Sunday, February 10, 2008

'Anonymous' Protesters Descend On Berkeley Scientologists


BERKELEY, Calif. - A small, but boisterous group clad in black masks and calling themselves “Anonymous” protested the Church of Scientology in Berkeley yesterday with a globally-coordinated movement that grew momentum through the web and YouTube.

Yelling “You’re cruising for a bruising, Tom” and holding a sign that read “Honk if you are against Scientology”, the protesters, a majority in their in early 20’s passed out leaflets downloaded from the internet, but failed to attract confrontation from the Scientology building on Shattuck Avenue.

Many in the group said that this was their first demonstration of any kind and all were drawn to the protest through articles on the internet and the heavily viewed videos available on YouTube.

One demonstrator, a student who traveled from Cupertino with his friend and calls himself “Anonymous” as many in the group did said he was drawn to the hype that surrounded the viral video.

“I wanted to tag along,” he said, “I heard about it from my friend and it didn’t seem right what they’re doing.”

The original Anonymous clips have been viewed over 2 million times as of Monday night and consists of noir-style backgrounds of clouds and buildings with a soundtrack of a computerized voice detailing the faceless groups manifesto against the Church of Scientology.

A few of the demonstrators admitted that they knew little about Scientology before the YouTube videos or said their only exposure to the church was through the controversial “South Park” episode that told the story of the groups belief that an interstellar warlord named “Xenu” brought misery to Earth.

Anonymous recounted how when he found information about Scientology on the web, he realized there wasn’t much difference between what he found and the cartoon episode.

“Basically, what I saw on that South Park episode was the truth,” he said.

A Cal student named Liz had a different history with Scientology than the others.

Her uncle was a former Scientologist about 30 years ago who left the church when he ran out of money for the group’s dollar-tiered path to enlightenment.

She says that the church still routinely calls her uncle about returning decades later.

The Genesis of the confrontation began weeks ago, when an unauthorized internal video of Scientology’s most famous adherent, Tom Cruise, appeared on the internet.

The extensively edited video of Cruise detailing the pleasures of Scientology intended for followers of the faith was quickly pulled by YouTube after the church, known for being aggressively litigious, complained to the site on the grounds of copyright infringement.

But, what began as a protest by young, computer hackers angry over the suppression of information morphed into a spotlight on the many of the church’s controversial practices of including accepting money to further a believers standing in the group and its standing as a tax-exempt non-profit organization.

A man from San Leandro named Shandu disagrees with the church retaining a tax exemption since 1993 as religious non-profit.

“I have a problem with them having a non-profit status when they don’t help anyone,” said Shandu, “They don’t feed the poor or help children like other churches do,”

Shandu, who once protested Apartheid in the 1980’s, was not alone in being concerned about the church’s reputation for ruthlessly tamping down dissent through intimidation.

“I can’t afford to weather a big lawsuit. Even if it was a B.S. suit, you still have to get a lawyer and they can just keep the case going for years,” said Shandu, “They have that kind of financial power.”

Added Anonymous: “It’s why I brought the mask. I’ve heard rumors about them destroying protester lives.”

The protester named Liz was far more defiant.

“They can’t get me, but part of Anonymous is that they are afraid of Scientology’s power. That’s why we have to hide our identities,” she said.

The Anonymous movement, in fact, detailed a list of 22 rules that followers should adhere to, including, demonstrating across the street from Scientology buildings, cooperating with law enforcement and disguising their identities with masks, sunglasses and hoods.

Many at the three-hour demonstration believe representatives from Scientology were covertly watching the group.
They detailed a man clad in dark blue who intently watched the group for over 30 minutes while intermittently speaking on the phone.

Two women also intentively watch the demonstrators while one video taped the action and the other jotted down notes.
The two were masked similarly to the Anonymous protesters, but when asked to join the group, they said they were “independent”.

Later they handed demonstrators small pieces of paper with a handwritten e-mail address.

With the undercover and mysterious mood of the two groups, few said they were willing to act upon the e-mail address.

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