scientologists, and articles documenting the cult’s failed attempts to brand its critics as ‘terrorists’ and ‘hate mongers.’
Keen observers of the Church of Scientology will take issue with the first part of that headline. However, the ‘expansion’ indicated is only in Seattle, and then perhaps only in the cult’s real estate holdings there.
According to a local church-affiliated Web site, L. Ron Hubbard lived briefly in Seattle, attending Queen Anne High School, during the 1920s while following his father, a Navy man, from port to port. Residing in Port Orchard during the late ’30s, he wrote a few of his early Scientology texts, some prompted by a supposedly near-death experience at a Bremerton dentist in 1938.
Now members of his church may soon be able to look out on the same body of water that inspired Hubbard. In 2005, the Scientologists bought an old state-government building in lower Queen Anne for $3.7 million. According to drawings and a description on the local Scientologists’ Web site, the building eventually will be equipped with a rooftop deck “looking out over Puget Sound where LRH used to live and write—a perfect place for pcs and students to go during session and course breaks, as well as for dissemination activities and events.” (A “pc” is a “preclear,” explains Seattle Scientology Reverend Ann Pearce, “a spiritual being who is now on the road to becoming clear.”)
But renovations, which would cost millions for any comparable project, have been slow in coming. The city permits have been issued. The five-story tower at Third Avenue West and West Harrison Street has seen weeds sprouting from the windowsills, some cracked windows, and graffiti tags outside. It’s partially ringed with construction fencing. The 1955 building has been off the county tax rolls since it was sold; in a controversial 1993 decision, the IRS declared Scientology a tax-exempt religious organization.
Members of the Seattle Anonymous chapter say the building is already in use. They staged a protest there in June, the same night as a gathering—according to a church mailing—to meet “the Commanding Officer of the entire Western United States.” (Maritime terminology runs strong in Scientology, which includes a branch called the Sea Org, whose officers wear naval attire.)
Anonymous — the international group which has been protesting Scientology since the beginning of this year — also got press in the San Francisco Weekly, this time within a profile of an ex-Scientologist:
Maybe it’s his badass black outfit with blood-red letters screaming “Scientology Kills.” Or possibly it’s his crew cut, or his nose slammed 45 degrees left after catching one too many right hooks. Maybe it’s the hardcore cell-phone earpiece or the camcorder strapped to his palm to record confrontations. Whatever it is, when Tommy Gorman stands at a man’s door demanding he get his “chicken-shit ass out here,” you doubt it’s an invitation to a civil chat.
Gorman moved the man whose rear was in question, president of the San Francisco Church of Scientology Jeff Quiros, to his shitlist about seven years ago. The feeling is mutual. “I don’t hold the best wishes for Tommy Gorman,” Quiros says. “He’s a lying criminal, and I would hope he ends up going to jail one day for the things he’s done.” Quiros would not be taking Gorman up on his offer for a tête-à-tête that July afternoon, earning him Gorman’s favorite epithet of “coward.”
Gorman’s antagonism used to be directed at people exactly like himself. He was raised in Scientology — his family called Quiros “Uncle Jeff” — and never questioned that enemies of the religion deserved harassment. While defending Scientology, he heckled psychiatrists entering conventions before he could do multiplication, and held “Religious Bigot” signs outside critics’ houses before he could legally drink.
But Gorman’s loyalty to Scientology turned to rage against it in 2001, after his then-teenage friend Jennifer Stewart, now his wife, alleged she was forcibly raped by an adult staff member of the Mountain View branch of the church. Both say that Scientology officials, including Quiros, urged them not to go to the police. Scientology staffers vigorously deny both allegations. In a later civil suit, the church weighed the bad press that might come from the “incendiary” allegations coming out at trial and paid Stewart a handsome 2005 out-of-court settlement that barely made the news.
It could have been expected that Tommy Gorman wouldn’t go quietly, especially since he’s convinced that the organization known for ardently going after its critics intimidated his family with threats, stalking, and even allegedly tampering with his car. He now stakes out the city’s Scientology headquarters in the old Transamerica building at the foot of Columbus Avenue, where the late Scientology founder and science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard‘s words are gospel. Gorman turns the bulldog picketing tactics back on the organization he now calls a cult. He even shaves “S.P.” on the back of his head, mocking the “suppressive person” label reserved for Scientology’s most evil critics. Although Gorman never received the official declaration as such, Quiros says he considers Gorman one. Gorman says it’s an honor.
Yet before January, no one dreamed that Gorman would be backed up by the most unlikely of allies: an army of Internet geeks pissed about a censored Tom Cruise video. The troops call themselves Anonymous, Quiros calls them the “electric Klan,” and they have stepped out of cyberspace in masks to bring down Scientology, too. With an estimated 10,000 members worldwide, the Anons form the largest movement to ever oppose Scientology since mobilizing on Web message boards earlier this year. Their numbers have galvanized ex-Scientologists formerly too scared to protest their former church and others, like Gorman, who had picketed but who could never find a critical mass of support.
Until now. “I’m not going to go away,” Gorman says. “I’ve already told [Scientology] if they want to get rid of me they’re going to have to kill me, and they’ve already tried that.”
Gorman’s aggression comes off as obnoxious to most, and even Anonymous has questioned whether Gorman, known in Anon culture as an “old guard” critic, is an asset or liability to the cause. In June, one Anon started a thread on the anti-Scientology site www.enturbulation.org saying he was “disgusted” by Gorman’s methods: “People who need to dump their aggression should go to the gym and do some bagwork, not take it out on individual Scinos [Scientologists]. … I CANNOT EMPHASIZE ENOUGH THAT THIS BEHAVIOUR WORKS AGAINST US, AND FOR THE CHURCH.”
Others were Gorman apologists: “Tommy has been heavily fucked by the cult, and I think he has a lot of justifiable anger,” one wrote. In other forums, others profess respect: Tommy “would eat two handfuls of glass shards if he thought it made some kind of point about how much scilons [Scientologists] suck.”
There’s no denying Gorman and Anonymous use very different means for a common end. The “raids,” as Anons refer to their picketing, are much like parties laced with the idiosyncratic humor of an Internet culture fueled by “lulz” (a take-off of “lol,” Internet shorthand for “laugh out loud”). While dance music blares from speakers, protesters decked out in everything from a Pac-Man head to a furry panda sweatsuit dance with signs, eat cake, and call each other some variation of “faggot.” With lines like “You’re too cool to be in a cult!” the Anons’ goal is to get Scientologists to question their own beliefs, or at least to research their church and learn about its grinding down of critics in the legal system or scandals such as Operation Snow White, in which church agents infiltrated and stole documents from U.S. government agencies that were investigating it.
In contrast, Gorman thinks some upfront and personal confrontation is necessary to get through to Scientologists. “To wake them up, you can’t be all kind and sweet, ’cause they’ll just think you’re an SP,” he says. “They’ll block it out. I get under their skin so well, they’ll have to think about what I’m saying.”
Gorman has had plenty of practice. Families have hired him to persuade a Scientologist loved one to leave the organization; he once hunkered down for a three-day intervention in an Ohio hotel. He’ll debate for hours with doubting Scientologists who call him, some of whom he knew personally on the inside.
“He knows the mindset, the policies, how a Scientologist is conditioned to think and act, and he knows what helped to disillusion him,” says Steven Hassan, a Massachusetts-based cult “exit counselor” who has recruited Gorman to help him with Scientology cases.
Despite their internal squabbles, Gorman and Anonymous appear to be a united front to Quiros when he looks onto the street. He doesn’t appreciate that the couple the church paid “to minimize the effects of this unfortunate incident” have returned with buddies who back their version of events.
A sidebar to the above article offers a closer look at Anonymous:
This is war as waged by Anonymous, the “Internet incarnate.” The group sprang from an image board known as 4chan in the “Random” forum known as /b/. It’s a Wild West of unfettered free speech where users posting as “Anonymous” share altered photos ranging from cats with nonsensical captions to racist and homophobic jokes, which they say are served up with a whopping dose of dark humor. In the past the group has pooled its Internet know-how to attack pedophiles or white supremacists, but when the Church of Scientology made YouTube take down a leaked video in January featuring Tom Cruise professing his Scientologist belief with unsettling zeal, Anonymous had a new target.
Anonymous members performed “denial of service” attacks on the church’s Web sites, overwhelming them with traffic in the hope of bringing the sites down. Anonymous then introduced the new campaign versus the church in their own YouTube video. San Francisco’s Scientology building reported a phone call of an electronically altered voice saying it would destroy the church, similar to others received around the world; orgs in Southern California reported getting packages of a white anthrax-like powder.
But after veteran Scientology critic Mark Bunker posted a video online warning that such high-jinks would compromise their mission, Anonymous called for a protest at churches worldwide on February 10. Thousands showed up in Guy Fawkes masks.Scientology: XENU TV Speaks to Anonymous
“They are really no different from the Ku Klux Klan in terms of their masks and hatred and their jollies of riding horses around and harassing Scientologists,” church leader Jeff Quiros says.
Police don’t see Anonymous as a threat: “I think they’re really cool,” Sergeant Carl Tennenbaum says. “They’re really cooperative. They have a right to be here.”
The group has now widened its platform past the free-speech beef to decry the practices of a church it calls a cult: the “disconnection” policy of cutting off contact with family members who’ve been deemed enemies of the church, its tax-exempt status as a religious organization while charging its members thousands of dollars for its courses and services, and its relentless persecution of critics. That’s why its members say staying anonymous provides the perfect weapon for their mission: You can’t retaliate against someone without an identity. You can’t cut off the head of a group with no leaders.
Not that the church hasn’t tried.
The 7th wave of worldwide protests by Anonymous is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 16, 2008.
Just in time for this event, Gawker has posted an audio excerpt in which Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard himself explains the story of Xenu — a space alien dictator who, 75 million years ago, “brought billions of his people to Earth in DC-8-like spacecraft, stacked them around volcanoes and killed them using hydrogen bombs. Scientology holds that the essences of these many people remained, and that they form around people in modern times, causing them spiritual harm. Members of the Church of Scientology widely deny or try to hide the Xenu story.” [Wikipedia]