Protesters gather outside the new Philly HQ.
Their signs read "Open your mind (and close your wallet)" and "Honk if you think cults should be taxed too."
At first it was difficult to take the protesters seriously. Most looked like well-dressed nerds who've spent way too much time watching V for Vendetta or Hackers. They were decked out like the Matrix's Agent Smith, but wearing Guy Fawkes masks, bandannas--even a plastic horse head.
On Saturday a crowd of more than 200 protesters staged a demonstration outside the Church of Scientology's new base of operations in Philadelphia, a vaguely art deco 12-story tower on Chestnut Street between 13th and Broad. Most of the protesters came from an online organization that calls itself "Anonymous"--so-named because it recognizes no leader, and any Internet user can join the group.
While eating cake and donning party hats in mock celebration of late Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's birthday (which was Saturday), they rallied against a laundry list of alleged abuses, from Scientology's aggressive silencing of critics to its tax-exempt status and its stance on digital copyrights.
Depending on whom you talk to, these activists could be rebels who've finally found a cause, religious bigots, computer terrorists or harmless pranksters. In any case, they've finally found a target big enough to get them away from their computers: the Church of Scientology.
The protest here in Philadelphia--there were others from Atlanta to Sydney--was led by the tall, thin 21-year-old "Baconator" (to his many online peers) who opposes Scientology based on their anti-psychiatry views.
"Their portrayal of psychiatrists and the psychiatric industry--they portray them as people who give out drugs without any care or regard--and their views on mental health as a whole are stuck in the 1940s," Baconator said at Saturday's protest, adding that psychiatry has been crucial in helping him overcome his personal battle with bipolar disorder.
"Without it, I'd be dead," he concluded.
Of course Baconator isn't alone in protesting Scientology's stance on psychiatry. (Who can forget Tom Cruise's catfight with Brooke Shields over her choice to take drugs to treat her post-partum depression?) But each of the protesters in attendance had their own beef with the Church.
The vast majority of the protesters were high-school and college-age students. "Enigma" (his online identity) looks barely old enough to shave.
Dressed in a suit, a red tie and a fedora on Saturday, he took issue with a broader set of problems within the Church. But he insisted his anger wasn't directed at individual Scientologists.
"I'm not protesting the beliefs, but there's too many shady things going on in there," he said. "They have tax-exempt status, and other religions are taxed. It's a bunch of things they've done. It's intimidation ... They literally drain the accounts of all their members so they have nothing left. It's a very cruel way to treat people, and it's very totalitarian."
"Nancy and Dan," a grandparent-y couple from the Philadelphia suburbs, were among the oldest protesters gathered. They said they had watched their son join the group and go from a dean's list student to college dropout. "We didn't know how deceptive or deceitful it was," said Nancy, who requested pseudonyms in case their son reads their comments and gets offended. "More people need to know about this."
And then there were the Scientologists themselves. Dressed in suits and purple alligator jackets, they looked as formal as their Anonymous opponents--but a lot less happy. They refused to speak to the protesters or the press. Instead, they stood outside their building filming and photographing the protesters--one of the main reasons so many of the protesters wore masks.
Although Scientology has officially ended "fair game," a practice of doing everything possible to silence critics, many members of Anonymous believe the tactic still exists. In response to the Anonymous protests, a national spokesperson for Scientology has called the group "cyberterrorists," and compares them to communists and devotees of Hitler and Mein Kampf.
Reaction to the protest was mixed. Some pedestrians blitzed by. Others paused to munch on hoagies and read flyers.
"I researched [Scientology] years ago," said Todd Gottlieb, a born-again Christian who stopped to observe. And though it seems to him many people "drank the Kool-Aid," he said the Anonymous protest "shows young people are using their minds."
"People were very receptive to us," Baconator later says of the protest. "Those who came out to look at us dancing on one side of the street stayed and listened to those who were handing out fliers on the other side of the street.