Anonymous 101

The day after Valentine's Day, a white-masked figure dressed all in black dropped a box at the door of San Francisco Church of Scientology with a message: "Sorry we are late but we still want you to be our valentine. Anonymous." Police evacuated the building and shut down traffic on Columbus. The police bomb squad "detonated" the box. Inside: Confetti, candy, and a card saying "We love you guys, we just want to help."

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.

"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. After one Anon revealed his legal identity to apply for a BART permit to picket Scientology "stress test" tables, he was soon sent a cease-and-desist letter by the church's attorneys. Scientologists take photos of the Anonymous protesters outside the church and on Market Street for "security," Quiros says. Anons protesting outside the San Francisco org on July 29 said a Scientologist grabbed one's camera. Two Anons and a woman who claimed she was working at a Scientology event but wasn't a member got in a street tussle last spring.

Like two propaganda ministers bending the numbers to claim they're winning the war, Anonymous claims it has hurt the church's recruitment, while Quiros says the protesters have generated more interest. Anonymous' ranks in the city have fallen at the monthly protests from some 150 in February to roughly 30 in July, and it's organizing to recruit at anime conventions and college campuses. The next battle will be waged Saturday, Aug. 16, at orgs worldwide.

Read Smiley's piece on Scientology.
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